December 28, 2007

The Place For Athletics

Dec. 28, 2007

Moderated by Clark V. Booth
Holy Cross Magazine

On Oct. 30, Holy Cross Magazine sponsored a forum on "The Place for Athletics at Holy Cross." To moderate this discussion, we invited Clark V. Booth '61 back to campus to help us consider a volatile and complex subject that has long captured his critical imagination. Booth has been an iconic presence in the world of sports journalism for decades. For 28 years, he was a sports columnist for The Pilot. He has regularly written for such publications as The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and New England Magazine. He has been a reporter and writer on 30 sports documentaries. For 35 years, he has been associated with WCVB-TV in Boston as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.

Joining Booth for the discussion were: Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J., president of the College; Frank Vellaccio, senior vice president; John Axelson, professor, department of psychology, and NCAA faculty and policy committee representative; Tina Chen, director, academic services and learning resources; Ann McDermott '79, director of admissions; Dick Regan '76, director of athletics; and Christine Strawson '08, Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Clark Booth: I want to begin by saying that I'm actually surprised that we need to discuss "the place for athletics" because I thought this issue had been settled years ago. Our president emeritus, Fr. John Brooks, made a bold and--to my mind--extremely wise decision 20 years ago to chart a different course in college sports, to adhere to certain academic principles and build a program around genuine scholar-athletes. So let's begin with that question--Why are we here? Father, why are we still banging away at this subject?

Fr. Michael McFarland: I think it's because athletics is so important to people. There is an emotional response to the subject of sports. And, so, there are forces pulling you in different directions no matter where you position yourself. On the one hand, there is the commitment that we have at Holy Cross to making the college experience a positive one for our student-athletes. We want student-athletes who can come to Holy Cross and flourish as students, who can grow intellectually and morally and spiritually--but also, of course, be competitive in the arena. And there are always pressures to become more competitive. The fact is, people want to win. And they know that if they spend more money, or they broaden the pool of athletes they can draw from, or they make fewer demands on their athletes outside of practice and games, they get an edge in competition. So it's always a struggle attempting to balance those forces. At Holy Cross, we're determined to make certain that our athletes are also fine students. But, at the same time, we want to remain competitive in Division I. And it's simply very challenging to do both of those things.

Booth: Dick?

Dick Regan: Well, with regard to the subject of athletics at the College being "settled," I'm not sure I understand that observation. This is a dynamic world and things are in a constant state of change. So it makes sense to continue a dialogue, to periodically reassess our decisions. I'm beginning my 10th year at Holy Cross. In that decade, I'd say the world of college athletics has changed quite a bit. But I think Holy Cross has remained fairly consistent in its principles and practices. I think the College has always admitted athletes who were also good students. And we continue to do that. But it makes sense to discuss where we want to position ourselves in terms of athletics. And where, pointedly, we do not.

Booth: So what do you say to the alumni who, with regard to sports, wish it were still those golden days when the College competed at a national level and won championships?

Regan: I don't hear that quite as much as I did nine years ago. I sense our alumni accept the athletic decisions we've made, by and large.

Fr. McFarland: Our most recent alumni survey bears that out. We hired top research consultants to ask a statistically valid cross section of alumni if they felt our investment in our athletics programs was appropriate. Only five percent strongly disagreed with our position on athletics.

Booth: And I imagine they're a vocal five percent. But from my vantage, as an alumnus and as someone who has researched, reported on and thought about college sports for decades, it looks to me as if Holy Cross figured out how to do college sports correctly. And that's what I meant when I asked why the issue wasn't settled. For me, it was settled into a pretty good place. Anybody have an opinion on that?

