Race and Dartmouth athletics

by Evan Morgan | 5/22/16 6:21pm


In 1925, the Dartmouth football team won its sole national title behind the strong arm of halfback Andrew “Swede” Oberlander. In a black-and-white team photo, the Big Green squad looks just as one would expect of a team from that era: burly, serious and entirely white.

In 2007, the ski team won the College its third national crown. A photo taken at the trophy presentation shows the difference 82 years makes. The team is smiling, and half its members are women. Stoic poses of yesteryear have given way to jubilant gestures. And yet this team too appears all white.

The intervening years saw Dartmouth change dramatically. The College erected Baker Library in 1928, embraced coeducation in 1972 and swelled its endowment from millions to billions. The 2006-2007 academic year was the first in which at least 30 percent of the student body were students of color. But that best-in-the-nation ski team gave no hint of that.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Dartmouth struggled to diversify its student-athlete population. Two Athletic Department Self-Studies from 1996 and 2004 — required every 10 years by the NCAA before the process was discontinued — reveal the difficulty of attracting minority athletes to Hanover.

The 1996 Self-Study identified athletic diversity as an area of concern. At the time, the report said students of color made up 23.1 percent of the student body but just 8.3 percent of intercollegiate athletes. The Self-Study committee submitted a “Plan for Ongoing Commitment to Minority Opportunities in Athletics” in an effort to reduce the disparity.

By the athletic department’s own account, the plan was not successful. Eight years later, in the next self-study, diversity in the student body had risen 7 percentage points to more than 30 percent. Meanwhile, the figure for student-athletes increased only 1.5 percent.

The report, produced by a committee of students, coaches and administrators, was forthright about Dartmouth’s difficulty bringing minority athletes to Hanover. In spite of “good will” and good intentions, the report said the number of “applications from recruited student-athletes of color have been as low as 17 and never higher than 40 during the past eight-year period.” The report asked, “If minority students are attending Dartmouth predominantly as scholars is that really such a bad thing?”

A Commitment to Diversity

Dartmouth administrators and coaches answered in the affirmative. In 1996, Dean of the College Lee Pelton appointed a Committee on the Recruitment of Minority Student-Athletes to examine the issue of underrepresentation. The committee concluded that it was “less than sanguine” about the lack of diversity.

First and foremost, athletics was a missed opportunity to further the College’s goal of increasing minority representation. Intercollegiate teams are perhaps Dartmouth’s most public face, and for all of the 20th century, that face had been mostly white. Because sports are “the most consistent way” Dartmouth comes together as a community, according to the committee, the racial makeup of the College’s sports teams is “a very powerful symbol about who we are, and who we are not.”

Furthermore, the committee decided, if Dartmouth was truly committed to experiential learning, athletic diversity would be a priority. When students take ideas out of the classroom and into their lives, sports are a crucial laboratory in which “ideas about identity, community and citizenship may be tested.” The 2004 Self-Study concluded that diverse teams lead to conversation across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines — key to a multicultural education.

Classics professor Paul Christesen — author of “Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds” and a supervising professor at the International Olympic Academy in Greece — said that a lack of diversity can have insidious side effects.

“As soon as we have two groups, one of which consists of largely people of color and one of which doesn’t, one group is going to be more privileged than the other,” Christesen said. “That not only runs contrary to the ideal which we’re trying to live up to, but also perpetuates inequalities, and on a small campus like Dartmouth, it’s certainly going to create resentments.”

When asked why athletic diversity remains important today, baseball head coach Bob Whalen was more blunt.

“Because [diversity is a part of] real life,” Whalen said.

If athletic diversity is such a virtue, what had been holding the program back?

Dartmouth’s Disadvantages

Academic Index

Back in the 1990s, when the committee on minority recruitment was convened, coaches reserved the most frustration for the requirements imposed by the Ivy League. Namely, they chafed at a metric known as the Academic Index.

The AI emerged in 1985, a product of balancing act between the Ivy League’s elite academic reputation and its status as a competitive Division I athletic league. It ensures a minimum standard of academic excellence across the league by assigning each recruit an index from roughly 170 to 240. That index is determined by a combination of high school GPA and standardized test scores, and the Ivy League uses it to control the student-athletes who enter the Ancient Eight. No admitted athlete should have an AI below the universal floor, which has risen from 169 in the late 1990s to 176 in 2011. In addition, the average AI of an Ivy League athletic program must fall within one standard deviation of the average AI of its student body. This ensures that the two groups can be statistically considered part of the same population. In practice at Dartmouth, the Athletic Department gives each sport a hard-and-fast AI average for each incoming class. Coaches must select a group of players which can both play at a Division I level and help them meet or exceed their determined AI threshold.

