Varsity Students

The place of athletes at Kenyon: how they fit, how they're found

The Kenyon bookstore sells a coffee mug that always elicits fond smiles. Promoting the Kenyon Review, the mug bears a quotation from the writer E.L. Doctorow '52: "Poetry was what we did at Kenyon, the way at Ohio State they played football."

It's an appealing notion, because in its playfully boastful way it offers a simple opposition to define the special character of Kenyon. We grapple with metaphors; they clench in the mud.

Reality, of course, is more complicated. Like virtually every other major college and university in America, Kenyon "does" not only poetry, and physics and music and political science, but also basketball, field hockey, football, soccer, and an array of other varsity sports. They may be "extracurricular," but they occupy an important place for many students--in the time commitment they demand, the intense effort they require, the relationships they foster, and the other intangible benefits they confer.

Notwithstanding the message on the mug, Kenyon grapples very seriously with issues relating to athletics. Does participation on a team help students academically or hurt them? Why does the College excel at some essentially individual sports like swimming, tennis, and cross-country but struggle with traditional team sports like baseball, basketball, and football? How do coaches' recruiting efforts figure in the admissions office's yearly quest to find the perfect incoming class, a class full of young men and women who "fit" Kenyon?

And that last question raises the larger issue of what exactly a Kenyon "fit" is, especially at a time when the College is becoming more selective and when competition for talented students, and talented student-athletes, is increasingly fierce. What kind of school does Kenyon want to become? Where do athletes fit into the picture? How does their commitment to sports enhance, complement, or detract from the College's primary mission?

Two recent books have brought these questions into sharper focus for colleges like Kenyon. The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001) and a sequel, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (2003), argue that there is a growing "divide" between sports and academic values at many of the nation's academically elite colleges and universities. Coauthored by William C. Bowen, president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton University, the books draw on an extensive database from the eight Ivy League universities and about twenty prominent liberal-arts colleges. The focus, in other words, is not on scandal-ridden big-time sports schools but on leading academic institutions that do not offer athletic scholarships. The liberal-arts colleges are, like Kenyon, members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III, which prohibits such scholarships.

At these schools, the books contend, recruited athletes (those who are actively recruited by coaches, as opposed to "walk-ons") are admitted with lower academic qualifications than other applicants, thereby displacing better students. Moreover, they "underperform" academically during their college years, cluster in certain majors, segregate themselves socially, and generally form a subculture apart from the campus community.

The books suggest that the most pronounced divide exists in the Ivy League and in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). That conference includes some of the most highly respected liberal-arts colleges in the country, among them Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Williams.

The database also includes Kenyon, which the authors group with Carleton, Denison, Macalester, Oberlin, Pomona, and Swarthmore in a category called "coed liberal- arts colleges." The discrepancies between athletes and other students are not as great in this group--perhaps, the authors speculate, because most of these schools are not as selective in admissions. Kenyon admitted 46 percent of applicants last year; Williams admitted 21 percent.

According to Reclaiming the Game, professors at some of the NESCAC schools worry that the old assumption that "academics come first" no longer holds for too many athletes, especially those in the "high-profile" men's sports: basketball, football, and ice hockey. "Exemplary performance in the classroom has become exceptional for athletes, where once it was more typical," says the book. It quotes a faculty report at Williams that expresses dismay at the "anti-intellectualism . . . clear disengagement and even outright disdain" on the part of some varsity athletes.

Anti-intellectualism? Disengagement? Disdain? What about Kenyon?

"It doesn't ring true at all," says Associate Professor of Biology Christopher M. Gillen, chair of the Committee on Academic Standards (CAS), which reviews all athletic game schedules with an eye to minimizing conflicts between sports and classes. "In my experience, many of my very best students have been athletes," says Gillen. "I see a real synergy between what makes someone successful in the classroom and research lab and what makes them successful on the athletic field. They're self-motivated. They're determined. They're team players; they work well with others. They have first-class time-management skills."

The statistics back him up. In 2002-03, the roughly four hundred Kenyon varsity athletes--that's about a quarter of all students--collectively earned a grade-point average (GPA) of 3.24. The GPA for the student body as a whole was 3.21.

It's also worth noting that Kenyon athletes have won more NCAA postgraduate scholarships than the athletes of any other Division III college in the country. Kenyon, indeed, surpasses all but five colleges and universities, in all divisions, in the number of NCAA postgraduate scholarships received.