Frank Vellaccio: Well, I think there are genuine concerns and issues about our involvement in the Patriot League. I sense that most people, when they talk about the sea change in Holy Cross athletics, are really talking about the decision, made 20 years ago, to drop scholarships and join the Patriot League. I think that there is some sense that the original vision we had as to how the League would develop has not come true. There are certainly some very positive things about the Patriot League. But there are some negative things about it, too. That's part of what keeps the debate alive. There is just no question that we've found it very difficult to run a Division I program without scholarships. And everyone thinks that scholarships are a dirty game. But, in truth, there's an aspect of not having scholarships that can be just as dirty in terms of making special admissions decisions and rigging financial aid. Honestly, there's a lot more ambiguity when you don't have scholarships than when you do. So, yes, there are a number of issues regarding athletics that aren't settled. And I think we should talk about them.

Ann McDermott: When it comes to athletics, what I hear from alumni--especially when you get farther away from Massachusetts--is a kind of frustration. They see other schools that made different decisions along the way getting a lot of national recognition. The games are reported and televised. But when it comes to alma mater, they don't see the games, they can't read the scores. We're marginalized or ignored. I don't think the majority of alums are necessarily unhappy about the route we've taken. But when it comes to the athletic arena, they feel that their pride in the College isn't able to be expressed as fully as they might like.

Booth: Christine, what do you and your classmates feel about sports at Holy Cross?

Christine Strawson: In terms of my own experience, I came to Holy Cross because I felt it was simply the best combination of academics and athletics. I had been recruited from other schools--even for different sports--but when it came down to it, I was actually sold on the fact that I was going to be a "scholar-athlete," that no decision was going to be made without school being taken into account. I understood that academics would always come first here. That's what I wanted. I think--or at least I hope--that my peers feel the same way. Of course, I can't speak for everyone. But I really do think that we work hard to be students here. We're not like some schools where some of the athletes are students in name only. Where some of the athletes don't even finish out their undergraduate careers, or where they attend for six or seven years.

Booth: But do you ever hear any of your friends moaning about the fact that Boston College may go to the Sugar Bowl and Holy Cross will be sitting at home? Do they raise these points?

Strawson: I haven't heard that. But, let's admit it, B.C. has definitely gained extreme name recognition through their sports programs.

Booth: They have. Which returns us to the scholarship question. Let me ask this, who here would like to reopen the conversation about athletic scholarships?

Fr. McFarland: Well, first of all, football would have to be a separate category.

Booth: Why is that? Because you'd destroy the Patriot League, would you not, if you said we're going back to scholarships? Would Holy Cross bring the Patriot League down if they reinstated football scholarships?

Fr. McFarland: Right now the Patriot League allows scholarships in every sport but football. And there are several schools that would like to institute scholarships in football. But we're not one of them. In any event, the restoration of football scholarships would have to be a league decision. Beyond this, football scholarships would be tremendously expensive.

Booth: How do you feel, Dick? Would you like to have football scholarships?

Regan: In a perfect world, sure. But, as things stand, I'm not pushing for them. I was a CFO for a good part of my career. I have a feel for the financial issues we're seeing right now. So sure, I'd love to have football scholarships, but I don't think it's practical or realistic right now. We estimate it would cost us a million-two to a million-five a year. Because if you add football scholarships, you would, of course, have to balance that with an equal number of women's athletics scholarships. That's a lot of money given all the other pressures we have right now. For that reason, I can live with the status quo as long as our peers do.

Booth: Is anyone unhappy with the Patriot League? Frank, earlier you mentioned that there were some negatives.

Vellaccio: There will always be issues with any league in which you're involved. It's a difficult league for us in certain ways. There's a lot of travel involved. Geographically, the league is somewhat problematic for us. But it's a very fine group of schools, and we share a lot of the same vision and ideas regarding higher education.

Booth: So there's no lingering regret in this room about the decision to join the Patriot League? If you had it to do over again, would any of you do it differently?

