Columns, Opinions

Colby ’20: Stop overvaluing Brown athletics

Staff Columnist
Friday, March 24, 2017

Brown’s relative underinvestment in athletics represents what is both sensible and proper for such an institution. Overinvestment in sports and the selective manipulation of admission criteria by peer institutions for the purpose of increasing overall athletic success has distorted the weight top-tier universities should place on athletics. As The Herald has previously reported, Brunonian underachievement is caused by a lack of funding and institutional interest, but this should not result in any changes to Brown’s waning institutional investment in sports. If anything, Brown’s emphasis on athletic recruitment and success should be decreased in the future.

Supposedly “holistic” admission goals are already diluted by the disproportionate focus athletic recruitment receives. Athletes undoubtedly play an important role in a university, but the extent to which admission standards are altered for sports recruitment is nonsensical.

In the Ivy League, academic standards are systematically reduced for athletic recruitment. Under the current system, Ivy League schools evaluate applicants using an “Academic Index” number that combines students’ grade point averages and standardized test scores. This is not the sole metric used in admission, but coaches consider this number in recruitment, assuming that athletes and sports teams will have considerably lower Academic Index scores than their non-athletic peers. Within the Ivy League, coaches attempt to keep the “institution-wide cohort of recruited student-athletes within one standard deviation of the mean.” Academic Index score for all students. Dramatic actions are taken to ensure this is the case. Recruitment of academically successful benchwarmers who never play is one tool used to ensure the team maintains a passable academic standing.  Moreover, a worryingly large number of admission spots are actively reserved for recruited athletes. Brown currently reserves 205 spots for recruited athletes in each class, which constitute 13 percent of each year’s cohort.

This institutionalized alteration of standards signifies a departure from what makes academic institutions like Brown truly great. Brown is not known for sports; it is known for academic leadership, research and innovation. This is why universities are first and foremost academic institutions. As such, athletes should be subject to the same admission standards that apply to all other applicants.

Adjustment of admission criteria and quotas can be a sensible way to advance Brown’s declared commitments to “encouraging diversity” and forming a “dynamic mix of individuals that makes for the most fascinating and productive undergraduate community.” However, the current system does the exact opposite. By prioritizing specific athletic activities over other equally demanding and rewarding extracurricular activities, Brown undermines these goals. It is true that sports can add value and diversity to a university community. Certainly, part of Brown’s holistic application review rewards students with outstanding talents even if they fall below average Academic Index of admits. But Brown — like the rest of the Ivy League — doesn’t offer institutionalized assistance in admission, reserved spots, reduced admission standards or expensive recruitment programs to students who might promote the university’s diversity in other ways.

Yes, sports teams enhance the community in every college, but the resources dispensed to form such a community are not justified. The community spirit that interscholastic athletic competition provides would still exist without such drastic recruitment efforts. Additionally, support for athletes and attendance at games — which are both very low at Brown — would likely be enhanced in a school where teams are composed of largely walk-on and non-recruited athletes, especially considering the fact that the majority of Brown students oppose existing admission criteria for athletes. Brown has historically performed poorly in most athletics and this lack of success has not affected the overall community within the University. Therefore, in a worst-case scenario, decreasing the emphasis placed on recruitment can only have marginally negative effects. Still, walk-on athletes have in the past proven that they can rival recruited athletes from other institutions. Women’s rugby, with no recruiting spots in its first year as a varsity team, found themselves in “an Ivy League championship in its first season, followed by a second-place finish in 2015,” The Herald previously reported.

It has been argued that sports offer unmatched opportunities to learn discipline, social understanding and leadership, and that that these opportunities justify such recruitment efforts. The accuracy of this claim is up for debate, but it is worth noting that no other activity at Brown has the privilege of recruiting students based on those traits. Sports may instill dedication and discipline in athletes, but non-athletic activities offer these same opportunities to learn and grow.

This is by no means an argument to cease the recruitment of athletes in general. Athletes at Brown are among the most hardest-working and talented students in NCAA Division I competition. But Brown should continue, as it did under the governance of former President Ruth J. Simmons, to shift its focus away from a disproportionate emphasis on athletics. The University can also improve the way it recruits athletes. Simmons, for example, vocally suggested that Brown raise its Academic Index average above the Ivy League’s recruitment minimum in an effort “to increase the representativeness of athletes at Brown,” The Herald previously reported. After all, sports have a role at every college and university, but current recruitment efforts considerably overvalue athletic achievement. Increasing the University’s investment in such activities would be misguided.

Owen Colby ’20 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to