The Country Club Sports of the Ivy League

Dartmouth College recently eliminated several athletic teams.

There’s a fantastic piece out in The Atlantic on niche sports — sports like squash, crew, fencing, water polo, swimming and diving, and golf — and the lengths affluent parents of high schoolers who compete in these sports will go to try to get their children on the radar of college coaches. As Ruth S. Barrett so eloquently writes in her piece so aptly entitled “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents,” “The stampede of the affluent into grim-faced, highly competitive sports has been a tragicomedy of perverse incentives.” We couldn’t agree more: it’s a tragicomedy. So where do we stand on the issue of our nation’s elite colleges offering preferential treatment — through the earmarking of recruiting slots in admissions — to athletes who compete in these fancy sports all as these same colleges espouse the importance of racial and socio-economic diversity in their student bodies? Wonder no more.

Country Club Sports Aren’t Revenue Generators for Universities

We believe certain sports are important to universities. Sports like basketball and football inspire passion. They bring a student body together. They motivate the alumni base. They trigger alumni donations. But let’s be real. Squash, golf, water polo, crew, and other country club sports don’t exactly bring a college community together. And we should know. We competed in country club sports at an Ivy League school. We played water polo for four years and swam for a year at Dartmouth — and what a fantastic experience it was that gave us so many wonderful, lifelong friends. But does that justify Ivy League and other highly selective colleges continuing to reserve slots in admissions for recruited athletes in these privileged sports…sports that could otherwise be available to underrepresented minorities, low-income students, and first-generation college students?

We’ve Been Too Wishy-Washy on Country Club Sports at the Ivies

No, it’s time to end this nonsense. As Barrett writes, “The Gold Coast of Connecticut pumps more athletic recruits into Ivy League schools than any other region in the nation.” And that’s ridiculous. Enough is enough. The fact is, we’ve been wishy-washy on this topic. Maybe it’s because we competed in such sports. Maybe it’s because some of our very good friends are pushing so hard to reinstate the recently eliminated Dartmouth swimming and diving program. But, please, there are more serious issues in our world today than reinstating an Ivy League athletic team — racial justice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the upcoming presidential election for starters.

Too Many Slots in Admissions Are Earmarked for Country Club Sports

So while we fully acknowledge we’ve been wishy-washy on this topic, we hereby call for the elimination of recruiting slots in Ivy League admissions for all such country club sports. And, yes, that includes lacrosse, people. There are just too many slots reserved in the admissions process for these fancy sports that cater to the privileged. And until organizations like USA Swimming and their peer governing organizations increase the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of their respective sports, they — deservedly — risk becoming dinosaurs.

The Hypocrisy of Espousing Diversity and Keeping Lacrosse and Sailing Teams

But don’t think we’re patting schools like Brown and Dartmouth on the backs for recently announcing the elimination of certain country club sports. And why? Because they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths. In announcing the elimination of sports like swimming and diving and golf, Dartmouth stated that the decision wasn’t only financial — it was also in the interest of diversity. Yet so long as Dartmouth fields a lacrosse team and a squash team and a ski team and heavyweight crew team and a sailing team and a tennis team, they just aren’t telling it like it is. Either eliminate them all and make them club sports or eliminate none. There’s no middle ground here if an institution truly values diversity. As Barrett writes, “The ‘optics’ of ‘country-club staples’ such as squash and golf help explain why these sports got slashed. ‘At a time when racial justice and diversity have become a more open national conversation,’ [Wall Street Journal reporter Melissa] Korn wrote, ‘the sports being eliminated are the ones that tend to draw overwhelmingly white, often wealthy players.'” True statement.


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  • Treloar says:

    This is coming from a family who has absolutely no skin in the game when it comes to country club sports, but don’t underrepresented minorities, low-income students, and first-generation college students already have spots reserved for them if they are hard-working? Achievement in water polo or any sport is something that should be recognized as worthy of elite college admission. Do the spots elite college’s reserve for country club sports far outweigh the spots they reserve for underrepresented minorities, low-income students, and first-generation college students?

    • Ivy Coach says:

      This is coming from a college swimmer and water polo player. While it’s true that highly selective colleges covet underrepresented minority students, low-income students, first-generation college students, there aren’t reserved slots for them per se. But we take your point. However, until these sports become more diverse, it’s a rather simple way to filter racial inequality out of the admissions process.

  • Paul Green says:

    This coming from someone who reads:

    The Atlantic Retracts Ruth Shalit Barrett Article on Niche Sports

  • Sarah Smith says:

    It’s fascinating to learn more about country club sports. I didn’t realize that sports include lacrosse. This makes me wonder how clubs are able to keep everything in good condition.

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