Vellaccio: Look, I've had this argument so many times with so many alums that I have finally come down to the conclusion that it really isn't worth talking about the past. We're better off talking about where we are right now, about what's best for Holy Cross at this moment. We need to focus on what's best for our students and the College today. And that's a complex question. For example, we have been considering converting need-based financial aid to athletic scholarships in some sports, because when we look, for example, at our hockey team, we find we're spending about as much money in men's hockey as we would if we offered the required number of scholarships. So we have to ask if it wouldn't make more sense to fund hockey scholarships and gain some leverage, recruit at a new level and become more competitive. And, of course, if we do it in men's hockey, we have to fund an equivalent numbers of scholarships in women's sports. It's neat and it's fair. I think there are schools that violate gender equity because they don't give scholarships. They give a lot more aid to needy men and they somehow are unable to find any needy women.

Fr. McFarland: What people don't give the Patriot League credit for is the fact that it's an extremely competitive league in a lot of the so-called "non-revenue" sports. When you have Army and Navy and American in there, there's some fine competitive play in areas like soccer and lacrosse.

Booth: And that's ultimately the ideal?

Vellaccio: Exactly. The difficulties with the Patriot League, for us, I think, is with men's basketball. We have difficulty getting anybody competitive to play us outside the league. The difference between football and basketball is the number of out-of-league games that you play. In basketball, you have to fill in your schedule. What really irks me is this criminal activity of coaches deciding they're going to pad their out-of-league schedule. Their feeling is--whether it's justified or not--there's no gain by playing us. Because if they beat us, the media says, well, you're supposed to beat them. And if they lose to us, it's this incredible upset that significantly hurts them. So it's that standing of the Patriot League, in basketball only--and, particularly, in men's basketball--that's kind of a shame.

Fr. McFarland: It's not unique to the Patriot League. Any mid-major runs into this. But it's particularly hard for us.

Vellaccio: Extremely hard. Coach Willard has real difficulty finishing out our schedule.

Regan: The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we're a mid-major--that is, a school not in a Bowl Championship Series conference--in a league that's not particularly strong. And we don't have good indoor facilities. Those things make it very difficult for us to schedule games here.

Booth: What do you think, Father, in retrospect, about the Patriot League decision?

Fr. McFarland: Well, I wasn't here when that decision was made. And I, of all people, would know that you just can't criticize a decision when you weren't present at the time it was made and you don't have all the facts. I think we're all in agreement that what we want at Holy Cross is for our student-athletes to be representative of the general student body. And the Patriot League remains the place where that ideal is taken seriously. But as we've mentioned, there are some downsides for us. Travel is an ongoing problem. And it has been difficult to establish natural rivalries for our community--though a rivalry with Bucknell has been growing over the last few years. And then there's the lack of presence in the big media markets. You know, we love to play schools in New York because that's where a big part of our alumni base is. It's also where we recruit. So those are things we'd like to strengthen. And we hope we can do that within the league; because, on principle, the member schools in the league share a commitment to a fundamental system of academic standards. We're all demanding schools where student-athletes can't just slip by. And that's what is most important.

John Axelson: Father is right. When I go to the Patriot League policy committee meetings, I feel very comfortable with the people in that room. There's a shared concern for the well-being of the student-athletes. One of our duties is to look at medical waivers. We ask if these students who have NCAA eligibility be able to return and play another season after having had a season-ending injury. The conversations on this issue are very revealing of the principles of the league. People ask if the student's academic adviser was involved in this decision. If there has been a conversation with the athlete's family. People ask if this is really in the long-term best interest of the student. I think that's something that is highly unusual in college athletics today.

Booth: I think we should all be pleased to hear that. We need the student perspective on this. Christine, do you ever hear any of your friends and your colleagues asking, What are we doing in the Patriot League? Does anybody grumble about that?

Strawson: I don't think so. I think there are definitely geographical concerns. But I appreciate what the Patriot League stands for. I really think that they take into consideration the scholar-athlete and the demands on him or her. I think the Patriot League is the right fit for us. We certainly wouldn't want to enter the Big East, would we? I would hope people would stand behind me on that one.

