Once again, the local college athletics focus is on ACC expansion, this time with the sudden addition of Boston College. But another issue is simmering, as anxious high school seniors are preparing to have their SAT-prep–course-enhanced test scores, AP-course-laden transcripts, and well- developed lists of extracurricular activities compared with those of their compatriots across the county in the increasingly cut-throat college admissions process.
College admissions offices began the year with a new awareness of the limits or opportunities for diversity. The June Supreme Court rulings in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger offered clear guidelines on affirmative action. Yet those same guidelines could not only wreak havoc in the tight-knit world of athletic admissions, but also turn the world of big-time college athletics upside down.
How does a Supreme Court ruling hailed as a triumph for college autonomy and flexible admissions come to pose such a threat to big-time athletics? The answer is simple–but shrouded in the secrecy that surrounds athletic admissions. While the former dean of admissions at prestigious Williams College once declared that “athletic recruiting is the biggest form of affirmative action in American higher education,” the news media focuses attention on recruiting. And while William Bowen and James Shulman’s book, The Game of Life, as well as the recent sequel, Reclaiming the Game by Bowen and Sarah Levin, sheds much light on the extent of the athletic/admissions partnership at all levels, the athletic admissions process is grossly underreported and dangerously misunderstood. This is a serious oversight since the one thing that not only bonds every collegiate athlete–scholarship winner or walk-on, all-American or also-ran–but also ties each to the recent Supreme Court decisions, is the admission process. Every single college athlete who puts on a uniform for the Wolfpack, the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils or the Eagles, not to mention their brethren nationwide, must be admitted. Yet in too many cases it is done in a system that has not only been corrupted and skewed–at almost all levels–but which may also be unconstitutional.
For years it has been an open secret within the admissions community–if not the general public–that the admissions process for athletes was different; that at many, if not most major colleges, there were athletic quotas, and where there were no quotas, there were provisions for special treatment and wholly different standards for recruited athletes. These different admissions criteria, combined with a blatant disregard for published deadlines, as well as other comparable allowances have long made for a two-tier process that runs counter to the idea of equal treatment. But for years these procedures have under-girded the success of the Triangle’s major athletic powers.
While all of this is true, the lack of a direct, race-based classification in the athletic admissions process does make for different rules for any legal challenge to athletic admissions. The constitutional test drops from “compelling state interest” to a “rational basis test” for the classification in question. The nitty-gritty and legal niceties will be left to the lawyers, but a quick look at representative college and university mission statements offers little evidence of a rational basis for setting aside specific spots for athletes in the admission process. These mission statements make no connection between the entertainment phenomenon known as big-time athletics, and the academically focused criteria for admission so clearly stated by the schools. And while admissions criteria will sometimes speak of special talents as a factor in the admission process, the implication is that these factors–athletic talent, artistic ability, etc. –will be considered as plus factors in the holistic manner approved by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her opinion in Grutter. But the reality of athletic admissions is something different. There is nothing holistic about the process. Indeed, athletic admissions embody exactly what O’Connor decried when she endorsed a plus factor rather than an exclusionary process. How can athletic admissions survive when O’Connor asserts “universities cannot establish quotas for members of certain…groups or put members of those groups on separate admissions tracks…”?
In striking down the University of Michigan’ regimented point system for undergraduate admission, a system that accorded the exact same 20 bonus points for recruited athletes as it did for minority applicants, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, “Powell’s opinion in Bakke emphasized the importance of considering each particular applicant as an individual, assessing all the qualitiesÉ. The admission program [he]É described, however, did not contemplate that any single characteristic automatically ensured a specific and identifiable contribution to a university’s diversity.” Rehnquist noted that Michigan did not provide that kind of individualized consideration, rather “[t]he automatic distribution of 20 points has the effect of making ‘the factor of race…decisive’ for virtually every minimally qualified underrepresented minority applicant.” Substitute “athletic ability” for “race” and it spells trouble for college athletics, for as Powell said 25 years ago, in a comment echoed throughout the Michigan opinions, “The fatal flaw in [the] preferential program is its disregard of individual rights as guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Having said all this, the question remains, could such a challenge even be undertaken? In a world in which spots in each entering college class are more coveted then ever, the answer is “yes.” Last winter, respected sportswriter Frank Deford raised the possibility of a challenge to athletic preferences and the idea has circulated within the athletic reform movement’s Drake Group. Some who have been involved in the discussions have been waiting for clarification of the legal landscape. Now, with clearer guidelines in place, the time may be right for a legal challenge. Certainly the outcry over college athletics is growing–and right here in our own backyard. The ACC’s clumsy expansion efforts did nothing to enhance the conference’s stature in the public mind. Meanwhile, the tragic and appalling events at Baylor, the questions raised about academic fraud at Ohio State and the University of Missouri, as well as countless other lesser events, paint an ever-bleaker picture of college athletics, one that continues to magnify the increasingly tenuous tie between the academic mission of higher education and this “extracurricular” activity.
The worlds of college admissions and college athletics are at a critical juncture. The admissions process has never been more high stakes and pressure-filled. Nowhere is this truer than in North Carolina, where the applicant pools grow larger and larger, making each spot–especially at the top schools–more coveted than ever. Meanwhile, the high profile of college athletics has raised a host of issues all being played out in the national media. Consequently as more and more people realize that these academic abuses may be the result of an exclusionary and dishonest admissions process run amuck, a reaction, indeed, a backlash seems inevitable. For that backlash to become a legal challenge requires only a rejected–although qualified–college applicant (and there are increasing numbers of them) and an ambitious attorney.
Over the years, the educational value of intercollegiate athletics has included the lasting lessons gleaned from competition. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, as a result of a legal challenge to the world of athletic admissions, the very people–the athletes–who have supposedly benefited from this experience actually had to compete on an equal footing with their fellow applicants for admission? It might be a worthwhile lesson for everyone–both in and out of the Triangle.