Ethical College Admissions: The Mad World of Niche Sports

A flawed article points to some hard truths about photoshopping versus being who you are, writes Jim Jump.

November 16, 2020
Fat Camera/Getty Images

This month’s print edition of The Atlantic contains a controversial article with an intriguing title: “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents.” “Controversial” probably describes the article on several fronts, but primary among them is that The Atlantic has retracted the article on grounds that “it is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article.” Accuracy would seem to be desirable when it comes to magazine articles.

The narrative of the story focuses on the efforts of wealthy suburban Connecticut parents to use “niche” sports such as crew, fencing, ice hockey, lacrosse, sailing, squash and water polo as paths to admission to highly selective colleges and universities. The article alleges that billionaires have resorted to building Olympic-size hockey rinks in their backyards or hiring world-class squash players during the pandemic as live-in coaches to enhance their children’s chances of nabbing an admissions slot as a recruited athlete at an Ivy League or New England Small College Athletic Conference institution.

Investigative reporting by both Stefan Fatsis of Slate’s “Hang Up and Listen” podcast and Erik Wemple, media critic at The Washington Post, called into question some of the claims made in the article, and that ultimately led The Atlantic to conclude that its fact-checking process had been derailed by the article’s author, Ruth S. Barrett. The backstory is that Barrett is the married name of Ruth Shalit, who back in the 1990s was an associate editor at The New Republic until she was removed after examples of plagiarism and inaccurate reporting were discovered in her published work.

Questions about the veracity of the article originated with an anecdote that led off the piece. “Sloane, a buoyant, chatty, stay-at-home mom from Fairfield County” talks about her 12-year-old middle daughter getting stabbed in the jugular during a junior nationals fencing tournament in Columbus, Ohio, and questioning, “What are we doing to our family? We’re torturing our kids ridiculously” and continuing, “We’re using all out resources and emotional bandwidth for a fool’s folly.”

The near-death-from-fencing anecdote didn’t ring true to those in the fencing world, which led to attempts to verify the details in the story. One fencer in the daughter’s age group had withdrawn from the tournament, but no one recalled serious injury. Identifying the daughter led to identifying the family, including that “Sloane” is likely a pseudonym rather than a middle name, and that a son mentioned in the article is fictional. The account of a Fourth of July phone call between Sloane and her husband, both of whom were at separate sporting events with different daughters, may not have taken place as reported because the events were on different weekends. Upon questioning by Atlantic editors, Barrett admitted her complicity in the deception within the article.

Obviously Barrett’s article does not meet the requirements of good journalism, but does the fact that it may not be entirely factual mean that it is not truthful? I am in no way defending Barrett’s journalistic indiscretions, but "Ethical College Admissions" always looks for bigger issues, and there are two I want to consider from the article.

The most obvious is the role that athletic recruiting plays in admission at the nation’s most-selective colleges and universities. For all the discussion about race-based affirmative action and legacy preferences, the reality is that being an athlete is the best of all admission hooks to have.

That is true for two reasons. One is that a sizable percentage of admission slots at the Ivies and NESCAC colleges are reserved for, or at least occupied by, recruited athletes. Colleges in both conferences generally offer more varsity sports than most other colleges in their divisions. A 2019 article in The Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s student newspaper, reported that Princeton had 920 student athletes in 37 sports, compared with 640 in 22 sports at the University of Alabama.

The other is that recruited athletes receive competitive advantage in the admissions process. Last week the U.S. Appeals Court upheld a lower court ruling in Students for Fair Admissions' challenge of Harvard’s treatment of Asian American applicants, concluding that Harvard doesn’t discriminate against those applicants. One of the pieces of information that came out of discovery in the original case was that more than 80 percent of coach-recruited athletes are admitted, a figure substantially higher than the overall admit rate of 5 percent.

The complicating factor is that many of those Ivy athletes are white and wealthy. A 2018 Atlantic article reported that 65 percent of Ivy League athletes and 79 percent of NESCAC athletes are white, and further reported that nearly half of Harvard athletes in the Class of 2022 come from households with annual incomes above $250,000. The Daily Princetonian article referenced earlier examined where Ivy League athletes come from and found that the majority come from suburban households located along the I-95 corridor from Boston to Washington, stating that “Connecticut’s Gold Coast [the community at the center of Barrett’s article] had the highest concentration of any area in the U.S.”

Many of what Barrett refers to as “niche sports” are more commonly called “country club sports.” Do admission preferences for athletes in those sports constitute affirmative action for the white and privileged?

The parallels to race-based affirmative action are interesting. The argument presented by Students for Fair Admission in the Harvard case was that race functions not as a tiebreaker among comparable candidates but is rather a determinative quality. That is even more true for athletes. If Students for Fair Admission is truly concerned about the treatment of Asian American applicants, why doesn’t it file suit over athletic preferences?

The second issue comes from a quote in Barrett’s article. A woman, identified only as a “Darien parent,” claims that the fixation with athletics as a path to elite colleges is driven by “the penalty that comes from being from an advantaged ZIP code.” She justifies that by stating, “Being who you are is not enough.”

Ignoring the claim that those from advantaged ZIP codes are thereby disadvantaged, I am fascinated and troubled by the idea that being who you are is not enough when it comes to college admission. Where does that come from? Does the college admissions process, or at least the selective admissions process, send that message?

Is that view a product of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, or is it an underlying cause of the scandal? Rick Singer’s “side door” to admission involved using bribes to obtain admission for students as athletic walk-ons in sports such as water polo and crew. Wealthy parents signed on because they didn’t believe their children could get in to desired institutions on their own merits, either because the admissions process was unfair -- or because it was fair.

Last spring the penultimate episode of The Simpsons included an Operation Varsity Blues reference. Lisa was invited to a birthday party, and the birthday girl’s mother was away at “photoshopping camp” because she wanted her son to attend the University of Southern California.

The kind of photoshopping done in the scandal, where students’ heads were photoshopped onto athletes’ bodies, is clearly wrong. But what about more subtle forms of “photoshopping,” where an application is curated to project an idealized version of the student? Do we want a college application to be an honest articulation of who you are or to be more like an online dating profile? That probably depends on whether you see the college process as about seeking fit or about seeking status.

The college search is a journey of self-discovery, with Socrates’ exhortation to “know thyself” as the guiding principle. Let’s make sure we have a college admissions process that encourages knowing who you are and rewards being who you are.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.



Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top