Booth: Well, let's address that for second. To even consider such a thing would mean some radical changes in our vision of the College, wouldn't it? I mean, if you look at college sports, you discover, quite quickly, that the first place where athletics and higher education come into conflict is often in the areas of recruitment and admissions. Christine mentioned schools where the athletes are students "in name only." Let me ask you, bluntly, how far should Holy Cross "stretch" to attain a desired athlete? Ann, are you comfortable with the way we operate in that regard?

McDermott: The bottom line is that there's no place to hide for any student who can't do the work here. There is no easy major. There are no "gut" courses. And so, at the end of the day, the question is: Can this student be successful here? We're just not interested in bringing students who can only survive here for a year or two. That's foolish and it does no one any good. So if we're looking at a borderline student, the question has to be--Can this individual perform? And that ends up being my judgment. And I'll go to Father and Frank to get backup if I have a difference of opinion with a coach. Of course, sometimes we're going to disappoint coaches who find a great player and want to bring him or her to the Hill. But if that player can't handle the academic dimension then it makes no sense to admit.

Vellaccio: The truth of the matter is that you only need to show the coaches the College catalog to get them to understand what their goal needs to be. There is only one set of courses. So, unless a coach wants to lose a player after a single semester, it's to his or her benefit to bring in good students as well as good players. Now, sometimes you can have an argument about how we define a good student. And a coach might say, Look, trust me, this player has the ability to make it here. And we may argue that we don't believe it would be in the best interest of the student. We may have an honest disagreement about the student's academic potential. But, in the end, no coach at Holy Cross would ever attempt to win admission for an athlete with the idea that he or she will only stay a couple of years. No one would ever say, he'll be a real contributor, so what if he doesn't graduate? I mean, our retention rate, our graduation rate, is proof of a shared understanding between admissions and athletics.

Regan: Honestly, as athletic director, I'd be upset with a coach who tried to admit a poor student. Because he or she would be wasting everyone's time. Everyone here agrees on general principles in that no one wants to admit students who can't do the work. Not only are there no easy courses here and no places to hide, the fact is that we don't do anything special for athletes. Our athletes are treated like every other student. There's no special registration, no special tutoring. They wait in the bookstore and dining hall lines like everyone else. Clearly, we're all on the same page in this regard. I think where athletics and admissions might disagree are in case-by-case instances, circumstances where we think somebody is equipped to handle the academic load and others disagree. That does happen from time to time.

Booth: John, from the faculty perspective, honestly, do you ever roll your eyes at the athletes in the student body, or do you find them consistently worthy of being here at Holy Cross?

Axelson: I've taught athletes who were among the best students I've ever encountered. And I've had some who have not been outstanding students. There is always going to be that inherent variability. I find it dangerous to generalize. But, in general, analysis of trends seen nationwide shows that the recruited student-athlete--as a population and certainly with variability--underperforms in the four-year liberal arts environment. Now, why is that? Personally, I think the time demand on student-athletes is extremely difficult. It's as if, in addition to their school work, they have a physically punishing full-time job. I don't think that people who haven't played sports can appreciate the wear-and-tear physically and emotionally. When I make a mistake, it's in front of a class of students. But these athletes are in the stadium. And they have their school's reputation on the line. And they're still quite young. I think we expect so much of them. Most of them can handle it very well. But let's acknowledge how tough it is.

Booth: Christine, as Father had noted, there's no place to hide here. If there were certain individuals who stood out as being, perhaps, not fully qualified academically, you would be one of the ones who would first notice it. Now, what's your perception of this issue?

Strawson: I agree completely with Professor Axelson. Even if you've been a high school athlete and known some academic success, it's a culture shock to come here. The demands on your athletic abilities and your time immediately quadruple. You have to schedule everything so carefully. You're lost if you don't improve your time management skills. The time commitments for a student-athlete are extensive. There's just no way to skate by as a student-athlete here. You have to be dedicated to the concept.

