Adam Fox has decided to finish out his education and college hockey career at Harvard University, effectively opting out of signing an early entry-level deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. In addition to being Ivy-League educated, the young defensemen has been widely considered to be the best in his position of all players outside of the NHL; plainly put, his stats speak for themselves.
Chances are the person who comes to mind is a football or basketball player at a powerhouse Division I school like Louisiana State University or the University of Kentucky. Maybe the player resembles, say, Joel Embiid, who turned a chiseled, 7-foot frame into a full-ride scholarship at the University of Kansas before ascending to NBA stardom.
But the typical student athlete more often plays a less blockbuster sport—lacrosse, maybe, or tennis—and in many cases comes from a well-to-do family that has shelled out thousands and thousands of dollars over the years to nurture a budding athletic talent.
The most visible college athletes—the ones running across bar-TV screens or in full-color photographs on newspaper sports pages—tend to be black. Indeed, college football and basketball players skew disproportionately African American.
All applicants to Harvard are ranked on a scale of one to six based on their academic qualifications, and athletes who scored a four were accepted at a rate of about 70 percent.
Yet the admit rate for nonathletes with the same score was 0. Similarly, 83 percent of athletes with a top academic score got an acceptance letter, compared with 16 percent of nonathletes.
Legacy admissions policies get a lot of flak for privileging white applicants, but athletes have a much bigger effect on admissions, and make up a much bigger percentage of the class. Read: What the Harvard trial is really about Put another way, college sports at elite schools are a quiet sort of affirmative action for affluent white kids, and play a big role in keeping these institutions so stubbornly white and affluent.
When it comes to college athletics, football and basketball command the most public attention, but in the background is a phalanx of lower-profile sports favored by white kids, which often cost a small fortune for a student participating at a top level.
Eighty-five percent of college lacrosse players were white, as well as 90 percent of ice-hockey players.
And the cost of playing these sports can be sky high. Kids from low-income families participate in youth sports at almost half the rate of affluent families, according to a report from the Aspen Institute. But there are other, more veiled factors that may also boost the numbers of white college athletes.
Michele Hernandez Bayliss, a private college counselor and a former assistant admissions dean at Dartmouth College, walked me through the process: Over the summer, coaches compile lists of the athletes they want, which they then share with the admissions office.
In a recently published study in the Harvard Educational Review, Hextrum interviewed 47 athletes at an unnamed elite, Division I college about how they earned a coveted spot at the university.
Yet, according to the NCAA , at all but 20 colleges, athletics programs lose more money than they make. That raises a baffling question: Why are colleges willing to lower their admissions standards to recruit the best athletes when their expensive sports programs are unlikely to return the investment?
Read: The March Madness application bump Incidental marketing aside, sports can also make a college seem more attractive to its students.
Part of it is the power of tradition: For more than a century, colleges—starting with elite schools in the Northeast—have fixated on physical activity and sports as a way to mold young, impressionable students to their making.
And, still, colleges need to field a minimum number of sports to join a particular conference, such as the Ivy League, which prevents them from putting all their cards on the table for high-profile sports exclusively.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic. Saahil Desai is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers politics and policy.