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The Liberal Arts Football Factory

Is Wesleyan University compromising its independent reputation and academic excellence to build an athletic cash cow?

Wesleyan Cardinals
The Wesleyan Cardinals run off the field at halftime of their homecoming game against Williams on Nov. 7. Thao Phan/The Wesleyan Argus

MIDDLETOWN, Conn.—Dave Bagatelle and a handful of his buddies sat in folding chairs on a Saturday morning this fall, chomping on thick cigars and sipping Sapporo beers. It was early, still a few hours before that afternoon’s game between the Wesleyan Cardinals and Bates Bobcats, but the party had already started.

Bagatelle and his friends played football at Wesleyan in the 1980s and they’ve been tailgating at Andrus Field ever since. The field is small and unadorned, a patch of grass on a quad tucked into the heart of campus, ringed by brown stone and red brick buildings. Metal bleachers on each sideline hold a few thousand fans. They would be full by kickoff. “You can’t beat it,” Bagatelle said. “Especially the last few years.”

Wesleyan sees itself as an iconoclastic place, a school where generations of undergrads have strived to embody the motto “Keep Wes Weird.” When higher-ups attempted to christen the university “The Independent Ivy” two decades ago, the student body revolted and the new marketing slogan was dropped. More recently, students succeeded in fighting off the school’s attempt to retitle “Zonker Harris Day,” a festival named for a stoner Doonesbury character.

“The point has been, we’re Wesleyan, and we’re different on purpose,” 2001 graduate Laura Weinstein told me. “At other schools they went to football games, but we walked around campus half-naked and half-stoned.” Weinstein and other Wesleyan grads say that in years past you could stumble across the quad on a fall Saturday without knowing if the Cardinals were playing at home or on the road. “It was a place for Ultimate Frisbee and frolicking and sometimes there would be a football game in the way,” Weinstein says. “Athletes used to tell me they were a stigmatized group,” explains Wesleyan sociology professor Rob Rosenthal.

School President Michael Roth says alumni pushed him to erase that stigma. Three years after Roth came to Wesleyan in 2007, he lured rival Williams’ football coach, Wesleyan grad Mike Whalen, back to his alma mater. Bagatelle was part of an athletics advisory council that advocated for the move. “I put the chances at a million to one that we’d get him,” he says. Back then the Cardinals were doormats. The football team hadn’t won a Little Three—the annual three-legged competition between Wesleyan and its rivals Williams and Amherst—since 1970.

Whalen, who added athletic director to his title in 2012 and stopped coaching the football team in 2015, led the team to a Little Three crown in just his third season as head coach. Now, the school has even more of the trappings of gridiron success, including cheerleaders performing on the sidelines. (When I mentioned the cheerleaders to Wesleyan grads, they were stunned such a squad existed.) Earlier this fall, Wesleyan hosted an honest-to-goodness night game, and thousands of fans filled the stands and the quad. Bagatelle and his buddies tailgated from 10 in the morning until after midnight.

Given the growing evidence that football damages young men’s brains, you might think that self-styled elite universities like Wesleyan would be considering cutting ties with the sport. In reality, liberal arts schools are investing in football.

Between 2008 and 2016, 12 schools in the NCAA’s Division III—a group of 438 mostly private institutions that do not offer athletic scholarships—added football teams. The University of Chicago, which famously eliminated the sport in 1939—“The whole apparatus of football, fraternities, and fun is a means by which education is made palatable to those who have no business in it,” the school president said then—has now rebuilt its team. Among Wesleyan’s peers in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, Colby has announced plans to build a $200 million athletic complex; Williams spent $22 million to renovate its football stadium; Amherst spent $12.5 million on its stadium; and Middlebury has a new $46 million athletic fieldhouse.

Roth told me he was proud that Wesleyan hasn’t spent that kind of cash to build palatial athletic facilities. (The biggest sports-related outlay during his tenure was on a $2.7 million project that included a new turf lacrosse field, spearheaded by a large donation from the family of two former players.) “They have so much money it’s unclear what they should do with it,” Roth says of Wesleyan’s rivals. “I think they should open another school and educate more people, but they haven’t made that decision. But I would hope if I ever announced a $200 million athletics building that people around here would really protest, because I think that’s obscene.”

Yet despite Wesleyan’s relative fiscal prudence, it’s undeniable that the Connecticut university has sought to keep up with its rivals, and that it’s made its own big bet on athletics. “We had this reputation where we were proud for not caring about sports, and I thought that was dumb,” Roth says. “Wesleyan needs to be relevant.” The school of 3,000 undergraduates got more than 12,000 applications from prospective freshmen last year, an all-time record. A recent fundraising campaign also delivered nearly $500 million. “What we’ve done in athletics is a huge part of that,” Whalen says.