Jane Martindell, who as the dean for academic advising deals with students having trouble with their classes, says: "I don't often see kids who have decided that, given the pressures in both athletics and academics, they'll let one slide. It's the other way around: the motivation carries through to all aspects of their life."

Martindell doesn't claim that athletes necessarily outperform other students in the classroom. But they don't underperform, either. "Actually," she says, "when I do have to work with athletes having trouble, it's sometimes the case that they do better during the sports season, when they have the support network and discipline."

As for athletes segregating themselves socially or not participating fully in campus life, Martindell feels that the College's athletes "blend in with the general population more seamlessly" than at most other places. Athletes "don't hold special exemptions that make them stand out," she says. "Athletics are just one of many talents that Kenyon students have that make the school better. Among our students, it's just as cool to be in the play or the concert as it is to be playing on the field."

The athletes themselves agree that they are very much part of a single Kenyon community, no different from other students. But they readily acknowledge that varsity teams represent an absorbing commitment--one that brings enormous rewards but that does in some ways set them apart.

Gregory Carr, a senior neuroscience major from Providence, Rhode Island, and a center fielder on the baseball team, views sports in part as a welcome balance for academics. "At school, you can get into a rut, where all you're doing is schoolwork," he says. "Baseball helps put things into perspective. There's more to college than just classes."

But Carr likes the fact that baseball doesn't define his campus identity. "If you're walking on campus, people won't think of you as an athlete. It's nice not to be known as a baseball player."

Anne Huntoon, a senior history major from Wenham, Massachusetts, who plays both lacrosse and field hockey, says simply, "We're not seen as just jocks, because we're not just jocks. We all accept that we're here to learn first."

Nevertheless, the time commitment required by varsity teams does entail tradeoffs. In addition to practices and games during the regular season, teams will compete in a limited number of off-season contests and participate in formal or informal workouts throughout the academic year. "You're essentially doing two things full-time," says Carr. "One factor is just fitting everything in. Another is how tired you get." A day of classes leads to two or three hours of practice, then a quick dinner before a night of homework or perhaps an evening seminar.

Athletes find that they often have to miss lectures and performances by visiting scholars and artists, and that they have limited time for extracurricular activities outside of their sport. An athlete may choose not to take a particular class because it will conflict with too many games. Huntoon, one of the captains of the Ladies lacrosse team, started her senior year in the honors program in history but dropped it after the first semester. "History honors involves a 100-page thesis," she says, "and I didn't want that looming over me during the second semester. It meant more to me to be a good captain. Honors and lacrosse both take so much energy and effort. I felt that I had to give 100 percent to both. If I tried to do both, both would suffer."

Moreover, athletes say, since team members spend so much time together, it's only natural that they socialize together. After practice, teammates will head up the hill and often eat together. Team members may room together or live on the same hall. On some of the men's teams, players join the same fraternity--the football players who choose a Greek organization, for example, tend to be in Beta Theta Pi.

There's universal agreement that the swimmers bond more tightly than anyone else, in part because of the overall intensity and sense of tradition within the program, in part because of the unusual rigors of their regimen, which includes two practices a day (one of which starts at 6:00 a.m.). It's not that they're isolated from the rest of the campus community. But everybody can point to the swimming tables in Peirce.

"It's harder to get to know them," says Claire Larson, a senior English major and anthropology minor from Louisville, Kentucky, and a tennis player. "You might have an 'I'm-in-class-with-you' relationship with a swimmer. But it's a completely different world for them. It's not like they're unapproachable. But you don't see them out and about as much. They travel in herds, like freshmen." (See "Passionate Players, Whole People," for more about what it's like to be a student-athlete.)

Perhaps the biggest factor setting athletics apart is that, even at Division III schools, where there are no athletic scholarships, there is an elaborate institutional machinery dedicated to recruiting varsity athletes. Coaches seek them out, cultivate their interest, and in a sense serve as their advocates in the admissions process.

It's a highly competitive enterprise, particularly at colleges like Kenyon, where academic qualifications come first. "A talented student-athlete is wanted by everyone," says W. Matthew "Matt" Burdette, who has been Kenyon's head baseball coach for ten years. "If the player can make a difference on your team and can make a difference in your classroom, there's going to be a ton of competition for that player."

Peter T.C. Smith, the director of athletics, fitness, and recreation, observes, "The same things that are true for all students are particularly true for student-athletes: all colleges are trying to get them to come. You're competing for the thin end of the bell curve, if you will."

