Sports Equipment

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.”

“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.”


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