Behind the Board: Sports Recruiting Boosts the Desirability of Amherst College

Two weeks ago, The Student’s editors met to discuss equity in college admissions. Spurred by a Williams Record article calling for the end of athletic recruiting, we embarked on a discussion of the logic behind adjusting admissions standards for recruited athletes. While we couldn’t come to a consensus on the issue, we discussed a multitude of important topics, from the athletic impact on the operating budget to Amherst College Admissions’ mission. 

Following this conversation, our friend and Editor-in-Chief Olivia Gieger ’21 published an editorial calling for the end of athletic recruitment. We, on the other hand, feel strongly that recruiting athletes to Amherst adds immense value to our school.

We can all agree that we want a campus of diverse, multidimensional students. And we want campus life to be spirited, vibrant and fun. But how lively is a campus without competitive sports teams? A campus that plays, yet consistently loses in every sport is not a college we’d want to attend. No recruiting means losing; an entirely walk-on or club roster-based varsity team would likely never win a single NESCAC game. Bad sports are a reason for potential students to choose a different institution over ours.

 Thousands of college applicants every year have to make a decision: Amherst or elsewhere? Imagine trying to make that decision, knowing that one school packs their gym for rivalry games, wins conference and national championships and celebrates the athletic success of its students, while the other school does nothing of the sort. It’s an easy choice. Banning athletic recruitment would lead to a cycle of dwindling win percentages and applications, diminishing the value of both the Amherst experience and degree. 

One key question that was posed was about the holistic review process: What is the difference between adjusting admissions standards for a violinist, a debater or an athlete? Our answer is that, while all are undeniably talented, the long-term benefits of bringing in highly-skilled athletes make recruiting them a beneficial decision in a way that recruiting a star violinist or debater simply would not be. 

This idea extends to the theme of school desirability when admitted students make their choices. The homecoming football game draws the majority of the student body down to Pratt Field and is one of the most social events of that entire semester. To field that team (which does not compete nationally), Amherst must recruit nearly two dozen proven players per year. Homecoming represents a manifestation of the benefits of athletic recruiting: nearly 1,000 students and alumni came together to socialize and celebrate a competitive sports team. If Amherst wants to have a dynamic student body culture, it should hope to attract social contributors. Athletic recruiting makes Amherst an overall more desirable place to attend. 

Furthermore, a great part about Amherst is the variety of its events; we’ve seen great sports games, arts performances and even speakers like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. One of our favorite weekend activities pre-Covid has been to watch The Zumbyes and The Sabrinas perform live, both of which are undeniably entertaining and extremely high level. Those groups are comprised of singers who were not recruited based on their musical talents. It would be fantastic if sports teams could yield such talented players without using revised admissions standards. 

Unfortunately, that idea is unrealistic. While other groups on campus can thrive without recruiting, sports simply cannot. Amherst a cappella, orchestra, jazz group, debate, theatre and so many other groups do not need to recruit to be successful. When it comes to sports, we’d be lying if we said the same was true. The best athletes would go to the schools that are recruiting and Amherst would be stuck with a losing team.

And let’s be clear. Amherst student-athletes are smart. All Amherst recruits still have to make it through the holistic admissions review. Using the NESCAC’s academic band system, coaches can only recruit one or two students (C-Bands) with significantly lower grades and test scores than Amherst’s averages, while the rest of their recruited athletes (A- and B-Bands) have admissions standards around or the same as the rest of that year’s admitted students. 

We want to acknowledge the pitfalls that athletic recruiting brings to Amherst. Indeed, many students admit that there is a sense of division between athletes and non-athletes, an awareness that social events on campus are generally dominated by athletes. These concerns are especially worrisome when considering the fact that our athletic rosters are filled with predominantly white, wealthy students. 

First off, we see no reason to believe that the perceived divide between athletes and non-athletes would be fixed if our campus rosters were filled with unrecruited athletes. Walk-ons at Amherst are common already (both of us attempted to walk onto a team). 

Additionally, we shouldn’t respond to these concerns by axing athletic recruitment. In fact, we should do quite the opposite. NESCAC schools have an obligation to increase the resources they spend on athletic recruitment. The more resources that coaches have to travel, the more socio-economically diverse their rosters end up. And to our college’s credit, a 2019 New York Times article praised Amherst’s commitment to diversify our rosters by increasing funding for athletic recruitment. Currently, coaches are incentivized to recruit minority athletes.

As students of Amherst, we take pride in the fact that Amherst is a desirable destination for some of the most accomplished student-athletes in the country. Since 2015, three Amherst baseball players have been selected in the Major League Baseball draft. We’ve competed for national championships in women’s basketball, men’s soccer and a number of other sports. These student-athletes are remarkably impressive individuals, people that we, as a college, are extremely lucky to have. If Amherst sports are no longer competitive, Amherst loses an integral part of its student body. 

Nevertheless, one of the main takeaways from our exploration of this topic is that there must be more research done quantifying the benefits of each program to Amherst. How much do applicants value athletics versus arts? How many alumni donation dollars are generated by athletics, and which teams contribute the most? What are the Amherst Fund’s targeted donation area use policies? In the coming months, we, The Student’s Managing Sports Editors, commit to pursuing answers to these questions in the sports section of the paper. 

Overall, we want to reiterate that athletic recruiting simply attracts more people to Amherst and increases the comprehensive experience of students on campus. While our other student groups are extremely talented, they do not require recruiting to be functional; athletics does. A vibrant social life is not dependent on, but is related to, success in sports; college is not all about studying hard for a good job, but also about self-exploration in a social setting before heading off to the working world. Recruiting athletes helps to build that social environment, in both the short and the long term.