Booth: Tina, given the nature of your work, you would have some thoughts on this.

Tina Chen: Christine raises some important points. Certainly, some of the best time managers that I've worked with are the varsity athletes. They have to be. I think the expectations on student-athletes are enormous. Both academically and athletically, we're a very competitive culture at Holy Cross. We have a world-class faculty, and they put world-class demands on our students. And, when you combine the academic demands with the athletic demands, the stress can be worrisome. Two years ago, when we did the NCAA re-certification study, the subject of increasing demands on student-athletes came up. I see it all the time. I think the dividing line between "academic time" and "athletic time" has become blurred. On any given night, a student-athlete could have to attend a lecture for class at the same time the coach wants to review film. And, in addition, they're trying to volunteer for SPUD and be a resident assistant and serve on an SGA committee.

Axelson: You know, I hate anecdotes because they're only anecdotes, but I've had a couple of faculty members come tell me of situations wherein students were told by their coaches not to register for any classes after one o'clock in the afternoon because it would interfere with practice. So some student-athletes are getting mixed messages. I think we need to do a better job communicating between the academic side and the athletic side. But, from the coaches' perspective, they're hired to do a job -

Booth: Well, we can excuse them for wanting to win. But is that appropriate behavior on the part of a coach to try to affect the decision-making of a student regarding course selection--or anything having to do with academics? Is that consistent with the Holy Cross way of doing things?

Chen: Absolutely not. When I speak with students and coaches, I emphasize that I would never tell athletes which play to run--and if I did, they should question the source! Similarly, when it comes to academics, students should seek expert advice. Faculty and class deans are the best sources for academic advising.

Fr. McFarland: No, one o'clock is extreme. But clearly, they have practices scheduled, and students have to schedule around those practices. And, so, we try to make labs and courses available that don't conflict with the time when everybody is at practice. And that requires some coordination with the academic side. Usually, we can do that. But people are going to push the limits. And then you have to push back.

Booth: Then let's get into it now and talk about limits. What is Holy Cross willing to do with regard to athletics? And what won't we do? Let's talk scholarships. There's no such thing as football scholarships or hockey scholarships. But you do have need-based scholarships, which has been an area of some controversy at certain schools because you can stretch that in different ways and get away with it.

Vellaccio: Yes. It's called "preferential packaging."

Fr. McFarland: It refers to how you construct the financial aid package of a desired student. Financial aid consists of grants, loans and on-campus work programs. In a preferential package, a greater percentage of the aid comes in the form of grants than in loans or work.

Booth: How many of our football players are receiving scholarship aid on a need basis?

Vellaccio: All the recruited football players receive preferential packaging on a need basis.

Booth: And would these students get that same amount of aid were they not football players?

Fr. McFarland: They would get the same amount of aid as any other student based on equivalent need, but it would be configured differently. For instance, let's look at two students who both require $20,000. Of that amount, the football player would receive a $20,000 grant and the other student would receive $13,000 in grant money and $7,000 in loans and work-study, what we call "self help."

Vellaccio: And this is what I find interesting regarding athletic scholarships. They're clean with respect to gender equity. Same numbers. Same amount of money. For every one you do here, you have to do one there. But with preferential packaging, you have no control over the need of different students. So, while the number of preferential packages has to be the same, the amount of money does not. If women on average just happen to be less needy--and, for some reason, at Holy Cross they are--you can end up spending less money on women than men and not violate gender equity.

Booth: Father, are you satisfied with the way need-based aid works?

Fr. McFarland: Well, we can always talk about improvements--as the league is currently doing. We can discuss whether you can purpose the money more effectively and get better student-athletes if you have more freedom in how you would use the same amount of money to recruit a squad. And this is something that's under consideration.

Booth: But couldn't we all cite stories about abuse in this area? I certainly know some. Student-athletes from extremely comfortable situations, who still received handsome aid packages. I know of one deplorable case in the Ivies. This is a real problem and it happens regularly throughout college athletics.

