How is this for bad timing? On the cover of this week’s U.S. 1, coming out just before the opening of the NCAA college basketball tournament and Princeton University’s dramatic entrance as a Cinderella team, is a story about the new book by former Princeton president William G. Bowen, questioning the fundamental values of college athletics.
Surely Bowen’s book, "The Game of Life," co-authored with a Mellon Foundation colleague, James L. Shulman, is an indictment only of major colleges and their high profile sports programs — not of Ivy League schools and the many non-scholarship sports that contribute to the fabric of undergraduate life. Surely, too, the 2001 Princeton basketball team — improbable winners of the Ivy League this season after a tumultuous off-season — is the embodiment of all that is good about Ivy League athletics.
The Princeton basketball team, of course, has had a long tradition of overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles: Reaching the Final Four of the NCAA tournament in Bill Bradley’s senior year, 1965; capturing the National Invitational Tournament in 1975; narrowly losing to number one-ranked Georgetown in the 1989 NCAAs; eliminating the NCAA tournament defending champion UCLA in 1999; and generally shining like David in a series of run-ins with basketball Goliaths over the years.
This season was supposed to be one of the great ones. Princeton’s smart young coach, Bill Carmody, who had trained as an assistant to the veteran Pete Carril for more than a decade, was finally developing his own team and his own style.
The players were led by an imposing junior center, Chris Young, who was also a standout pitcher on the baseball team. Along with a host of other returning players — only one starter had been lost to graduation — was a sharpshooting sophomore named Spencer Gloger, who in one game in his freshman season had scored 11 three-point baskets. Gloger was considered a most impressive complement to a team that still feasted on intricate passing and sudden breaks to the basket for relatively easy lay-ups. And, of course, all of them were at Princeton because they wanted to be and were even willing to pay for the privilege — not because the school had dangled some extravagant athletic scholarship in front of them.
But in the off-season everything went awry. Carmody was hired away from Princeton by Northwestern. Chris Young accepted a million dollar offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates to play professional baseball. Gloger, who had originally been recruited to play for UCLA, had a change of heart and decided to transfer to that school (and no doubt its full scholarship). Several other returning players chose to leave school or no longer participate in basketball. The new coach, former Carmody assistant John Thompson III, the son of the renowned Georgetown coach but himself inexperienced, took over the team just weeks before the new season opened. Princeton’s first game was against powerhouse Duke. At the end of last season Princeton fans looked forward to this game. When it took place, however, Princeton was simply hoping not to get hurt. The Tigers were crushed by the Blue Devils.
But slowly Princeton got better. Coach Thompson, who played basketball himself at Princeton, Class of 1988, refused to become immersed in the reporters’ questions about what might have been for this team, and instead concentrated on coaching the players who remained. The coach coached. The players learned. And at various times during the year different players emerged as the "go to" guys, the leaders who could be counted on to make the big play as Princeton once again became a David to Goliaths such as Xavier and Rutgers. The team won the Ivy League championship and now faces highly ranked North Carolina in the NCAA opening round this Friday, March 16, at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Princeton basketball: Young people learning a discipline and developing leadership skills in the process. And isn’t that how it works in the Ivy League?
Not exactly, says the former Princeton president in his book, which is based not on anecdotal information and warm and fuzzy memories of college jocks and sports journalists, but rather on relatively hard data compiled by questionnaires sent to more than 90,000 alumni from 30 selective colleges and universities across the nation. In fact, the "athletic divide" is actually greater at a college like Princeton than it is at major sports powerhouses like the University of Michigan. Bowen reports that in 1997-’98 the 362 intercollegiate athletes at Michigan represented 3 percent of the student body. At Princeton, in comparison, 537 athletes were competing in 16 varsity programs (compared to just 10 at Michigan). Princeton’s athletes comprised 22 percent of the men on campus.
And even more surprising, Bowen’s data show that the athletes admitted into Princeton are no more likely than those at Michigan to "fit in" with the rest of student body. And just as you might expect of athletes, they are more likely to underperform academically.
When I first heard about "The Game of Life" I didn’t believe the reviewers were getting it right. Then I wondered if Bowen was getting it right, or if his survey had somehow been skewed. The Ivy League institutions have changed a lot since 1965, when I first arrived at the corner of Nassau Street and Witherspoon, attempting to find my way to my freshman dorm room. But Ivy League athletics do not seem nearly so different from the way they were back in the mid 1960s.
And then, relying on the warm and fuzzy memories of this one-time sportswriter, Ivy League athletes were — with a few exceptions — the paragons of virtue — nothing like the stand-off underperformers and occasional miscreants described by Bowen in his book.