The coaches the 1999 committee spoke with felt that disadvantages of the AI fell disproportionately on Dartmouth. “Schools with the most stringent AI requirements (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton [Universities]) traditionally had the highest yield on their athletic offers.” But as the Ivy League became more competitive, Dartmouth now had “an academic profile approaching that of the other schools without the commensurate ability to attract students.”

The committee appeared to carefully tread around an unspoken fact: minority student athletes were disadvantaged by the AI because they tended to have lower test scores. In 1998, contemporaneous with the committee, the book “The Black-White Test Score Gap” detailed the significant racial divides in standardized test scores. The authors found that the average African-American student scored below 75 percent of the white student population. The book also pointed out achievement gaps with Hispanic and Native American students.

Psychologists, the book said, agreed that so-called intelligence tests really measure developed abilities. Therefore, test results are influenced by environment and thus “constitute a racially biased estimate of innate ability.” Predictably, in the 1999 report from the Committee on Recruitment of Minority Student-Athletes, Dartmouth coaches felt that standardized tests were racially biased and that the AI was a poor predictor of college success.


Location, the coaches said in 1999, was a key deterrent, especially to athletes of color. “All things considered, most minority students would prefer to be in Philadelphia or some other urban area,” the report stated. Dartmouth at the time harbored a reputation that could be exploited by other coaches. Potential recruits of color were often told by competing coaches that Dartmouth was “a white school located in the predominantly white portion of the country… repeated phone calls of this kind inevitably have their effect.”

Women’s track and field coach Sandy Ford-Centonze has been with Dartmouth since the early 1990s and was involved in writing the 1999 report on minority athlete recruitment. She described the decision process of a potential recruit coming to Dartmouth: “An 18-year-old may all of a sudden have to handle ‘Well, I don’t even know whether there’s a barber who can cut my hair,’ or ‘Is there a Baptist church like the church that I’m used to.’”

The lack of a visible presence of student-athletes of color on campus exacerbated stereotypes about Dartmouth, even as diversity in the student body was on the rise. The problem perpetuated itself, making it even more difficult to convince talented minority athletes to choose Dartmouth over programs like Harvard or Yale.

Critical Mass

At some point in the early 2000s, Dartmouth turned a corner. According to athletic department records, the fraction of athletes of color climbed from 9.8 percent in 2004 to 17.0 percent in the 2008-2009 school year. And today, that figure stands at 28.7 percent. After the large majority of white athletes, at 71.3 percent, 8.0 percent of athletes are black or African-American, while 7.9 percent are Asian or Asian-American. Hispanic athletes make up 5.1 percent of the total, Native Americans account for 1.7 percent, and 5.0 percent of athletes identified with the category “Other.”

Diversity in athletics has even outpaced diversity in the student body at large. The Common Data Set, published annually since 2003, allows a comparison between diversity in the student body and diversity in athletics. Discrepancies in survey methods mean that the comparison is not exact — the Common Data Set does not record data for students in the categories “Nonresident aliens” and “Race/ethnicity unknown,” while the Athletic Department data has an ambiguous “Other” category. But it is a reasonable approximation.

Between the 2003-2004 and 2008-2009 school year, when student-athletes of color increased by 7.2 percentage points, diversity in the student body ticked up by 4.3 percentage points. And from that year to the present, the share of students of color increased 5.5 percentage points, while the student-athlete subset made progress at nearly double that clip.

Neither the admissions office nor the athletic department associated any active policy changes with the rise in student-athletes of color. Director of Admissions Paul Sunde said, “We have raised the profile of Dartmouth athletics and athletes, including students of color, in our general recruitment materials, and we play a supportive role in the recruitment of promising potential student-athletes of color.”

Coaches said that diversity is important in the athletic department, but they stressed that their primary commitment is finding success on the playing field. Winning is the basis for longevity, promotion and future job prospects. Diversity may be an institutional goal, but ultimately, “What they’re asking us to do is put winning teams on the field and graduate players,” Whalen said. Therefore, in the recruiting process, a coach finds the best players possible and “plugs in guys that fit the need,” according to head football coach Buddy Teevens ’79. Jim Lyons, Teevens’s predecessor, put it more colorfully: “I don’t care if they’re white or black or purple. I mean, I’ve got to find some guys who can play and I can get to come here.”

Deputy athletic director Bob Ceplikas ’78 said the incremental gains in diversity in the late 1990s and early 2000s laid the foundation for the large jump the program has experienced since.

