Why You Should Care About the Presidential Committee on Varsity Athletics

The 1923 Amherst Men's Football team is shrimpy as hell. Like, I probably would have been one of the heavier people on the team, and I weigh less than 150 pounds, so that's saying something.

On Thursday night, the AAS sent out an email with the cumbersome subject line “Soliciting At-Large Member for Presidential Committee on Varsity Athletics” to the entire student body, announcing the creation of a committee to study the role of varsity athletics at the College.

As written, it sounds boring as hell. People talk about varsity athletics at the College all the time: The athlete/non-athlete divide, “athlete courses,” NARPs, back room of Val and other buzz-phrases are all common vocabulary among Amherst students, so why do we need some lame, bureaucratized committee to tell us what we already know?

The “Diver Report,” which Biddy cites as the inspiration for this new committee, only gets an offhand mention, but it might be one of the most important documents written about the College in the past fifteen years. Unfortunately, Biddy didn’t see fit to make the report available—or rather, she didn’t see fit to mention the fact that you can find it buried in the College archives, if you know where to look—but we at AC Voice live to serve, so we’ve uploaded a PDF copy of the report here.

If you have the time, you should read the report in its entirety. But since you’re probably a student at Amherst College, where spare time exists only in students’ dreams (and not really even there, because you need to have time to sleep if you want to dream), I’ll just give you the highlights.

Specifically, the study found that, on average, varsity athletes performed significantly worse academically in relation to their non-varsity peers. While GPAs only differed by a letter grade (e.g. B+ vs. B), class ranks differed by 13 to 16 percent, depending on whether the sport was “high profile” (football, basketball, and hockey) or not.

Additionally, varsity athletics teams were significantly less racially and socioeconomically diverse than the rest of the student body (in 1999 only 6 percent of athletes received significant amounts of financial aid, compared with 17 percent of non-athletes). There are also some strange stats—data showed that sophomore football players spent 78 percent of their free time with other football players—along with less exotic figures that more or less support the notion of a social divide between athletes and non-athletes.

Also worthy of your concern: According to the report, in 2002, the Admissions Office expressly set aside 66 “slots” for athletic recruits, meaning that those spots are reserved for applicants on the basis of athletic merit. Sources privy to this information tell me number remains the same today. When less than 15 percent of applicants ever receive offers of admission, that’s a pretty big deal. Moreover, the report suggests that recruits, on average, have significantly lower academic credentials too: For the class of 2005, the median verbal and math SAT scores for male athletes “highly rated in the high-profile [i.e. football, basketball, hockey] sports” were 90 and 40 points, respectively, below the median scores of their male non-athlete peers. The gap was smaller for women and male athletes on non-high-profile teams, but still present. Obviously SAT scores are highly imperfect indicators of academic aptitude and intelligence, but the message is clear: the College bends its standards for athletic recruits.

Aside from issues of fairness, the authors of the report note that wide gaps in academic aptitude can lead to problems in the classroom as well.

“Such gaps in entry credentials trouble many observers. We were told by some faculty members, for example, that the quality of teaching and learning suffers when students in the class have a wide range of aptitudes. These faculty members believe that the quality of the teaching experience would be enhanced if the College enrolled a class with more uniformly high academic aptitude,” the report says.

Or, in less bureaucratic terms, large gaps in academic aptitude cause the quality of classroom discussions to suffer, as professors feel pressure to cater to the least prepared students in the class. In other words, there’s a reason why people don’t use the phrase “athlete course” as a compliment.

The main message of the report is that Amherst needed to work to restore the balance between athletics and academic life, but the evidence suggests precisely the opposite happened. For instance, between 2004 and 2014, the total number of regular faculty members (i.e. those with tenure or tenure-track appointments) at the College did not change at all, even as the size of the student body increased by over 10 percent. In contrast, the number of coaches at the College nearly doubled—from 13 to 22 full-time equivalencies. If you include administrators working in the athletics department, the number of athletics-related employees at the College has more than doubled—from 16 to 35—since the publication of the report. I don’t have numbers for things like academic performance or social division (presumably those will be gathered by this new committee), but I wouldn’t be shocked if those have either remained the same or worsened in the past 12 years.

In any case, that’s why we need this new committee. If you’re interested in applying, the deadline is 5:00pm tomorrow evening, so you better act soon.