I first heard about Princeton University as a high school sophomore in upstate New York. Delivering newspapers in a little Southern Tier town called Endwell, I was asked by one of my customers if I was thinking about college and what I might major in. "Maybe math," I told him. He replied that his alma mater was pretty good in math and that I should consider it. And he gave me a copy of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
A few houses up the road, I delivered papers to the family of a high school senior, a sports nut who spent his nights twisting the dial on his transistor radio, calling up the faint sounds of any game he could find. One afternoon, as I delivered papers, he stopped me. "Hey, there’s this kid at Princeton I just heard about — he’s set the NCAA record for making the most consecutive free throws without a miss." The Princeton kid was Bill Bradley, who extended the record to something like 55 consecutive free throws without a miss.
On a bitter cold Saturday in February of 1965, as I awaited word from the Princeton admissions office, I went with a high school friend to spend a weekend at Cornell, where we both had applied and where Princeton happened to be playing Cornell in basketball that night. Unbelievably — to me — the vaunted Bill Bradley and his NCAA-bound Tigers were upset that night at Barton Hall in Ithaca. Cornell won on a last second, long-range shot. The next morning, after spending the night sleeping on the floor of a Cornell dorm, my friend and I headed off to the student center for breakfast. Walking across campus we encountered a familiar looking student — a bag of laundry over his shoulder and a huge smile beaming across his face. He was the Bradley-killer of the night before. That morning he was just another college kid trying to get his laundry done.
Meanwhile, we can assume, Bill Bradley must have been back at Princeton after a long, late-night bus trip. He wouldn’t have been doing his laundry, however, because Sunday morning was his time to teach Sunday school at Nassau Presbyterian Church. Playing ball, doing laundry, teaching Sunday school — now isn’t that what Ivy League athletics is all about?
That view of the Ivy League athlete as an accessible and contributing member of the undergraduate student body was reinforced through the years. Bradley really was a scholar-athlete. In 1965, after breaking Oscar Robertson’s record for most points scored in an NCAA tournament game — 58 points in the consolation game in which Princeton trounced Wichita — Bradley deferred his pro career for two years by accepting a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.
In my senior year, the captain of the Princeton basketball team was headed for a career as a minister. As the editor of the student newspaper, I joined my colleagues in selecting a varsity football player to receive our annual award for outstanding contributions outside the classroom. At our annual banquet, we honored him — not for his football accomplishments but for his off-the-field contributions as a student activist.
Those were the warm and fuzzy recollections. But the Bowen book — especially the chapter that analyzed the student-athletes as leaders — triggered other memories.
A few years after college, in the fall of 1972 and 1973, I had the opportunity to follow the Princeton football game through two complete seasons — 18 games and 18 articles to be written for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. The teams were miserable both years, and in an effort to spare alumni the painful details of defeat after defeat, I went behind the scenes, fashioning articles out of interviews with coaches, players, cheerleaders, fans, and even the officials. I was impressed by the players as individuals — nice kids, many smart in a way that challenged the dumb jock stereotype. But I was also struck by how little control the players had over anything other than their own narrowly defined position and duties on any particular play.
Even at relatively low-key Princeton in the early 1970s, the coaches called all the plays and made all the strategic decisions with respect to fourth down plays, extra points, field goals, and even trick plays. I learned this first hand following one game from the viewpoint of the officials. In the officials’ locker room before the game, there was a knock on the door. It was an assistant coach from Princeton who handed the referee a note. The note announced that Princeton was running a trick play on the opening kickoff. The officials were informed so that they wouldn’t follow the wrong player and prematurely call the play dead.
The football experience seemed a total contradiction to my recent experience as the editor of the student newspaper. There we worked even longer hours for the entire school year, not just a single season. But we had complete control over the operation — making our own decisions about how much to publish, when to publish, mediating our own disputes, and accountable only to a board of trustees that met four times a year and that rarely intervened in our day-to-day operations. (Interestingly for me, Bowen’s data show that students in intense activities such as the campus newspaper perform better than average in the classroom.)
That gave me an idea that I floated around the Princeton sports community: What if the Ivy League banned coaches from the sidelines during games? That’s right, banish the coaches from the field of play during the game. They could set the starting line-ups and a depth chart of substitutes at each position. They would assign the team physician to be present on the sidelines to order any injured player to be removed from the game. And they could sit in the press box and offer players some constructive criticism, encouragement, or even a pep talk at halftime. But otherwise the coaches would have to turn over the management of the game to the players.
