The Corner


Harvard Loves Athletes — But Why?

Harvard football players stand for the national anthem before a game against Yale in 2014. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

As part of the sprawling admissions debacle, the Harvard Crimson last week broke the story that the smartest athlete applicants have an 83 percent admission rate, as opposed to 16 percent for regular applicants.

It seems fair to conclude from this information that Harvard really wants athletes. Its reason for wanting them, however, is not apparent.

Unlike at athletic powerhouses such as the University of Alabama, ticket sales are not a major source of revenue. In the 2015 season, for example, the average attendance at a Harvard football game was 12,799. The Harvard Stadium, however, seats 30,323.

Nor does Harvard’s goal seem to be winning national championships, at least not in most prominent American sports. The winningest team lately has been women’s squash. For football, the Ivy League has not taken part in any post-season play since the 1950s because the post-season schedule conflicts with final exams in December.

It might be helpful to use history for perspective. American college sports (originally crew) began in the 1840s in the spirit of mens sana in corpore sano, a fun and noble hobby for the young gentlemen who were pursuing their classical educations. These intercollegiate contests quickly grew in popularity and number, and colleges began to recruit students for their athletic abilities. This became a wild and abusive process, sometimes resulting in the hiring of non-students to play for football teams.

Nowadays we have the massive Division I recruiting enterprise overseen by the NCAA, the goal of which is for colleges to attract the best talent they can. But the Ivies, which are Division I, seem not to have this goal at all. They do not grant athletic scholarships, and they prohibit red-shirting. They therefore tend to resemble Division III schools, which are known for taking a more casual attitude toward sports and emphasizing studies.

In light of all this, Harvard’s admissions policies respecting athletes are quite strange. It is not trying to be top-notch in academics and sports, like Stanford. Notice that the Crimson says nothing about the athletic talent of the smart athletes. If you don’t especially care about winning titles, why recruit athletes at all, let alone admit them at such a high rate?

Some analysis shows that the high admission rate is not limited to the athletes with the best academic accomplishments. An economist hired by Students for Fair Admissions, which is suing Harvard for discriminating against Asian Americans, found that athletes who scored a 4 on Harvard’s internal scale — 1 being the highest and 6 the lowest — are 1,000 times more likely to be admitted.

Once again, this would be understandable at a school that prioritizes winning titles, but Harvard plainly does not, so the policy is mysterious. It would make more sense for the Ivy League to become Division III so that learning could regain pride of place, with the laudable pursuit of sports in a supporting role.