At the same time, Wesleyan’s quest to recruit better athletes has essentially created a school within a school. Nearly 25 percent of those 3,000 undergrads play varsity sports, and close to 10 percent of each class is admitted through a process that gives preferential treatment to athletes. While the money is bigger and the fans are crazier at the Division I level, the focus on sports at a school like Wesleyan arguably does more to distort its student population. Consider that at a big-time sports factory like Ohio State, just 2 percent of the undergrads are varsity jocks.

“Think about the opportunity cost of who we’re educating and the message we’re sending to prospective students,” a former Wesleyan administrator told me. “Admissions is a zero-sum game, so when we take strong athletes or recognize athletic potential, there are other students left out.”

As schools around the country ponder how to increase diversity on their campuses, it’s striking to note that Wesleyan and its brethren have built what’s essentially an affirmative action program for athletes. The former administrator, who requested anonymity because he still works in academia, explained that the group that benefits the most is “white men with mediocre academic records,” a broad trend that Roth and Whalen both acknowledged. Statistics also show that athletes at Wesleyan—who, again, don’t receive athletic scholarships, per Division III rules—come from more affluent families than the average student, and that they are far more likely to choose majors outside the humanities.

One current Wesleyan athlete I spoke to—not a football player—told me he went to that night football game and was blown away by the atmosphere. At the same time, he said he worries about the divide on campus between athletes and non-athletes. “It’s not the Wesleyan I expected,” he told me.

As a Wesleyan undergrad in the 1970s, Michael Roth lived in a co-ed literary fraternity and didn’t typically go to football games. His interest was piqued, though, when he heard that a dean had complained about students using profane language in the stands. Roth went to the next game, spending the afternoon “cursing vigorously.” The school president told me it “was a free speech issue. That’s the kind of place Wesleyan is.”

Roth didn’t return to his alma mater with a great sports background—prior to Wesleyan, he was the president of the California College of the Arts. Just after he was hired, the football team hit rock bottom, winning a single game in 2008. “We had graduates who worked in the same offices as Williams and Amherst grads,” John Biddiscombe, the athletic director at the time, says. “And they told us they were tired of losing.”

“I felt like we should try to excel at everything we do as a university,” Roth says, noting that despite that losing culture he inherited, Wesleyan boasts an impressive roster of successful alums in the sports world, from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick to Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer.

Roth is a Janus-like figure; he is both proud of the Wesleyan he attended and convinced it should appeal to a wider variety of students. “Athletes on campus have different perspectives than the avant-garde surrealist pop guitar player from Park Slope,” he told me. As he walked toward Andrus Field ahead of the game against Bates, he pointed out a pregame ceremony to honor the military. “This never would have happened in years past,” he said. “You can’t be a caricature of yourself.”

While Roth may look askance at the massive sums rival schools have spent on athletics, he is fully aware that a better football team and a stronger sports culture are good for the university’s bottom line. Wesleyan, which phased out need-blind admissions in 2012 and whose $800 million endowment is less than half that of its rivals Amherst and Williams, feels it needs all the money it can get. Biddiscombe, the former athletic director, says the fundraising response to Wesleyan’s football success has been “significant.” “You wish that sports didn’t matter in fundraising, but the truth seems to be that, even at Wesleyan, it does,” says Gil Skillman, an economics professor at the university.

Another reason a robust athletic department can be a financial boon: The families of high-school athletes that consider schools like Wesleyan tend to have money to spend. By comparison to other students, tennis players and swimmers and other elite jocks—whose families, in many cases, can afford to pony up for training and other expenses—require less financial aid. At Wesleyan, 10 percent of varsity athletes receive Pell Grants compared to 19 percent of other students.

It was Roth’s move to hire Mike Whalen in 2007 that signaled the change in Wesleyan’s sports culture. During his stint as the school’s football coach and then athletic director, Whalen moved to increase the salaries of assistant coaches and to give the athletic department the independence to fundraise directly for its teams. He also worked to bring Belichick into the fold—the two email before and after big games now, and the Patriots coach has been instrumental in fundraising efforts. Most significantly, Whalen pushed to revamp Wesleyan’s recruiting.