At Kenyon, recruited athletes make up about 20 percent of each incoming class, and Smith describes the process of selecting them as a "well-choreographed communication" between the coaches and the admissions staff. Underlying that communication is a common understanding of what Kenyon is all about.

The admissions office has a clear vision of what a "Kenyon fit" means. According to Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the dean of admissions and financial aid, the College seeks students who are academically capable and highly motivated, who have a lively intellectual curiosity, and who are genuinely interested in being part of a residential community like Kenyon's. Above all, she says, the vibrancy of the College community depends on "multi-dimensional" people: scientists who are also singers, athletes who love writing. Nobody comes to Kenyon just to play on a team; or, for that matter, just to study.

The coaches at Kenyon are very much in tune with this vision, according to the admissions staff. "They understand Kenyon," says Associate Director of Admissions Christopher J. Renaud. "Often, they were undergraduate athletes at similar kinds of colleges. The coaches here 'get it.'"

Suzanne Helfant, completing her ninth year as the Ladies' head basketball coach, articulates the coaches' understanding as well as anybody. "The most important consideration" when she assesses a prospect, she says, "is the kind of student they are. Their basketball talent is secondary to their academic profile. At Kenyon, our athletes are students first and passionate athletes second."

The entire coaching staff and all of the admissions officers meet every year in early September to review "expectations and priorities," says Renaud. "It's a reminder of who we are and what's important to us."

The admissions people may sound themes like geographic and racial diversity along with academic qualifications and personal attributes. "It's also an opportunity for us to get a sense of the state of each team," says Renaud, "what they need in terms of sheer numbers as well as in terms of particular skill positions."

Each admissions officer serves as a liaison for two sports (Renaud actually has four), and at the September gathering, the big meeting breaks into individual sessions between the liaisons and the coaches of their sports. They'll touch base periodically throughout the fall and winter, to see how things are going generally and to talk about individual prospects. Both staffs reconvene in late March, after the acceptance letters have gone out, when the admissions effort turns from attracting applicants to producing "yield": convincing accepted students to choose Kenyon.

For the coaches, recruiting is a kind of numbers game. Matt Burdette, for example, ideally would like a baseball roster of twenty-five players, including ten pitchers. "I consistently fall below that ideal," he admits--this year, he has eighteen players, of whom six are pitchers. Moreover, five of his current players are seniors and will graduate this spring.

Burdette calculates roughly that if he could start with a thousand high-school prospects ("and that's a very generous number; I doubt that we've ever had a thousand"), he might find 250 who would be "a quality Kenyon fit." Of those, perhaps 100 would become serious recruits, and of those 100 perhaps 50 would apply. "Of the 50, I'd hope 30 would be accepted. Then I'd hope for a yield of about 25 percent. So I would hope to get seven or eight players."

Football presents a special challenge for small colleges because numbers are notoriously important--the nature of the game, combined with safety considerations, calls for a large roster. One reason Kenyon's football program sank to a low point in 2002 was that the team started the season with only thirty-five players (and completed it with twenty-eight). Opponents like Allegheny, Wabash, Wittenberg, and Wooster routinely have more than a hundred players on their squads.

Theodore J. "Ted" Stanley, who was hired as head football coach in the winter of 2003, would like to build a roster of sixty to eighty players. He was able to start the season last fall with forty-nine. To reach his goal, he'd like to bring in thirty to thirty-five new players this coming year.

Given the competition for talented student-athletes, not to mention other competitive factors like financial aid, the coaches see recruiting as a year-round job that begins with "generating names"--that is, casting a wide net to collect prospective students.

Names come from the admissions office, whose literature often includes reply cards on which students can indicate that they're interested in particular varsity sports.

Names come from the College's Web site, where high school students can click on the question "Interested in playing for Kenyon?" Each of the College's twenty-two teams (eleven for men, eleven for women) has an on-line recruitment form asking for personal, academic, and athletic information.

Names come from alumni admissions volunteers as well as other Kenyon alumni.

Names come from high-school coaches, whose personal recommendations may go beyond athletic information to reveal personal qualities--like leadership and perseverance--that suggest a good fit for Kenyon.

Kenyon coaches also hit the road to watch and meet high-school athletes (and to meet their parents and coaches). A number work in summer camps, where they can observe promising players. Matt Burdette goes to, or gets information from, baseball "evaluation camps," which put players through a battery of tests to measure arm strength, foot speed, power hitting, pitching velocity, and other skills.

