Last night, the Harvard Crimson pulled off the upset of the first day of the NCAA Tournament, beating New Mexico 68–62 to advance to the Round of 32. (They will play Arizona tomorrow night at 6:10 EST for the right to go to the Sweet 16.) It’s Harvard’s first-ever tournament win, in only their third appearance. The first appearance was in 1946; the second was last season. It’s the golden age of Harvard basketball … and to hear the backlash this morning, you’d think they were Kentucky or something.
Five years ago, then-Times writer Pete Thamel broke the story that coach Tommy Amaker, who had recently been fired as head coach of Michigan, had convinced administrators to lower the academic standards for basketball players. The money quote from the athletic director: “It’s a willingness to basically say, ‘O.K., maybe we need to accept a few more kids and maybe we need to go after a few more kids in the initial years when Tommy is trying to change the culture of the program.”
That culture has obviously been changed: Amaker has now won more NCAA tourney games at Harvard than he did at Michigan. (Sorry, Chait.) But that has come with a backlash, most accurately represented by (Boston College grad) Luke Russert, who tweeted this morning: “Remember Harvard, you won because you became like the rest of us, lowered the standards to get the goods.” You’re hearing a lot of this: Harvard somehow gamed the system, selling its soul for athletic glory.
As much as we’d love to give Harvard nerds a virtual wedgie this morning, though, this is an oversimplification. Thamel’s initial story, which is the one that started all this talk in the first place, is actually less about a lowering of standards than initial minor recruiting violations by Amaker, many of which were more a matter of defying Ivy decorum than anything sinister or untoward. The AD’s quote looks damning, but it’s surrounded by sentences like “To be sure, programs at larger universities would be delighted to have players with the academic standing of Amaker’s new recruits” and “[the AD] expected Harvard to still have the highest [GPA] index average among the Ivy members.” Harvard has consistently denied that it has lowered its standards at all, and there haven’t been any reports since Thamel’s that they have. (To be fair, this isn’t public information.)
Also, uh: It’s still really hard to get into Harvard. The current group of players — which is actually supposed to peak next year, not this one — was among the top 25 recruiting classes three years ago, which is an incredible fact when you consider (a) they still have to not only get into Harvard but keep up academically and not drop out (something that Robert Frost, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg didn’t do!), and (b) they don’t get an athletic scholarship. To us, this is the kicker: Those who claim, like Russert, that Harvard is now “just like the rest of us” are insane even if they’ve lowered their standards. (Which, we repeat, the school has consistently denied.) Harvard has as inherent a competitive disadvantage as you will find in organized sports: Their players don’t get free tuition rides. Freaking North Carolina AT&T, the team that’s gonna get waxed by Louisville tonight, gives those. Athletic scholarships are sort of how collegiate athletics works. Frankly, players should be getting more than that, but at least they get that. But not at Harvard, and not anyone else in the Ivy League. (It’s also freaking hard to get in the NCAA Tournament from the Ivy League, by the way; it’s the only league in the country without a conference tournament, which means you have to win the league outright.)
Has Harvard been aggressive in promoting and supporting its basketball team in a way it hasn’t in the past? Absolutely. Is this supposed to be bad? Only pedants would argue that it’s somehow a negative for Harvard to be winning NCAA Tournament games. But it’s not “easier” for Harvard kids, and this wasn’t some quick fix brought about by bending rules. Its tough, smart kids succeed on the grandest stage, making for a really fun story for the rest of us. And yes, unfortunately, making some alumni proud today. Let them have it. Giddy Harvard alumni have nothing to apologize for this morning. We cannot speak for every other morning, however.