Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Seven-Week Itch

January-February 2003

Coaches and athletes throughout the Ivy League gnashed their teeth this fall over a new policy that the Ivy presidents put in place last June—the "seven-week rule." The policy requires that intercollegiate athletes have a seven-week "rest" period during the academic year—a time when they are barred from working out as a team or being mentored by their coaches. No one can stop students from working out on their own, of course, but the rule "reinforces the voluntary nature of that activity," says Carolyn Campbell-McGovern, senior associate director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents. Growing out of concerns that varsity athletics loom too large in the lives of student-athletes—concerns sharpened by the controversial 2001 book The Game of Life, by James L. Shulman and former Princeton president William G. Bowen—the seven-week rule attempts to ensure that all undergraduates have a life away from the playing field.

Instead it has sparked protests and criticism that the rule is both ineffective and disadvantageous to Ivy League teams. In October, several Ivy crews rowing in the Head of the Charles Regatta replaced their college jerseys with black shirts bearing a crossed-out number seven on the back. Many athletes and coaches feel the large chunk of downtime handicaps them against non-Ivy competitors, who have no such restrictions. Stephanie Wriede Morawski '92, head coach of women's swimming and diving, notes that after her team completes its regular season at the end of February, several athletes may compete in the U.S. nationals at the end of March. "But I won't be able to talk with them," she reports, "because I had to list March as my rest period."

The rule does not affect all games equally. Football, for example, ends its season in November—Ivy football has no postseason—and the athletes can easily take seven weeks off before spring practice sessions begin. The rule particularly affects "two-semester" sports, like basketball and ice hockey, and those that demand year-round training, like swimming, rowing, and cross-country. (Rowing has received a partial exemption—crews need only take a 33-day break, because a full seven weeks off would impinge on their regular-season competition.) "We're an endurance sport," says swim coach Morawski. "You've got to keep your stamina up. You can't just stop for seven weeks."

Ivy coaches may now be at a disadvantage in recruiting, as well. "Some coaches will feel the impact on seniors considering Ivy versus non-Ivy colleges," says Frank Sullivan, head coach of men's basketball. "The student-athletes may turn toward other colleges, out of concern about the softening up of their improvement in the Ivies." Morawski adds, "Most of the athletes here chose Harvard or another elite school because they want to excel in both academics and athletics. They've been swimming year-round since they were eight or 10 years old—it's been a choice."

The Ivy presidents, too, made a choice, but like all choices, it is subject to review. At this writing, the presidents were scheduled to meet again on December 10, perhaps to consider whether the scratch is causing more trouble than the itch.