Let me begin by saying that I am not an athlete at Columbia. I completed the physical education requirement and passed my swim test, but I have never competed at the NCAA Division I level.
I did, however, attend a litany of Columbia sporting events during my time on Spectator’s sports staff, in which I served as sports editor for a year and a half. During this time I got to know many athletes, coaches, administrators, alumni, and fans. I certainly consider myself someone who knows more about Columbia athletics—the institution, history, and its people—than the average student, simply by nature of my job for so many years.
I firmly believe Raag Agrawal’s op-ed comes from a good place. He yearns for inclusion, particularly in the admissions process, something that I would support. But, his argument falls short in a few areas, which I will attempt to highlight by looking through the archive of the Sports section.
First, Agrawal asserted that the burden of numerous practices, workouts, and travel has left athletes largely performing at the bottom of their class academically. This is misguided.
There is plenty of evidence that suggests athletes are more than fulfilling the duties of a “partially taxpayer-funded R1 institution” to produce leaders and scholars.
According to Columbia Athletics, 326 athletes were on Dean’s List and 55 athletes finished with a 4.0 GPA in the spring and fall semesters of 2017, the University’s highest within the last five years. Given that the number of athletes is constantly fluctuating with graduations and walk-ons, I’ve gone through the rosters and approximated the number of Columbia athletes to be about 775. That means that 42.1 percent of athletes at Columbia were on the Dean’s List, while 7.1 percent of athletes finished with a 4.0 GPA.
All of these accomplishments came while Columbia had its most successful season ever in the Ivy League during the 2017-18 season, including for what Agrawal describes as Columbia’s “world-class fencing team.”
The Lions have never done better in athletics and academics, and this is without the benefit of athletic scholarships to aid in the recruitment of athletes. What more could athletes do to be leaders and scholars?
Furthermore, athletes do not get to cut corners at Columbia. It is a fact that every athlete must take the same classes and is subject to the same requirements as their peers. Sure, athletes get early registration, but an 8:10 a.m. section of Lit Hum is the same as a 4:10 p.m. section of Lit Hum.
During my time at Spectator, the sports section produced articles that highlighted a typical day for a student-athlete. First, Ben Drachman and Mel Chafart wrote a piece detailing the day in the life of Keith Brady, SEAS ’17, in which Drachman and Chafart observed Brady spend nearly every minute of a 16-hour day focusing on class, schoolwork, or football practice.
Second, I wrote a piece about men’s tennis captain Victor Pham, CC ’19, who barely slept on a red-eye flight to make his 8:40 a.m. American Politics class after finishing a tournament the day before in California.
These pieces highlighted the experiences of two athletes, but as Drachman and Chafart wrote, “Brady’s day—on its face—isn’t extraordinary. It’s the type of day that dozens of student-athletes have every week.”
During my time as sports editor, I made it the mission of the sports section to do justice to the amount of time that athletes dedicate to their craft, regardless of whether it leads to national championships or funding discrepancies. Our reporting was approached with nothing but fairness.
Therefore, for the sake of fairness, it may be a more successful argument that athletes in fact face added difficulties in academics because of their commitments to their sports. In men’s and women’s basketball, for example, athletes routinely miss classes on Thursdays and Fridays to travel by bus to away games. Fencers have traveled across the globe competing, while men’s and women’s tennis players often miss weeks of school at a time competing in national weeklong tournaments.
There is no doubt that the institution of college athletics is flawed. Agrawal’s points about outsized salaries for head coaches is valid, particularly since the athletes are not paid for their extraordinary achievements. A more valid criticism of recruitment could look to change the national landscape of amateurism in college athletics, particularly in an era when commercialization of athletics has led to the NCAA accruing more than 1 billion dollars in profits.
All in all, Agrawal’s op-ed should prompt a discussion about whether recruiting practices at Columbia have made the experience of students better. I’m glad it has. But this discussion must be informed by facts that accurately represent the uniqueness of Columbia’s athletic community.
The author is a senior in Columbia College studying U.S. history. He served as the interim sports editor of Spectator on the 141st volume, and sports editor of Spectator on the 142nd volume. You can follow him on Twitter @clopez1228.
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