Author Debates Athletes' Admission Edge

A controversial author in the debate over athletics in college admissions came to Harvard Business School last Friday and faced a heated argument over whether athletes’ applications get an unfair advantage in college admissions offices.

James L. Shulman, author of The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, showed a series of statistics to reaffirm his book’s claim that athletes have a significant admissions advantage.

“One of the things that worries me the most is the signals that [these schools] are sending to the world,” Shulman said. “They’re saying that [sports] are a serious way to get into these schools if you are really focused on it. That is what I worry about more than anything else.”

Shulman began by presenting the findings of The Game of Life, which he co-wrote with former Princeton University President William G. Bowen.

He displayed SAT distributions, GPA figures and admissions data that showed wide disparities between athletes and non-athletes. For example, Shulman claimed that, among women, athletes have a 53 percent admissions advantage over non-athletes.


But Harvard Law School professor Hal S. Scott refuted Shulman’s claims, saying that his findings were biased and based on twisted data.

Scott, who is Nomura professor of international financial systems, gave a fiery rebuttal laced with several anecdotes and boisterous statements that drew many laughs from the alum-filled audience.

“The major problem is that the statistics do not show what they say they show,” Scott said, calling Shulman’s book a “primer for the misuse of statistics.”

Scott said Shulman misused SAT scores and GPAs as the benchmark of academic qualifications, saying these two measures are not “gold standards.”

William J. “Bill” Cleary ’56, a former Harvard athletic director, also defended Ivy League policies against those of other schools.

“To me the Ivy League has always been one of leaders and I think it’s important for us to be leaders and stand up and show people that there is another way to do collegiate athletics,” Cleary said.

The debate was the second in a four-part series examining intercollegiate athletics.

During a question-and-answer session with the audience, a member of the Radcliffe crew team brought up the controversial issue of an Ivy-mandated seven-week break from participating in varsity athletics.

“I think it’s unfair in that these are restrictions that Harvard would never impose on another sub-group,” said Sarah V. White ’03.