Vellaccio: But we have to remember that as long a college hasn't used a dollar of federal money in that package, it can do whatever it wants with that student. The only real constraints are the rules of the league.

Booth: But we're not talking about what's legal here. We're talking about what's ethical. And, are we as a College assured that we're conforming to the highest ethical standards in this area?

Fr. McFarland: I have to say, I feel we're quite strict about this. For one thing, we do give federal money, so we must follow the federal guidelines.

Booth: Dick, have you ever had a really fine athletic prospect, a young man or woman who wanted to come to Holy Cross, but you lost him or her because you couldn't put together a satisfactory package?

Regan: Absolutely. Because of the way some other school may decide to determine what the student's financial need is. Another school may be more, let's say, creative, with the way it's assessing this student-athlete's need. And, of course, we repeatedly lose prospects to schools that simply give athletic scholarships.

Booth: This is a great frustration to you, Dick, yes? The fact that you would go head-to-head with Princeton for a player, and you know that you're at a competitive disadvantage?

Regan: The truth of the matter is we are at a disadvantage. Particularly in football, if we're interested in an athlete who gets in both schools, we're going to lose that battle more often than not. They have an inherent advantage.

Booth: Speaking of inherent advantages, you know, I still hear from alumni who bemoan the loss of the B.C. rivalry. Who don't understand why Chestnut Hill went one way and Mount St. James went another. I want to ask what you say to these people. And then I want to talk just a bit about how an institution can leverage a nationally recognized sports program.

Fr. McFarland: Well, as you know, I'm quite familiar with B.C. I've worked there. The simple fact is, they're a different school from Holy Cross. Yes, we share many things--the two communities overlap quite a bit in terms of families, in terms of people who worked at B.C. who went to Holy Cross and vice versa. But they're just a very different school. Boston College is an urban research university. Holy Cross is a liberal arts college in a mid-size city. These are totally different environments. And students will come to each of these schools for different reasons. In the end, the truth is that the rivalry in football didn't really make sense at some point.

Vellaccio: I think for some of our older alumni, the rivalry was such an inherent and dramatic part of their college experience. And now, today, these same alumni see how B.C. has surged in so many areas--admissions, endowment, building, national reputation. And, in the minds of some people, the only thing they can attribute this surge to is the decision to invest in athletics. The same choices weren't an option for us, but they were for them.

Booth: But is that a true assessment? Let me ask this--Is investing in athletics the way to grow your institution?

Axelson: There are some widespread misconceptions out there regarding what athletics can do for you. For instance, I often hear the economic argument that a successful sports program is a revenue stream. But one thing that was enlightening to me is that when you look at the major universities--I think the example I heard was University of Michigan--the year that they won the national championship, the football team lost money. The fact is that universities that have one or two major championships are still losing money on their programs.

Vellaccio: And I'll add that there is lots of evidence that a successful sports program does not increase alumni giving. But the fact of the matter is that, if you're a decent academic institution, your athletic tail can help wag that dog a whole lot. There's just no doubt. Anybody who argues against that just doesn't live in this world. Now, does that mean that you sell your soul to get that athletic reputation? Simply put, at Holy Cross, no!

Fr. McFarland: I think we can all think of spectacular cases where what Frank said was right. But I just don't think it works across the board. I was at Gonzaga when they made it to the Elite Eight in men's basketball. And yes, it helped a very good school that was not well-known get some national attention. It did have an impact on admissions--though this wasn't a controlled experiment. There were other things going on at the same time, including a reworking of financial aid. But the fact is, the graduation rate for Gonzaga basketball players remains at around 33 percent. And that's just not something that Holy Cross would be comfortable with.

Vellaccio: Obviously, the tail can't wag a dog that isn't there. If a school is poor academically, a nationally recognized sports program will do nothing but underline that fact. But I think that, if you're a solid academic institution, national athletic exposure can be a great benefit. Ann can speak to this from an admissions perspective. When we travel to a town in West Texas, let's say, the students don't know if Holy Cross is a cemetery or a convalescent home or a college.