“One of the things we’ve certainly learned is if you don’t already have a critical mass of minority students on a given team, it’s more challenging to recruit additional minority students to that team,” Ceplikas said. “So in some ways, you have to crawl before you can walk and then walk before you can run in terms of making a significant impact on the percentages of students of color.”

The increased presence of student-athletes of color has allowed the College to attract talented athletes that might otherwise have looked elsewhere.

“Students of course will go on our website, they’ll look at photos of the current team, they’ll come here on a visit, they’ll meet student-athletes on the current team… it’s much more effective if what they’re seeing is a more diverse environment,” Ceplikas said.

He cited the football team as a product of that win-win situation which has resulted. Between 1996 and 2004, football matriculated a high of five athletes of color in 2002 and a low of just two in 1999. Today, Teevens leads a program of 129 athletes, 43 percent of whom are students of color.

“I think one of the reasons we’re Ivy League champions right now is because Dartmouth football raised its profile, not only in terms of being a more competitive team that prospects want to be a part of, but a more diverse team that a wider range of students felt comfortable joining,” Ceplikas said.

Identity and Class

But the increase in diversity has not affected all sports equally. Skiing, for example — winners of that 2007 national championship — remains heavily white. On the men’s side, 29 skiers identified as white, three as Hispanic, one as Asian and one as “Other.” The women’s team has 28 white skiers and one who identified as Native American.

Other sports in which whites were overrepresented relative to all Dartmouth athletes included equestrian, sailing, squash and lacrosse, among several others.

Why this particular mix of sports? The answer to this sociological question has two parts.

The first lies in a concept called social identity theory. This is the generalized notion that once you join a group, you develop a sense of who you are based on that group membership.

“There are certainly behavioral patterns associated with the group, and you are much more likely to manifest those behavioral patterns because you’re a member of the group, and membership in that group becomes a key part of your identity,” Christesen explained.

By birth, we take on membership in racial groups which have distinct identities predefined for us. Racial socialization is a process related to social identity theory which comprises all the various ways in which our culture communicates what race is and ought to be. Through family, media and a myriad of other sources, members of each racial group learn what sports they are expected to play and which sports are effectively off-limits.

This leads to continued participation in those expected sports. “When people are given the choice to select into things, they tend to select into things they feel comfortable and accepted in,” Christesen said.

“[Once you join a sport,] the identity that comes with the sport is more likely to align with your own,” Christesen continued. “Once you’re a member of the team, you start to think that way. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and once you start playing a particular sport, that identity gets reinforced more.”

In this way, the sports which we consider as “white sports” or “black sports” remain that way because of their attached meaning.

The late philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had a second related answer in a 1978 essay titled “Sport and social class,” dividing sports into two broadly construed groups: “bourgeois” sports and the “common” sports. According to Bourdieu, athletes are distributed among the particular sports based on these roles and preferences dictated by social class. But in order to participate in sports, Bourdieu theorized, people must also have the necessary “spare time, economic capital, and cultural capital.” In order to play golf, for example, an individual must not only have access to clubs and a golf course, but also must dress appropriately and know how to behave on a country club fairway.

Tennis, contended Bourdieu, is an excellent example of a “bourgeois” sport. It requires spare time and economic capital to pay for racquets and course privileges. It molds the healthy (but not overly muscled) body sought by the bourgeois. Most importantly, playing tennis is a way to increase social distinction according to the “aristocratic ideology of sport as disinterested, gratuitous activity.”

Basketball, in contrast, is one of Bourdieu’s “common” working-class sports. Like the other “common” sports, basketball is characterized by popularization, physicality, endurance and the exaltation of competition. Basketball produces outward signs of strength, requires considerable effort, and can be violent, entailing what Bourdieu calls “gambling with the body.” In addition, basketball is largely free, as long as you have two hoops and a ball.

America and Dartmouth

Here is where race reenters the picture. The uncomfortable truth is that in America, the Venn diagrams of race and social class align closely.

“In the United States, historically, social class has been tied to skin color,” Christesen said. “It’s not uniformly true in every case, but broadly construed, people of color tend to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. In some societies, socioeconomic status and skin color have nothing to do with each other, but since that’s the way it works in the United States, the issue then becomes that when we’re talking about race in sports, inevitably the issues of socioeconomic status get pulled in.”

Thus, people of color in the United States tend to play sports along racial lines which are reinforced by racial socialization and descend from social class.

Jeff Orleans, the former executive director of the Ivy League, laid this bare in a 2007 interview with The Harvard Crimson. There are “two kinds of sports,” he said. Some sports have significant numbers of minority athletes; others do not.

