Many of us are rightfully outraged about the recent college admissions scandal roiling the nation, in which parents paid bribes to coaches to earn admission to elite schools across the country. But really, the problem isn’t that people are buying their way into colleges like Yale; that has been done from time immemorial. The main issue at hand is that we’ve given coaches so much importance in the admissions process. Today, even with record low admissions rates, roughly 20 percent of each Columbia class is recruited.
Sports have transformed from a worthwhile pastime and important tool in building social groups among diverse students, to an increasing burden of time that leaves student-athletes performing at the bottom of their academic class. Spending a year abroad at Cambridge University has opened my eyes to what a world without direct recruitment for sports looks like. Teams of walk-on athletes become fast friends and learn not only a new sport, but good sportsmanship and teamwork. These teams help diverse groups to socialize, create avenues to relieve stress, and open up opportunities for those who were historically denied them. If we want a more sane college experience—let alone a more equitable approach to admissions—it’s high time that we placed less value on athletics recruitment and created an athletics program of “walk-ons” that’s geared toward teaching values and skills, instead of chasing titles.
Firstly, athletics recruitment is racially and economically biased. Much like Stanford (whose sailing team was featured prominently in the bribery case) the Ivy League has an overwhelmingly white recruited class. Additionally, the sports we recruit for, such as crew, are those popular among schools which are overwhelmingly wealthy. Students from these sorts of schools already dominate our classes, so why do we continue to provide them with further systemic advantages by rewarding niche activities? Sports like lightweight crew, while exciting to participate in, are not accessible to average Americans, due to cost and obscurity. These sports are also gateways into high-powered social networks—something we close off to students when every spot on the team is accounted for in advance. Widespread access to sports also open ups a potential avenue for improving student mental health.
In a time when Columbia faces a mental health epidemic, it is important that we focus on encouraging opportunities for socialization and physical activity. Already, at Cambridge, I’ve understood how important walk-on athletics can be as a socialization tool through being on my college’s rowing team. Columbia faces a sore lack of accessible social groups for students—highlighted recently by an exposé in this paper. Hidden in the dozens of opportunities for students are the large entry barriers of prior experience. Organized sport is a potential solution for students excited about joining a group to make friends not based on shared academic or professional interests. I strongly believe that widespread access for students to team sports will work toward mixing students from diverse backgrounds—much like the Core classes do—and solving many of the problems this campus faces in isolating students and alienating them from it after they graduate.
For students who want to participate in or learn a sport, varsity teams at Columbia are not necessarily accessible to anyone, instead often reserved for world-class recruits. I thought myself decent enough to play squash at Columbia until I realized that our team is globally ranked, and recruits its players from as far afield as Egypt to maintain that ranking. I lost out on an opportunity not only to play squash in college, but also to make the connections and friendships that would improve my college experience. In addition to this, Columbia’s own squash facilities are outdated—the team plays home games at courts off campus that can be inaccessible to regular students—so we are all denied quality recreational play.
A common response to the idea of a purely walk-on athletics program will be to point to Columbia’s club teams, and I applaud those efforts to serve students looking to try new sports. In fact, these organizations are testimonials to the power of open-access athletics, as they are able to stage successfully competitive teams, while at the same time serving students with less experience. But these efforts are limited to a few niche sports, given limited funding, and must serve a far larger proportion of the student body. They sometimes even require fees to play, limiting their access to financially insecure students. A true reimagination of athletics needs to take place that works to serve students with little or no experience first.
As a partially taxpayer-funded R1 institution, Columbia’s mission must be to train future leaders and scholars, not produce world-class fencing teams. Athletics should be an opportunity for students to make friends, try new activities, and compete. It should not be an avenue for the University to use student labor to fundraise. After dramatically transforming its athletics program to serve only walk-ons, I hope a portion of the money saved on outsize salaries for head coaches is redirected to more worthwhile endeavors—perhaps more mental health counselors, the Food Pantry at Columbia, or other priorities. Placing less weight on athletics recruitment will go a long way in equalizing admissions and improving the lives of existing students.
The author is a current junior in Columbia College. He is passionate about equity in health and education.
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