Taking Stock of Harvard’s Athletics Culture
In mid-October, athletics director Robert L. Scalise, who arrived at Harvard in 1974 as head coach of the men’s lacrosse team, announced that he would retire at the end of this academic year. In an interview with Harvard Magazine, he discussed changes that have occurred during his career running the largest Division I athletics program in the nation, including single-sport specialization by athletes, a greatly increased intensity of recruiting, and external societal influences on athletics.
“Specialization,” which started in the late 1980s, “has increased further during my tenure,” Scalise began. Incoming athletes have already focused on a single sport, and “there’s been more of a move to year-round activity” in that one sport before they come to Harvard. “We used to see this in sports like swimming,” said Scalise. But in the past, football and soccer players, for example, might take on another sport in a different season, and play lacrosse or run track in the spring. “You don’t see them anymore,” he said. “It is very rare to find a soccer player that plays other sports.” When these specialists get to college, they want to continue in their chosen sport for three seasons, but Ivy League and NCAA guidelines restrict formal activities. This creates “a little bit of tension” because this sport is what students want to do. “It’s what they do for recreation and to stay in shape and enjoy themselves.” (For a feature article on specialization among athletes, see “The Professionalization of Ivy League Sports,” from the Harvard Magazine archives.)
Out of season, Scalise explained, there is an increased emphasis on strength and conditioning, based on scientific studies that detail how the athletes become faster and stronger. Increased staffing and space has been devoted to equipment and facilities to support that shift. These efforts to prepare the physical self to a point where athletes can “accommodate the stresses and the impact that some sports wind up having on your body,” said Scalise, are complemented by formal mental preparation “both in terms of sports psychology and visualizations”: the practice of running through a race, a move, a pain threshold in the mind in order to gain an edge over the competition. “The use of video analysis—learning by watching and evaluating different situations—has also increased,” he added. How that is used and when depends on the team. Some incorporate such analysis into practices, while others schedule a special team session.
“Because people are developing at younger ages and specializing, doing weight training when they're in junior high and high school,” Scalise continued, “they’re more fully-formed as athletes.” This has led to earlier and earlier recruiting in order to identify and attract the most talented players. “Luckily NCAA rules have put a stop to the practice of seventh and eighth grade soccer players signing letters of commitment.” But the competition for the best recruits is nevertheless intense. “Our coaches have to go and do outreach to broader areas of the country and the world to find people who qualify academically and who play a sport” at the right level for Harvard’s teams. The sheer numbers of student athletes that coaches now evaluate are astounding. While 25 years ago the recruiting pool “might have been 200 to 300 kids” for a sport like soccer, now the pool is 5,000, from which the coach will choose two or three to recommend in the admissions process.” The pool of football players is generally even larger. Evaluating those candidates means a lot of legwork and a lot of travel. And even in sports where the talent pool is smaller, such as squash, the intensity of recruiting is “very high, because there are very few people who actually can play at a very high level and are academically qualified.”
Determining who is qualified means coaches must “work with their liaisons in admissions to understand what…a great candidate for Harvard from Australia might look like. It takes a while to understand that versus someone from Brookline High School.”
The competition for top athletes has led to new recruiting tactics, including “commitments,” in which recruited high school sophomores and juniors declare their intention to attend a particular college, such as Harvard, and coaches commit to support a student’s application. The athlete will sometimes even post this pledge on social media—but Scalise is clear that such commitments are not a guarantee of admission. It is a recruiting tool, and not as firm a commitment as a “likely letter,” which is issued by the admissions office. At Harvard, athletes “submit the same application, and are reviewed and admitted by the same committee as every other student so that they’re representative of the student body”—and once they are in Cambridge, he continued, they are “held to the same academic standards as other students.”
Facilities and fundraising
“There is an increased emphasis on athletics facilities in high schools,” said Scalise, particularly private high schools. Athletes therefore arrive at Harvard with “higher expectations of what is needed.” At the college level, there is pressure for the facilities to be not only great for athletes, but also for spectators. “There is a lot of pressure to keep up” he explained. At Harvard, “what we have tried to do is redo our facilities in a manner that makes them great for student athletes to train and play in.” Making venues for spectators is a lower priority, he said, citing the decision to renovate the Lavietes basketball pavilion rather than construct a new 6,000 to 8,000 person arena.
“Rightly or wrongly, we live in a sports-crazed society,” continued Scalise. But the public shouldn’t value only the sports they can watch on Sunday, he says, nor watch only men’s sports. Low rates of attendance at Harvard women’s games versus those of the most visible men’s sports is part of a larger societal problem, he adds. “The beauty of athletics,” he says, “is that we bring people together and everybody forgets about what makes them different. We all win. And what background they come from or ethnic group they belong to, [no matter] their religion or political views or sexual orientation. We all work together to accomplish a common goal…I think that's what society will need. Men and women and people from all different backgrounds working together to accomplish great things together. That’s the goal. We do that a little bit in athletics, but, you’ve got the men's soccer team separate from the women’s soccer team and they like each other and want to root for each other, but it’s not the same as if we all have skin in the game.”
“Our job as educators is to keep sports in the right perspective. What we are trying to accomplish with our athletics program—in addition to building community and pride in Harvard—is to teach valuable life lessons through sport. There was a study released in the summer [of 2019] that among women, 80 to 90 percent of the people who made it into the senior levels of an organization had an intercollegiate athletic experience. That’s pretty powerful. We’ve created an environment where learning, with the help of some self-reflection, takes place. We measure success not solely by championships won, but by what people learn about, through struggle, when things don’t go well.”
The Ivy League itself has played a crucial role in promoting a healthy sports culture by leveling the playing field and insulating its member institutions from extreme recruiting practices.
But what, exactly, is being taught through Harvard’s athletics programs is not always clear. “Over time, we are going to have to figure out, what is the specific curriculum that we’re teaching?” noted Scalise. An ongoing study of Harvard’s athletics program initiated by Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Claudine Gay may bring some answers. Scalise clearly believes that creating shared experiences where people need to work together to accomplish common goals is the key educational experience of athletics. “How to do that for men and women, not separately, but together, that’s the complicated thing. That’s one of the things I am hoping comes out of this study. But that is what the next athletic director and leaders of the College are going to need to figure out, because that will serve society in the best way.”
The study, which Scalise believes will be useful to Gay, the next athletics director, Harvard, the Ivy League, and college athletics generally, is focusing on three areas. The first is culture: “What’s good about the culture, and what can be done to improve it?” asks Scalise. “What are we doing to encourage our student athletes to be fully engaged students at the College, and what are we unconsciously doing that leads them to do things just with other athletes? How do we help them make good academic choices?”
A second focus of the study is the student athlete experience. Harvard is clearly not like the big powerhouse athletic conference colleges, but “what do other students think about athletes who spend so much time on the other side of the river? How does their experience of the College differ from that of non-athletes? The third area of study is the athletics department’s organizational structure, including its connections to the president’s office, the dean of FAS, and the dean of the College, as well as its internal administrative setup.
“We’re mission driven,” noted Scalise, as the interview concluded. “Our vision”—enshrined in words that greets visitors to the Murr Center— “is ‘Principled Leadership, Academic Integration, and Competitive Excellence.’ We need to be good,” he stressed. Because by being good, we can be a model for how other colleges might run their athletics program. And we need to be good because being good creates a bond that is very special. Our successful teams,” he says, gesturing to a photograph of the 1980 team that he coached to the first round of the NCAA championships, “have an unbelievable bond. We were really good.”