Putting the Student First: The Ivy League Approach to Sports

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Updated: April 7, 2015

In the spring of 1999, Sarah Herskee Wattenberg faced a rather difficult decision. While the dilemma over choosing which school to continue her track and field career at was certainly not a bad problem to have, it was a predicament nonetheless. In the end, Wattenberg, with support from family and friends, chose Cornell, figuring that the Big Red would provide her with the ideal combination of top-notch academics and a stellar athletic program. Yet despite her appreciation for Cornell’s harmony between school and sport, Wattenberg struggled finding her own balance freshman year.

Years later, Wattenberg realized that it was not Cornell that resulted in her challenging transition, but rather just the normal pressures that come with being a freshman. “I think that being a freshman anywhere is difficult, as it is a time of learning to navigate, and honing in on time management skills,” Wattenberg reflected.

With her first few semesters behind her, however, the star thrower adjusted to life on the hill, excelling in her final three years at Cornell, both on the field and in the classroom. After graduating in 2003, Wattenberg left Ithaca to continue her studies at graduate school in Tennessee.  Yet she felt so at home at Cornell that in the summer of ’05, Wattenberg returned, continuing to propel the track and field team, but this time, as an athletic trainer. Since 2012, Wattenberg has served as the Andrew ’78 and Margaret Paul Assistant Director of Athletics for Student Services at Cornell. Having fulfilled her goal of benefitting from both an Ivy League education and Big Red athletic career, it is quite fitting that in her current role, Wattenberg helps student-athletes strike the right balance between their two focal points.

In the undergraduates she works with, Wattenberg sees the same passion that brought her to the hill when she was a teenager, “they are competing because they want to be here, because they want to be surrounded by like-minded competitive people, and because they want to play for a school that understands their greater ambitions.” And as the director quickly discovered, no conference in the nation does more to prepare its student-athletes than the Ivy League.

It is widely known that the Ivy League, as a matter of policy, prohibits the offering of athletic scholarships. What is often forgotten in the Ivy scholarship conversation, however, is that the League also doesn’t hand out academic grants. As Robin Harris, the Executive Director of the Ivy League, points out, the League does not offer merit-based scholarships at all, as it takes the stance that “all students should be treated equally, regardless of academic or athletic ability.”

Harris stresses that “while athletes have the ability to receive need-based financial aid,” Harris says, “they are not given special consideration.”

This understanding is crucial: prospective student-athletes are not choosing Ivy League schools because of scholarship opportunities. Instead, as Harris suggests, many of them set their sights on one of the League’s eight universities for “the Ivy League degree, and the experience that can result in lifelong success.”

Perhaps no one can better speak to the benefits of the Ivy League program than Sarah Wattenberg, who largely echoed Harris’s sentiments. “While Cornell can’t offer prospective students athletic scholarships, the university can provide an exciting adventure and the ability to position student-athletes to excel in their careers.” And for Cornell students, that opportunity alone is more than enough.

Once at school, Ivy League athletes, though the college transition is undoubtedly difficult, perhaps have an easier time navigating through their seasons than their NCAA competitors. As Harris notes, “in general, the Ivy League has shorter practice requirements and shorter seasons that the rest of the NCAA.” By employing more limitations in the off-season, and scheduling the majority of games, matches, and meets on the weekend, the Ivy League tries to provide its athletes with the best opportunities to enjoy the same success academically as they do in their sport.

At Cornell, the university maintains a strict policy prohibiting any classes between 4:30 PM and 7:30 PM. Not only does this approach benefit athletes, but it really aids all students involved in extracurricular activities. This way, student-athletes are not building their semester schedules around practice commitments. Wattenberg is particularly proud of this initiative, affirming that “no athlete is ever asked to miss class for practice, and that is something very unique to Cornell.”

Inevitably, with 33 officially recognized Varsity sports, the Ivy League does have to schedule some weekday competitions for its schools. Yet even then, the League does its best to ensure that those games during the week are home, after class, and against a local opponent. As Wattenberg can attest to, “the Ivy League’s student-athletes are truly student-athletes; not just students, and definitely not just athletes.”

Largely because of its strict no-scholarship policy and efforts to support the academic careers of its student-athletes, some critics plainly dismiss Ivy League athletics as inferior to most Division I schools. To those pundits, Director Robin Harris would politely ask that they review their collegiate sports history. After all, a quick look at recent Cornell athletic accomplishments would immediately suggest otherwise. The Big Red’s Kyle Dake is the first wrestler ever in NCAA history to win 4 titles in 4 different weight classes. In 2010, Cornell Men’s Basketball made a dramatic run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Men’s Lacrosse boasts three national championships, and a second-place NCAA finish as recently as 2009.

A survey of the rest of the Ivy League would yield similar results. In 2013, Yale Men’s Ice Hockey clinched the national championship after easily defeating Quinnipiac by four goals in the closing game. Just this year, the women of Princeton went undefeated in a historic basketball season, finally falling to Maryland in the Tournament’s second round. And lastly, the Harvard-Yale football rivalry is perhaps the most distinguished clash of any in the game’s collegiate history. “Such national fame,” Harris contends, “serves to prove how effective the model can be.” And hey, it’s pretty hard to argue with success.

Halfway through his six-hour spacewalk to perform construction on the International Space Station, astronaut Ed Lu was losing focus. It was hard enough not to tire out from hours of walking in a park, let alone moving through space. Yet despite the daunting task that awaited him, Lu wasn’t worried. He had faced plenty of adversity in his life, and the last three hours of his journey were hardly a concern. After all, Lu had wrestled at Cornell. If he could push through a Big Red wrestling practice, then surely he could make it to the Station. Lu, a veteran of two Space Shuttle missions, is now the CEO of the B612 Foundation, an organization committed to protecting the Earth from asteroid strikes.

There is no shortage of other Ivy-League student-athlete success stories. Cornell, just one of the League’s eight schools, boasts alumni in all professional fields, ranging from Bruce Arena (former coach of the U.S. men’s soccer team) to John Paxton (a lacrosse player at Cornell who went on to become the assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps). Today, many families stress over the value of the schooling their children are receiving. For the price of tuition, parents of student-athletes want to affirmation that their kids are also getting the most out of their education. Well, parents of student-athletes headed to Ivy institutions can rest assured. If anyone understands what is really important in the college experience, it’s people like Sarah Wattenberg and Robin Harris. They get it, and as a result, so does the Ivy League.

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