When asked about the perceived divide, Ceplikas said he would model sports as a spectrum.

“There are obviously some sports that have a lot higher percentage of minority participation, both nationally and here, but then it kind of moves down gradually,” Ceplikas said.

Ford-Centonze echoed Orleans’ statement, noting that many of the sports which are tied to social class are less common in public schools — if they exist at all.

“It’s what is available and some of the sports that maybe some people would call the ‘white’ sports aren’t sports that are available to a lot of people, minority or non-minority,” she said.

The Committee on Minority Recruitment recognized this reality in 1999.

“Some sports are so thoroughly inflected by a class component,” the committee wrote, “that there cannot be any reasonable expectation of regularly attracting minority athletes.”

The committee singled out a few sports as heavily class-based: tennis, rowing, squash, lacrosse, golf and skiing. Bourdieu’s “Sport and social class” contended that sailing and equestrian are similarly affected. This means that across men’s, women’s and coed sports, participation in least 17 of Dartmouth’s 35 varsity sports is significantly affected by class.

Because teams are made up of just four years of recruits whose composition can vary from year to year, Ceplikas cautioned against drawing overly specific conclusions about any particular sports. However, general trends can be discerned from statistics released to The Dartmouth by the Athletic Department which detail the racial composition of every intercollegiate sport.

Unsurprisingly, many of teams expected to be heavily class-based are the same ones which are disproportionately white. Two Dartmouth teams are entirely white: men’s squash and women’s lacrosse. The coed sailing team has 24 white athletes and four athletes of color. Men’s lacrosse is made up of 39 white men and seven men of color.

Taken generally, the statistics show a clear story: athletes of color are gaining greater purchase in Dartmouth sports, even as racial divides between sports persist. In 2008-2009, 17 percent of Dartmouth varsity student-athletes were non-white. In 2015-2016, the number is 28.7 percent.

Ongoing Commitment

Ford-Centonze has relished the changes in recent years.

“I definitely see a difference. I see that the landscape has changed. But I think we all want it to change a little bit more, to be a little bit of a greater presence, and I think it will get there,” she said.

As for how the department will get there, different voices offered different perspectives. Ceplikas highlighted the need to temper optimism with realism.

“We’re obviously committed to strive to increase diversity, but we’re conscious that each sport has its own unique prospect pool,” he said. “We’re trying hard to be still making strides in this area, but using a realistic measuring stick in each sport.”

This was a theme when talking to coaches: each sport is limited by its pool of qualified student-athletes.

“I can’t create the [player] pool for myself,” Whalen said.

This comes as the percentage of black players in Major League Baseball remained static at 8 percent, according to a USA Today analysis, down from 18.7 percent in 1981. Coaches feel a lack of control over these sociological factors that influence particular athletes to play particular sports.

Coaches and administrators were generally confident that the barriers identified by the 1999 Committee on the Recruitment of Minority Student-Athletes — economic hurdles, the AI, Dartmouth’s location and reputation — have decreased since the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In many sports, being a high-profile athlete carries a hefty price tag from expenses like equipment, camps, travel teams and training, meaning that the high schools most likely to stand out have wealthier backgrounds. Need-blind aid and the College’s increased financial aid capacity have helped to alleviate some of the competition for recruits from scholarship schools.

Ford-Centonze has her own reservations about the accuracy of the AI, but the metric is now generally acknowledged to be a necessary regulation. In the early years of the AI, Ceplikas said, when Dartmouth had a much smaller portion of minority athletes on its teams, coaches wished for more latitude with the AI simply because it was more difficult to convince those talented minority prospects to make visits.

“Now that we have a much larger cohort of minority athletes on our teams, the AI is much less of an issue,” Ceplikas continued.

As for Dartmouth’s reputation, there were mixed thoughts. Whalen said that recent incidents, such as the controversy over Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority’s Derby party which changed its name to Woodstock this term, can turn away potential recruits of color, citing two examples of students in recent years who have looked elsewhere because of negative headlines about Dartmouth’s campus climate. Ford-Centonze, meanwhile, believes Dartmouth’s “white” reputation has diminished over the years.

She has found the College’s rural location to be the biggest sticking point with recruits of color. To assist with further efforts to attract student-athletes of color, Ford-Centonze stressed the need for open dialogue, saying that Dartmouth needs to address “even the little things, not just the major things, because the little things” — like barbers and churches — “matter too.”

But as more and more students and student-athletes of color come to Hanover, Dartmouth should find it easier to attract more diverse recruits.

“When you see somebody who’s like you, all of a sudden things look pretty good, and it’s not so tough,” Ford-Centonze said.

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