Tommy Can You Hear Me?
Sunday's New York Times article
about Harvard men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker and some of his questionable recruiting tactics is the talk of the Ivies. Apparently, the Crimson's incoming hoops recruiting class is ranked among the top 25 in the nation and that has lots of people wagging their fingers.
My first reaction to all of this is simply to say: "it's about time." I may not have the same evidence that the Times' writers used in this story about Amaker, but long-time Ivy sports fans know that other Ivy schools, (especially Penn and Princeton), have bent the rules like this for years. And one of the only things really preventing other schools from doing the same is the fact that just such a wave of bad publicity was sure to hit the pages of the New York Times
if they did. No one bats an eyelash when Penn or Princeton recruits a marginal student.
Note this key paragraph from the Sunday Times article, (my bold): "The 6-foot-10 center Frank Ben-Eze from Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va., embodies the change in Harvard’s basketball recruiting. He orally committed to Harvard over traditional powers like Marquette, West Virginia, Virginia and Penn. Although he and the rest of the recruited athletes have yet to be admitted to Harvard, Ben-Eze is considered Amaker’s biggest coup, one Amaker proudly mentions to other potential players."
Ah yes, if Ben-Eze had chosen Penn all would be okay with the world.
The Times has pulled this kind of thing before. In 1987, it ran a FRONT PAGE article about how Columbia had lowered some academic standards to admit better football players. That article also emphasized the fact that Columbia was audaciously trying to change the status quo in the league.
Let me be clear, I don't condone anyone breaking any rules. But by "anyone" I mean "anyone," and that includes Penn and Princeton in basketball and God knows whoever else in football.Reality Check
But before anyone puts Amaker on a pedestal, let me pour a little needed cold water on all of this.
Here's the deal: THIS WILL NOT WORK
I don't care how many blue-chip recruits Amaker snags this year or next, Harvard won't be winning any Ivy titles anytime soon. The biggest reason is that Ivy League athletes face huge academic and cultural pressures that absolutely translate on the field and the court. The more academically or athletically unskilled a student athlete is, the more the pressure is to quit either the team or the school as a result.
Harvard happens to be filled with not-so-academically qualified kids; the result of having such a huge endowment, (thus the sons and daughters of billionaires who are hard to turn down), and a tacit agreement with the corrupt kings and dictators of several foreign lands who have a "get into Harvard free card" to use for their children whenever they want. BUT very few of these underqualified kids have been on the major athletic teams in the past. Thus, the pressure on these new basketball players will be extra tough, and even in a jammed-pack undergraduate institution like Harvard, the spotlight will be on them. You can bet this will translate into a number of players quitting the team or the school altogether.
Penn, on the other hand, has always been a more hospitable place for athletes for a number of reasons. Despite being one of the most difficult schools to get into in the country for decades, many of Penn's undergrads were rejected from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and even Columbia. Now let me be clear: I have NEVER been a fan of calling Penn a "safety school." It's ludicrous to call it that. But relative to the rest of the Ivies, it has been an easier place to get in to. That has resulted in a slightly less arrogant non-athlete student body, (so much the better for them), and fewer hostile attitudes against the athletes. In other words, the culture is just better in Philly.
Harvard is not Penn. And I fear some of these kids will be eaten alive by their fellow students and teachers' assistants, (remember this is Harvard, undergrads don't actually get to take classes with professors). Whether they deserve it or not, (and most won't deserve that kind of terrible treatment), they will be ostracized in lots of different ways.
And now that Harvard has long since ended its traditional house system, (the houses still exist, but much has changed. Kirkland House is no longer dominated by athletes, Eliot House is no longer the domain of the very rich "old money" types), the chances for the athletes to band together as a support group are limited.What About Football?
Harvard's recent good football fortunes, in my opinion, are not the result of cheating. Coach Tim Murphy and his staff have simply used the Harvard name to recruit the most important tool you need in football: linemen. More power to him. ... and Hockey?
Some of you might point to the highly successful hockey team in Cambridge in an attempt to prove me wrong. Again, I don't think cheating is involved. And remember that a lot of the best Harvard hockey players have been foreigners, and most foreigners at the Ivies fall into a different category when it comes to where they stand socially on campus. They have a better support group, and again, so much the better for them.
But if you're a blue collar kid from the Midwest, who happens to shoot a basketball pretty well, good luck finding that kind of niche at Harvard, Yale, or most other Ivy schools.
I can only hope that Harvard and Yale's new 10% tuition plan will have the unintended consequence of bringing a new wave of middle class, "average" American kids on campus. The simple math of it is that when you offer tuition breaks to people who make $75k to $100k per year, you're talking about helping middle class Americans. I actually don't think Harvard realizes this. Hopefully, enough of those truly middle class kids, athletes and non-athletes, will start to flood Ivy campuses in the coming years.