NESCAC rules allow schools to grant admission to a certain number of athletes who fall below typical academic qualifying standards. Wesleyan, like its conference rivals, gets between 60 and 70 of these “tips” annually, or just less than 10 percent of each incoming class. The former Wesleyan administrator I spoke with, who held various posts at the school (including in admissions) between 2001 and 2015, told me these “tipped” students often come from the men’s “helmet sports” of lacrosse, hockey, and football. The former administrator says the SAT scores for this group of students tended to be in the 1,100 range on the 1,600 scale compared to around 1,400 for other students. The administrator added that, in his experience, the gap in academic credentials between white men who got into Wesleyan as “tipped” athletes and white men who were admitted to the school as non-athletes was the widest of any demographic group.

The tips system existed before Whalen arrived on campus. His innovation was to reserve these slots for standout athletes who were committed to training year-round—to get “players who could change the trajectory of our programs.” He expanded summer camps at Wesleyan with an eye on hosting top athletes from around the country, and he had coaches work more closely with the admissions office. In addition to the tips process, good athletes could also get a leg up if they brought geographic diversity to the school. If admissions officers were looking to add students from, say, the Southeast, a coach could put in a good word for a football player from Georgia.

As a result of this reformed recruitment process, Whalen told me, just about every starting player on a Wesleyan team is now a recruited athlete, a stark change from years past. The results have shown up on the field: Since Whalen was hired, the Cardinals football team has won two Little Three football titles and a conference title. During Roth’s tenure, Wesleyan has also won conference championships in basketball and men’s lacrosse, as well as three women’s singles tennis national championships.

“What we’ve done in athletics is a net gain for the experience of our athletes, for fundraising, and for school spirit,” Roth says. Whalen, too, stresses the psychic benefits of victory on the playing field. “When people come to visit campus on Saturday afternoon, and they see the stands empty and the football team getting beat 35–0,” he says, “that reflects badly on the whole school.”

It’s easy to chart the Wesleyan football team’s accomplishments in the years since Roth and Whalen came to Middletown, Connecticut. It’s more difficult to quantify how the school’s athletic recruits have transformed campus life. On the academic side, though, the best available data suggest that athletes—particularly male athletes—at schools like Wesleyan don’t take full advantage of their educational opportunities.

The most comprehensive study of the academic profiles of Division III athletes was conducted by a mathematics professor at Middlebury College in the mid-2000s.* John Emerson discovered that, even after controlling for disparities like incoming test scores, recruited athletes performed markedly worse than their peers. An analysis of more than 80,000 students who entered college in 2005 and 2006 found recruited male athletes had grade-point averages that were in the 37th percentile of their college cohort, while non-athletes were in the 47th percentile, and non-recruited athletes were in the 43rd percentile.

The discrepancies were even larger at highly selective schools like Wesleyan and its NESCAC rivals, with recruited male athletes having GPAs 15 percentile points lower than their non-athlete peers. And for male recruits at schools like Wesleyan who participated in highly competitive sports—basketball, football, ice hockey, lacrosse, and soccer—the numbers looked even worse, with their GPA percentiles falling 17 points lower than those of non-athletes. (Emerson found that the grade-point averages for recruited female athletes were also lower than those of their peers, though the discrepancies were smaller.)

The fact that male athletes don’t do as well in school as other students doesn’t mean they’re unable to do college-level work. Rather, they are more likely to think of themselves as athletes first and students second. Bob Malekoff, a former athletic director in the NESCAC and a senior adviser on Emerson’s study, says, “Even at elite schools, you can get athletes looking at academics as something they have to do.” He adds that it’s important for a school like Wesleyan to understand that it’s making a choice when it prioritizes athletes’ admissions: “It’s not necessarily a bad thing if you say that athletics are going to matter for admissions, but it becomes part of a school’s mission. They may say the mission hasn’t changed, but in fact it has.”

The “two Wesleyans” do overlap in certain cases. Whalen and Roth told me about a defensive back on the football team who starred in a campus theater production and a tennis player who was a star chemistry student. “We want cohort-building, but we want the cohorts to be permeable,” Roth says.

In certain spaces on campus, though, Wesleyan’s different cohorts don’t mix much at all. Several students told me about the school’s dining hall, where athletes sit together on the “loud side,” playing music, while non-athletes remain on the quiet side. “I see the buff guys bro-ing out and it reminds me of high school,” Liza Gross, a freshman, told me. “It’s not quite what I was expecting at Wesleyan.” The divide can also bleed into academics. Athletes at Wesleyan major in economics at a rate three times higher than their peers (24 percent versus 7 percent). “In other majors, you do feel more of a passion around the subject,” Leo Fines, a senior economics major, told me. “When I tell people I’m an econ major I feel like I need to say, ‘I’m not that kind of econ major.’ ”

Though the social divide at Wesleyan appears to have calcified more in recent years, it is not an entirely new phenomenon. The former Wesleyan administrator told me about a football recruiting meeting he attended before Roth took over as school president in 2007. At that meeting, a football alum told recruits they might see men holding hands. “You don’t have to be part of that Wesleyan,” the administrator recalled the alum saying. “You can have your own Wesleyan.”