Several of the coaches also use recruiting services, organizations that, for a fee, will send them the names of high-school athletes, applying whatever academic and geographic parameters the coaches choose. It can seem like a crass business. "Fill your shopping list with top recruits!" reads the Web site of the National Collegiate Scouting Association. "Pre-screened athletes . . . the 'right fit' for your program and your school."

Coaches send out letters and brochures to the students whose names they've received. And as the field of prospects begins to narrow, the coaches phone their prospects--to ask them how their year is going, wish them luck on the SATs, answer questions, urge them to visit campus, and remind them about application deadlines. Head men's and women's tennis coach Scott Thielke says that he may call a top tennis recruit fifteen to twenty times over the course of the fall and winter. According to Ted Stanley, each of the six football coaches starts the fall with a list of about two hundred prospects, and tries to call each one at least once every week or ten days. (The phone calls will resume as part of the yield process: Kenyon players often join their coaches in phoning admitted athletes.)

Meanwhile, all along the coaches have been rating their prospects, based on having seen them play as well as on statistics, high-school coaches' reports, and videos that the athletes are encouraged to submit. The ratings--A through D, with A or B indicating that the coach is actively recruiting the student--go to the admissions office. There, a prospect's athletic rating will appear on his "read sheet," a one-page summary that lists academic data and interests, special honors, extracurricular activities, and contacts with Kenyon.

A read sheet also may have A-through-D ratings from the art or music faculty, if the applicant has submitted slides of artwork or recordings of performances. In addition, the admissions office rates the academic ability of each applicant on a scale of 1 (unqualified) through 9 (truly outstanding). And there is a rating of "personal qualities," based on the student's interview and teacher recommendations. While the coaches are not permitted to see a student's application, they do have computer access to the ratings of application-readers, so that they can see how admissions officers have assessed their recruits.

During campus visits, in addition to an interview at admissions and a tour, recruited athletes will meet the coach and spend time with current players, often going to class, eating meals, and staying overnight with them. Depending on the season, they may go to a practice or a game.

"Our current students pick up on whether a prospect would be a good fit and is really interested," says Robin Cash, the head field hockey and women's lacrosse coach. Kenyon students are also a good advertisement for the College. Suzanne Helfant says: "Our biggest asset is the women players here."

It goes without saying that coaches are looking for students who can succeed at Kenyon academically, who want the experience of a small liberal-arts college, and who seem in tune with the campus ethos of curiosity and tolerance. Beyond that, the different coaches articulate their notions of a good fit in various ways, revealing their individual values.

"Any time high school students come and talk to me," says Cash, "I tell them what I tell the team before the season: field hockey or lacrosse should enhance everything else you do here. It should be fun, not in the sense of recess being fun, but because you should learn from it and learning is fun. The bottom line for me is that prospects should be energetic, creative, bright, and enthusiastic. There should be focus and intensity that they bring to everything they do. For my players, the intensity they bring to practice is the same as the intensity they bring to the classroom or to singing with the Chasers."

Suzanne Helfant says: "I try to get across that the foundation of our program is our team chemistry and our unity. Win, lose, or draw, consistently each player is supportive and respectful of her teammates. At the end of each practice and before every game, we say the word 'Together.' The prospective student has to want to invest in that principle."

Does the extensive machinery of recruiting give athletes an advantage in admissions?

The coaches certainly don't think so. Kenyon's growing selectivity, they feel, means that the thin end of the bell curve is becoming even thinner for them. Academic credentials that were once clearly acceptable may now be only borderline. The coaches see their pool of acceptable student-athletes shrinking and are all too aware that other top colleges--many with greater resources for financial aid--are avidly fishing in that same small pool.

Financial aid, a major challenge for admissions in general, can be a huge problem in athletic recruiting, particularly in sports like baseball, basketball, and football, where the best players often come from blue-collar or middle-income families that can scarcely imagine paying $35,000 a year or more for college. Kenyon is committed to fulfilling 100 percent of demonstrated financial need and also offers a variety of merit scholarships, but the coaches say they regularly lose prospects to colleges that can afford to sweeten the pot with greater merit awards. "We don't have a problem finding great students," says football coach Ted Stanley. "We have a problem yielding great students, and nine times out of ten it comes down to financial aid." (See "Sports that Struggle," for more on the problems facing the so-called "blue-collar" sports.)