Booth: But is that recognition really all that important? So what if some people in West Texas think Holy Cross is a cemetery. Why does that matter?

McDermott: Well, we want Holy Cross to be lots of things--including geographically representative and diverse. And the reality is that our demographics are going to diminish in the East Coast in the near future. It's in our best interest to pursue the best students we can in that small town in Texas or California or Arizona. Because they do bring to our campus a different perspective. So, I am interested in those things that would help our name recognition. And, unfortunately, the reality is that when people simply hear of a school, there's a knee-jerk reaction that awareness equals quality. I'm not saying that athletics is the only thing that can help us get our name out there. I think there are other ways. But the reality is that name recognition is important.

Vellaccio: Clark, you were just trying to be controversial with that question. You don't really believe recognition doesn't matter, do you?

Booth: I'm playing devil's advocate. But I do think there's something to be said for the fact that it's not terribly important if some kids aren't aware of us because we aren't in the Final Four.

Regan: But the truth is that being in the Final Four, playing in a national championship, is one of the fastest and easiest ways to achieve name recognition. Now, I'm not saying that you should do just anything to achieve that end. But that clearly is one of the benefits of having an athletic program. Last year, both our men's and women's basketball teams made it to the NCAA tournament. And both of them were ranked number one--out of 65 and 64 teams, respectively--in graduation rates. That's a great thing. That's a positive thing to have the announcers talking about to millions of viewers. And that's what Frank's talking about, the tail wagging a very good dog.

Booth: OK, let me try to wrap things up by asking where we go from here. What is the future of athletics at Holy Cross?

Chen: I think that a lot of people are working very hard to try to find the correct balance and make it work. But the hardest thing for me is to see that balance worked out on the backs of our student-athletes. The stress of travel, of class absence, of physical strain, of divided time and focus, of unrealistic expectations all falls heavily on our student-athletes. And, I see a similar kind of stress on faculty members who are attempting to develop collaborative learning and to utilize extra-classroom activities with student-athletes who are unavailable. I don't know of any quick fix for this. We know that our students consider the athletic element an essential part of their college experience. In the end, I think it's very difficult to make athletic excellence and academic excellence coexist in a way that doesn't balance the mix on the backs of student-athletes. I think we need to continue reassessing and having this dialogue. We need to listen hard to every side of this discussion and continually improve.

Axelson: I think dialogue is crucial. Our student-athletes are often being pulled in too many different directions. Some of them are struggling because of this. The key to the future of athletics at the College is genuine, open dialogue between the academic side and the athletic side.

Vellaccio: If I could have a wish it would be that people stop dwelling on the past and look at the present. We always try to make decisions in both areas for an excellence that's consistent with our Jesuit and Catholic mission. We may well have to change in certain ways in order to respond to this dynamic world in which we live. But, as long as we remain true to our core principles, I think we'll continue to find the appropriate fit for athletics at Holy Cross.

Booth: Father, any last words?

Fr. McFarland: Holy Cross is a place where everybody works very hard. It's a culture in which people want to achieve, as individuals and as part of a team. I think athletics is an important part of that picture. In many ways, it captures what we're about in a very visible and symbolic manner. I think we want to be known as a place that does things the right way. And that means maintaining our integrity as an institution, living up to our principles, nurturing our student-athletes so that, when they finish at Holy Cross, they become successful and fulfilled and happy people. So that they can look back and view their experience here as one of maturation and growth within a caring, principled, multidimensional community. It's always out of this understanding that our athletic program has to evolve.

Booth: I want to thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this complex subject.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

The editors of Holy Cross Magazine invite you to join this discussion. Please visit the College Web site at http://www.holycross.edu/departments/publicaffairs/hcm/winter08/features/forum.html to post your reactions to "The Place for Athletics" forum.