The Cult of Rich-Kid Sports

A new paper provides stark evidence that Harvard gives preferential treatment to affluent white applicants through legacy preferences and sports recruitment.

A water-polo match
Todd Warshaw / Getty

On Tuesday, a federal judge held that Harvard’s admissions policy does not violate the Civil Rights Act. In the ruling, which could be overturned on appeal, the judge rejected claims that the university broke the law by creating a higher standard for Asian American applicants.

But a new paper by several economists, including one directly involved in the trial, provides stark evidence that Harvard does give preferential treatment to affluent white applicants through legacy preferences and sports recruitment.

The researchers found that between 2009 and 2014, more than 40 percent of accepted white students were ALDC—athletes, legacies, “dean’s list” (meaning related to donors), or the children of faculty. Without such preferences, they said, three-quarters of those white students would have been rejected.

The study’s lead author, the Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono, was an expert witness against Harvard in a lawsuit accusing the university of discriminating against Asian applicants. The paper is based on data obtained during the trial.

The findings offer a grab bag for public indignation. You could get angry about the pernicious effect of legacy programs, which reproduce privilege at schools that publicly advertise themselves as crusaders for the poor. Or you could get angry about the dean’s list, which allows some of the richest people in the world to punch a ticket for their undeserving children with an eight-figure donation.

But the most important takeaway from the paper is a phenomenon that is bigger than this lawsuit, bigger than Harvard, and bigger than college education, altogether. It is the American scam of rich-kid sports.

What are rich-kid sports?

At a time when youth sport participation is stratifying by income, one could argue that even soccer fields have become the domain of the upper-middle class and above. But true rich-kid sports include water polo, squash, crew, lacrosse, and skiing. One does not simply fall into the river and come out a water-polo star, and no downhill-slalom champions casually roam the halls of low-income high schools. These sports often require formal training, expensive equipment, and upscale facilities. No wonder they are dominated by affluent young players.

While there is nothing morally wrong with enjoying a game of catch in a pool, participation in these activities has come to play a subtle, yet ludicrously powerful, role in the reproduction of elite status in the United States.

At Harvard, nearly 1,200 undergraduates—or 20 percent of the student body— participate in intercollegiate athletics. That’s more student athletes than Ohio State University, whose total undergraduate enrollment of 46,000 is nearly seven times larger.

Early in the Harvard admissions process, recruited athletes receive special treatment. Most of the school’s 42 sports have liaisons that relay the coach’s preferences for incoming athletes to the admissions department. Nearly 90 percent of recruited athletes gain admission to Harvard, versus about 6 percent of applicants overall. These athletes make up less than 1 percent of Harvard’s applicant pool but more than 10 percent of its admitted class. (The other 10 percent of Harvard’s players are walk-ons who likely have also benefited from high athletic ratings in the admissions process.)

It would be one thing if Harvard were giving a leg up to students who might not otherwise afford an education. But Harvard does not offer athletic scholarships. Its athletes tend to be neither promising low-income stalwarts, nor superstars with a chance of going pro. Sports recruitment, it would seem, is not about academics, or equality of opportunity, but about money; it functions as affirmative action for white affluence.

Across the Ivy League, many teams are whiter (and richer) than the rest of their class. Black and Hispanic students account for less than 10 percent of Ivy athletes in baseball, cross country, fencing, field hockey, golf, ice hockey, lacrosse, rowing, sailing, skiing, softball, squash, tennis, volleyball, water polo, and wrestling. In the 2017-18 year, about 700 Ivy League athletes participated in rowing and lacrosse; fewer than 30 were black, according to NCAA data.

At Harvard, these athletes tend to come from high-income families. According to a Harvard Crimson survey, families of recruited athletes are twice as likely as non-recruits to come from families earning more than $500,000 than from families earning less than $80,000. Recruited athletes are also slightly whiter—and slightly less Asian American—than legacy admits or donors’ children, according to data gathered for the Arcidiacono paper. In fact, recruited athletes at Harvard are almost twice as likely to be white, and one-third as likely to be Asian, as all non-ALDC admits.

If these numbers make it sound like Harvard’s—and the Ivy League’s—fancy-sport recruitment strategy is a shell game for maximizing the population of rich students who will pay the full ticket price of admission, Paul Tough would agree. The author of an excellent new book on college, The Years That Matter Most, Tough explains that the affluent-athlete hustle is widespread in higher education, especially at smaller schools struggling to stay afloat.

Tough takes a particularly close look at Trinity College. Like Harvard, Trinity doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. But its coaches similarly have influence over the admissions process. Each fall, Trinity’s athletic department provides the admissions director with a wish list of students, who tend to receive early admission. Of the 300 students accepted early in 2017 to Trinity, about half were athletes.

Once again, which sport matters. Trinity seeks players from sports that are rare in low-income public schools, Tough writes, such as field hockey, lacrosse, rowing, and squash.

The power of fancy sports doesn’t stop at the college level. It plays a shockingly large role in determining the sort of people who get hired in America’s elite professional-services industry—law firms, investment banks, and consultancies.

In her 2015 book Pedigree, the Northwestern sociologist Lauren A. Rivera asked what elite employers were looking for from potential hires. She found the answer came down to three simple words: Ivy League sports.

Elite firms based their entry-level hiring decisions on two things, Rivera wrote. First they screened for the “best” universities, harvesting the senior crops of schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton. Second, they scrutinized candidates’ extracurricular activities, especially the sports they played in high school and college.

As you might have guessed, playing any sport wasn’t good enough. Recruiters strongly preferred candidates who played “hockey, tennis, squash, or crew”—rare and exclusive sports, whose rarity and exclusion was precisely the point. “You will never find a squash player in a public school in Detroit,“ one banker told her. “To them, squash is a vegetable." In elite firms, filtering for fancy sports allowed high-status adults to hire their socioeconomic clones without having to ask the rude question: “So, kid, is your family rich like mine, or no?”

The fancy-sport charade coaches the upper class and those who wish to join them that all leisure should be pursued and mastered, as if it were a job. The gospel of work has expanded to fill so much of the world that even recreational downtime—mindless hours spent golfing with friends, playing tennis, throwing a baseball with your dad—is no longer an escape from careerism, but rather crucial proof of one’s careerist potential. This is a picture of a rat race so all-consuming that no moment of life is too small for the résumé.

And for what? The hoarding of economic opportunity. Affluent parents, elite colleges, and elite firms are participants in a vast machine for replicating privilege. Rich parents coach their children to become fluent in a secret language of code words—sculling, cradling, state squash tournament—whose utterances may, years later, open the very gates of privilege through which the parents themselves once passed. Elite status is thus carried on, generation to generation, through the maintenance of a particular social language: the code of fancy sports.