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Ivy League Quitters: The Costs of Being an Ivy Athlete

01/05/2014 11:17 am 11:17:07 | Updated Mar 07, 2014

The abnormality of the varsity athlete's college experience begins even before he or she moves into the freshman dorms. Most Ivy athletes are officially recruited; they are accepted to the university in return for an informal agreement to serve on a sports team until graduation. This may sound like a good deal for the recruits, but it presently appears that the benefits of staying on an Ivy team are often not sufficient to prevent them from violating this informal agreement and quitting their respective sports.

Sadly, I speak from experience.

Having played squash and tennis at a national level since age 11, I was not prepared to give up sports when I entered the University of Pennsylvania. I was not recruited to Penn, but when accepted, the squash coach promised me a spot on the varsity team as a walk-on. I fully intended to play for Penn for all four years. During my sophomore year, though, I quit the team -- following the well-carved path of numerous other varsity athletes. At this point, I know just as many ex-athletes as I do current varsity athletes. Something is wrong with that.

Ex-Penn athletes leave their teams for a lot of the same reasons. First, understand that unlike other NCAA Division 1 recruits, no Ivy League athletes are given athletic scholarships, and are therefore devoting their time and effort to a cause without the expectation of compensation. If an athlete quits, no money can be revoked (since none was given originally), and he or she is allowed to continue college without financial or educational consequences. That being said, roughly all recruits plan to honor their commitments. They want to be student-athletes.

However, since athletes cannot be punished for reneging on their informal commitments, many of them feel compelled to quit when they realize that many of the costs simply outweigh the benefits.

1. The time commitment.
Ivy athletes quickly realize varsity sports are not simply an extra curricular activity. The time commitment -- which for Penn squash was 2.5-hours a day, 5 days a week, and weekend traveling, for 5 months of the school year -- becomes pretty indistinguishable from a full time job.

2. Sports are the (only) priority.
To add to this stress, classes are supposed to be prioritized at highly academic universities, but a large percentage of coaches do not seem to support this philosophy, as they make practices mandatory no matter how many exams an athlete has in the morning. I know this from direct experience at Penn and meetings with a handful of coaches I encountered during college recruiting trips. When a class time conflicts with practice, coaches frequently instruct athletes to take a different course or enroll in summer school instead of skipping practice to attend a class. Additionally, the combination of the academics and athletics leaves little time for an internship or a part time job to earn extra income, an active social life, Greek life, clubs, and other aspects of a 'normal' college experience.

3. Little reward and appreciation from others.
Athletes generally accept that they must sacrifice, but many start to question what they are gaining in return. Perhaps one benefit is respect. However, how much respect do students and professors really allocate to these Ivy League athletes? To say the least, Penn (similar to other Ivy atmospheres) is not centered around sports, and many ex-athletes complain of the few fans that attend their games and an "overall feeling of being neglected and unappreciated," according to a Penn track runner. Football players throughout the Ivy League are tired of hearing, "It's only Ivy League football," as if their accomplishments cannot possibly compare with state school athletes throughout the country.

4. Mistreatment within the team.
Even if undervalued by the Ivy community, being on a sports team is supposed to provide an athlete with an automatic support system and a second family. While most Penn ex-athletes spoken to adored their teammates, a significant portion did not feel that their coaches had their best interests at heart and only cared about their potential to serve the team. Poor treatment is common toward injured players (who were unable to train and compete) and those who are simply weaker athletes than their teammates. Considering the amount of time and energy each individual athlete expends daily, though, this treatment seems like unfair abuse. Perhaps this would be acceptable at a school that funded a students' education, but this is not the case.

5. The extra little things that push athletes over the edge.
In addition to being deprived of a normal college life, having to prioritize athletics over academics, and being unappreciated by peers and mistreated by coaches, athletes endure abuses in innumerable other forms: the weightlifting that causes uncountable lower back strains, and forces the average female freshman to gain 10 pounds of muscle and begin to resemble a man, the orthopedic surgeries, the shorter or nonexistent winter, spring, and summer breaks, the lack of sleep... the list continues. Despite how critical being on a team is to an athlete's identity and lifestyle, these factors contribute to the realization that being on varsity is simply not worth the price each athlete pays every day. An ex-swimmer reports, "The feeling grows until it is obvious that the negatives outweigh the positives." And since Ivy athletes--unlike those at other Division 1 schools -- do not face financial repercussions, many Ivy athletes feel there is little reason to continue pushing themselves to the limits and dealing with what several ex-athletes classify as "plain misery."

Like everyone who once competed for a varsity team, I am an athlete. That is who I am -- whether or not I currently play for a college team. Leaving the squash team was one of the hardest life decisions I have ever made, and I regret feeling like I had to do so. If only being on a Penn team felt less like a full-time job, was more fun, and provided the sense of family and support my coaches assured me there was, I would have wanted to stay.

Perhaps Ivy League leadership should actively seek to change the current reality of their respective school environments -- environments that foster neither athletic scholarships nor widespread respect and appreciation. Perhaps the idea of athletic scholarships at Ivy League universities should be entertained outside of big D1 and D2 schools. If scholarships were not an option, then the Ivy League athletic departments and coaches alike have to readjust their expectations of their student athletes. For athletes receiving no financial benefits for their commitment, maybe the time commitment required and lifestyle changes encouraged should be lessened. And as crazy as it sounds, maybe even academically-intense Ivy League universities could promote school spirit towards athletics and students' support of athletes. A shift in Ivy League culture is possible, and student athletes could eventually have a larger role within the school community. Perhaps Ivy League leadership needs to alter its mindset in order to better cater to its athletes' needs and to provide them with fewer reasons to quit.