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.
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.
The Place For Athletics: A Forum , continued>>>