Imagine. The captains, elected by the team, might be the ones who called the plays on the sidelines. Or some other player — perhaps even an unrecruited "walk-on" for the team — might emerge as the strategic savant of the team and be assigned the play calling responsibilities. Or, imagine this, the quarterback might actually call the plays. The middle linebacker might call the defensive alignments before each snap of the ball.
If leadership is one of the perceived benefits of playing intercollegiate sports, then this kind of league would foster that leadership. Captains of these teams would be well prepared to be captains of industry.
If teamwork is supposed to be the hallmark of the best teams, then this kind of league would reward it. Teams would have to work together on the field and on the sidelines. In the worst case, one could imagine players arguing with each other on the sidelines, over who should play, what play should be called, who should run the play, etc., all while precious seconds were ticking off the clock in a close game. The best teams would have a way to resolve such disputes. The best coaches would give the players the tools and the confidence to solve these problems.
I floated this modest proposal around. I might as well have suggested that the players take the field wearing tutus. It was stupid, would never work, and no good athletes would ever want to attend a school that ran a wild-eyed program like that.
So when I got my hands on "The Game of Life" I turned to the section on leadership: Among Bowen’s conclusions: "Those who play collegiate sports feel that leadership is important in their lives and have felt this way since before college. Yet, surprisingly, this greater inclination toward leadership is not reflected very clearly in any measures of actual leadership that we can identify."
The idea that captains of sports become captains of industry is more myth than reality. In fact, the data show that the odds of someone becoming a corporate CEO are similar for athletes and other college graduates. Among the graduates of the 1950s, the average salary of these CEOs was a little higher for athletes than for non-athletes. But among those who graduated in the mid-1970s the average salary for CEOs who had been college athletes was about $22,000 less than for non-athletes who were CEOs. The athletes from the 1970s, Bowen writes, were "much more intensely recruited as athletes, and whatever their athletically related strong points, they may lack some of the other qualities (breadth of view and so on) that helped the athletes of an earlier day develop leadership that was rewarded in the marketplace."
Reading Bowen’s book brought up another fuzzy anecdote. At our Daily Princetonian banquet back in March, 1969, the speaker was George Plimpton, the celebrated author who brought a literary critic’s sensibility to his first-person accounts of athletic endeavors. The football player-turned-social activist whom we honored that night was Don Hazen, who graciously accepted his award and then stayed for the dinner and to hear Plimpton speak.
I contrast that to Daily Princetonian banquets of today. The editors always honor an outstanding male and female athlete. Those athletes usually attend. But they seldom stay. Once presented with their plaques they leave the banquet hall. None of the undergraduates on the Princetonian seems to expect anything different.
Bowen talks about the growing social divide between athletes and non-athletes, even at the small Ivy League schools such as Princeton. "Social psychologists have documented these self-isolating tendencies in the norms and values of Ivy League athletes as well as in the ways that they spend their time, and we have tracked how male and female athletes are increasingly `banding together’ in certain fields of study. The declining tendency for athletes, and especially High Profile athletes, to demonstrate their general interest in the school through financial contributions may be another harbinger of where current trends in athletics are leading us."
Of course all the players on the current Princeton basketball team may well be exceptions to everything above. From the acquaintances I made on the 1972 and ’73 football teams, I would predict that — once you get to know them — these young men are nice to a fault. But that’s not the real question. As Bowen writes: "We most emphatically do not mean to suggest that the athletes who are admitted are bad people, that they will not benefit from attending these schools, or that attending one of these institutions will fail to help them achieve their personal goals. The more difficult, and more relevant, question is whether admitting other students might not have done even more to fulfill the educational mission of the school."
So on March 16 we will be rooting for the Tigers. Some of them, we hope, will ace their junior papers. Perhaps some will score a major breakthrough in a science experiment. Some may prevail in a spirited intellectual debate. And a dozen or so undergraduates on a field trip to New Orleans may put on a clinic in the Princeton style of basketball. We wish all of Princeton’s stars well.
— Richard K. Rein
Postscript: In September, 2009, years after this column was written, I stood in line at Craft Cleaners behind Gary Walters, a player on the Princeton team that lost to Cornell that cold night in 1965. Walters is now the athletic director at Princeton and still looks like he did when he graduated in 1967 so he’s easy to recognize. I introduced myself and asked him if he remembered the 1965 game at Barton Hall in Ithaca, NY. Of course he did. And before I could even ask Walters said "Blaine Aston." That was the unheralded Cornell player who derailed Bill Bradley’s undefeated Ivy League season and the same guy I saw walking across the Cornell campus with his laundry bag the next morning. Nearly 45 years later a college sports memory remains vivid, even at a place like Princeton.