The schism seen in Middletown also isn’t unique to Wesleyan. Last year, the disclosure of racist and misogynistic emails written by male members of the cross-country team roiled Amherst. A subsequent review of the place of athletics on Amherst’s campus raised concerns about racial and socioeconomic divides between athletes and non-athletes. Wesleyan’s president says that’s not an issue on his campus. “Amherst is creating a culture where the most important allegiance is to the team,” Roth says. “If I thought we were doing that, I’d get rid of the sport.”

But it may just be the case that signs of similar discord aren’t reaching Roth’s office. Last year, a Wesleyan student reported having seen members of the school’s sports teams prevent people of color from entering their parties. The school says no complaints regarding the alleged incident were filed with its student affairs office. Amherst’s autopsy found that from 2011 to 2015 nearly 75 percent of the school’s athletes were white, while around 50 percent of the overall student body was white. The numbers at Wesleyan appear less stark—25 percent of athletes today are minorities vs. 30 percent of all students—but only because the campus overall is whiter than Amherst’s. If this is one reason racial animus is less obvious at Wesleyan, it’s likely not one the school is proud of.

Two former Wesleyan admissions officers told me they believe the “tips” system—which allows the school to admit 60 to 70 undergrads per class who don’t fit the university’s typical academic profile—disproportionately benefits white men. Minority athletes, they said, can gain a leg up in admissions independent of their on-field ability because their presence helps increase racial diversity on campus. When athletes of color get admitted to Wesleyan without using athletic tips, those slots are often used by white athletes. “Not only do you have white men who wouldn’t otherwise be at Wesleyan,” says the former administrator who held various posts at Wesleyan. “But then the school doesn’t work as hard to recruit minorities who aren’t athletes.”

I asked Whalen if white men with somewhat weaker academic resumes were the biggest beneficiaries of the school’s athletics-focused admissions regime. He said they probably were, but he added that football, specifically, did increase diversity on campus—both from a racial standpoint and with regard to bringing in students from more working-class backgrounds. When I asked Roth the same question, he replied, “I suppose that you have to be careful about what it means to benefit. Who benefits from computer science? Mostly white men, but not only white men, and it would be insane not to do computer science. It would also be negligent not to try and diversify things like science—and athletics.”

Bagatelle and his buddies watch every Wesleyan home game from behind one of the end zones at Andrus Field. Against Bates, Wesleyan fell behind 14–0, threatening to ruin a picturesque Saturday afternoon. The alums ragged on the refs—“You call that holding?”—and followed the scores of the other NESCAC games on their phones. To their chagrin, Trinity and Middlebury, both at the top of the conference standings, were winning. When it came up that Amherst had eliminated its unofficial mascot—Colonial-era military commander Lord Jeffery Amherst—on account of his treatment of Native Americans, Bagatelle enjoyed a belly laugh. “PC culture run amok,” he said.

His mood brightened as Wesleyan rallied, scoring two quick touchdowns and taking the lead on a long 54-yard touchdown pass. The Cardinals finished the game by scoring 20 straight points, winning 41–23 to improve to 4–1 on the season. They would finish the year 6–3, tied for fourth in the NESCAC.

After the game, the guys took the short walk back to their tailgate. Not everyone on campus was entranced. I noticed a student walk past wearing a T-shirt that read “Jesus Christ Was a Brown Communist.” He didn’t so much as glance at the football festivities.

As his friends settled back into their folding chairs, Bagatelle pulled out his iPad and fired up the livestream from the closing minutes of another NESCAC game. Brendan Patterson, the son of one of Bagatelle’s friends and a quarterback on the team, joined his dad and his friends, still wearing his grass-stained jersey. I asked him what had drawn him to the Wesleyan football team. “Coming to college, you’re a little nervous about making friends,” he said. “When I visited, it was like I knew I was going to have 60 friends as soon as I walked in the door. The team is that tight.” He added, “The education’s important, too.”

*Correction, Dec. 21, 2017: This article originally misstated that John Emerson was an economics professor at Middlebury. He was a professor of mathematics. Also, a photo caption in this piece originally misstated when the image was taken. The photo showed the Wesleyan football running off the field at halftime, not running onto the field.

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