Jennifer Britz, the admissions dean, sees the question of athletes and admissions in a larger context: in terms of the complexity of the admissions process and the fundamental question of what kind of campus culture Kenyon wishes to have.

"The whole admissions process is a gray area," says Britz. "If it were completely objective, we would feed numbers into a computer and it would spit out the results. It doesn't work that way."

The admissions staff balances a multitude of interests, priorities, and pressures. If they're very much aware of the varsity teams' needs, they're also aware that Kenyon wants vocalists for the Chamber Singers and low brass players for the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, chemistry and physics majors to benefit from the labs in the new science center, artists to animate the art studios, actors to sustain the College's reputation in drama, and students attuned to the faculty's growing interest in foreign cultures and global perspectives. They want to increase Kenyon's racial diversity as well as its geographical diversity. They want to maintain gender balance.

Academic credentials have the most prominent place on the admissions "read sheets," but the character of the campus community also depends on students' personal qualities--the PQs, in admissions shorthand. The admissions staff has an expression, "PQs off the charts," for an applicant who they feel can clearly make a difference at Kenyon because of his or her energy, enthusiasm, leadership ability, or determination in the face of challenges.

"Athletes often bring great PQs to campus," says Britz. "They're goal-oriented by nature. They know how to exercise their discipline muscles. They've had to manage their time well. They have the ability to work in groups. They understand that they're not the most important thing in the universe; they know what it means to be part of something greater. They are balanced individuals, with good coping skills. If they get defeated, they don't give up; they get up and do it again. Those are great life skills.

"And their personal qualities have been formed in part by their coaches," she continues. "They've had the experience, which is so rare and valuable, of having an adult mentor other than their parents or teachers."

Notwithstanding the primacy of academic credentials, says Britz, "GPA is just one measure of success." Among Kenyon's applicants, there are certainly athletes--or actors, for that matter--whose test scores and GPAs are weaker than average but whose recommendations and achievements reveal outstanding PQs. "We want those students," says Britz. "They will contribute, and they will get a lot out of Kenyon."

That is not to say that the College will make exceptions for an outstanding athlete with great PQs who simply could not succeed academically. "We do not admit students who would flounder here," says Britz. "We are not going to admit a single student who we don't think will survive here."

Athletics also figure in the admissions process because of circumstances unique to Kenyon--some happy, some less so. The stature of the swimming program, for example, forces the admissions staff to add one more variable to the difficult task of assembling an incoming class. The College has little trouble attracting great students who are also great swimmers, but the awareness of swimming does create a certain pressure. In the competitive marketplace, all colleges want to be able to boast about something distinctive. Like the English department, says Britz, swimming is "one of the jewels in our crown.

The admissions staff is also very much aware of football, because the program had slipped so badly that the Board of Trustees made rebuilding the team a priority. Britz and Chris Renaud, the admissions liaison for football, have worked closely with Ted Stanley to attract football players. But that doesn't mean football takes precedence over other factors. "The scenario of having two students of equal ability but one is a football player so he gets admitted--it's not that easy," says Renaud. "It doesn't work that way."

Nothing, really, is easy when it comes to the issues raised by athletics. The larger reality facing the College, indeed all of higher education, is the role of sports in American life generally. Many educators believe that too many children, from a surprisingly early age, are not only steeped in organized sports but also encouraged, too early, to specialize in a single sport. And then there is the strikingly important place that sports hold in many universities and colleges.

"We're embedded in a society which has programmed its children to focus on their athletic activities to an extraordinary extent during their very early years, and in which many people see higher education as being in its very essence linked with sports," observes Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent. "There's no obvious connection between higher education and athletics. It's an unusual amalgam in America. No other country associates higher education with sports in this way."

During her first year at the College, Nugent has talked at length with both Britz and Pete Smith, the athletic director, about issues relating to sports. Kenyon, she feels, could benefit from more campuswide discussion of such issues, ranging from how coaches and faculty members might interact more fruitfully, to whether exercise and physical well-being are an integral part of a Kenyon education, to how the College should measure the success of its varsity programs. By wins and losses? Conference championships? The experiences of individual students?

Kenyon will undoubtedly remain a place where, as the coffee mug says, students "do" poetry. And it will be a place where they do sports, too, avidly and in significant numbers. The interesting question is not whether they do poetry the way, at Ohio State, they do sports. It's rather, perhaps: What is the "Kenyon" way of doing sports?

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