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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the September 15, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Sports Mistakes

In our business there are two kinds of mistakes you can make: The ones that come from sheer information overload, the kind of mistakes that happen when a mind-boggling load of information (such as the 1,000-plus events that are included in a Fall Arts Preview section, to pick one immediate example) collides with an overloaded, caffeinated brain.

Then there are the ones that come from blissful ignorance, the kind that happen when the world just passes you by in a “you don’t know what’s happening, do you, Mr. Jones?” moment. It’s 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and I am staring dumfounded at the September page of the U.S. 1 wall calendar. There on the square for Saturday, September 25, is notice of a Princeton football game against Lehigh. It’s at night, I am wagering, and I will take the kids over for our traditional Saturday night game at the gleaming new Princeton Stadium.

It’s a great thought, and a big mistake. There is no Lehigh game on September 25. There is no Lehigh game at all this year. In fact, it’s Lafayette and the game is this Saturday, September 18, at 7 p.m. On Saturday, September 25, Princeton will play football not against Lehigh, which I might have assumed, but rather against the University of San Diego, in San Diego, CA, of all places. The world of Princeton football obviously has passed me by.

But you can learn from either kind of mistake. This one made me go back to a book I had ordered at the beginning of the summer, after seeing a reference to it in the Times of Trenton sports pages. If you care a little bit about Ivy League athletics, this book will be an eye-opener: “Playing the Game — Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League,” by Chris Lincoln.

At one point I used to know a little bit about Ivy League athletics, and I even wrote about it in a column reporting on former Princeton president William Bowen’s book, “The Game of Life,” which argued that preferential admissions treatment of athletes was diluting the quality of the undergraduate bodies in the Ivy League.

Chris Lincoln vigorously opposes Bowen, and provides some great anecdotal evidence. What would Bowen think of a basketball player showing up at Princeton’s doorstep just a few weeks before his freshman year begins — long after the official admissions process is over? He’s a great player and a solid student but he’s no academic All-American. In fact, his verbal score on the SAT is a dismal 485. Other than racking up points on the basketball court, what could this athlete contribute to a pinnacle of higher education such as Princeton? Quite a bit, as it turns out, if the player is Bill Bradley, the future Rhodes Scholar and U.S. senator, in addition to NBA star, despite the lousy SATs.

But Lincoln’s book also corroborates what Bowen asserted — that athletes are tails wagging the admissions process dog. Athletic recruiting at places like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale is every bit as intense as it is at a Big 10 college. Until recently, in order to get around requirements that a group of athletes admitted for a certain team meet a preset academic requirement, schools admitted “academic index boosters,” kids with high grades who happened to have played the sport in high school but who were not expected to even make the team in college. But these “boosters” offset the low grades of the true “impact” players.

Once admitted the jocks are in the driver’s seat, playing off the financial aid offers of one school against the other — no doubt leading in some cases to the arrogant attitudes that Bowen describes in his book. In this area, the situation is worse today than even a few years ago. At one time Ivy League schools conferred with each other before offering financial aid, so an applicant would be offered the same scholarship at each school. Then the government ruled that process was an anti-trust violation.

Now the schools make independent offers. And Princeton, which recently eliminated student loans from its financial aid packages, was one of the great beneficiaries. But oddly enough that Princeton advantage has not yet made an impact in football — last year the team was 2-8, and it hasn’t won an Ivy title since 1995 (and it has won only three titles since the 1960s).

So what’s this trip to San Diego all about? Despite its California location, San Diego is no football powerhouse. A Catholic college, its enrollment of 7,200 exceeds the capacity of its stadium (7,000). Last year it had a record of 8-2. This year it has already played two games and it will host Ivy League powerhouse Penn this Saturday — by next Saturday it should be quite prepared for Princeton.

My guess is that the West Coast trip is viewed by Princeton as an alumni fundraising opportunity and as an enticement for aspiring football players who see a cross country trip as a touch of bigtime college football in an Ivy League setting. Of course, that’s what we thought the expensive new 27,800-seat Princeton Stadium was supposed to be all about. So far it has been less than that — with crowds that often could fit in San Diego’s stands.

Will this trip be a mistake for Princeton? We shall see. In the meantime we undoubtedly have more of our own to make.

For the complete calendar events in central New Jersey, go to www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.htm


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