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Caltech Athletics: Can't Win For Losing

Did you hear the story about the small science and engineering school in Southern California that turned itself in to the NCAA for rules violations? Have you heard all the jokes about having to vacate wins it didn't have, and giving up off-campus recruiting that it never did?

Well, as with much that happens at Caltech, I had to hear about this from an off-campus source. Jason Wright posted the original story on Facebook a couple days ago, and another friend pointed me to this LA Times article. A snippet

While other programs often falsely brag that they're winning the right way, seemingly only at Caltech do they have the guts to lose the right way. 
"This is our integrity at stake here," said Betsy Mitchell, who discovered the violations shortly after she was named Caltech athletic director last summer. "It stinks, but we did the right thing, and we're going to take our medicine." 
You know what stinks? This Pasadena brain boutique is essentially being punished because its classes are so difficult. 
The NCAA has a rule that student-athletes must be taking a full course load to be eligible. Though Caltech students are studying from the moment they set foot on campus, they don't officially take a full course load until the end of the third week of every term because they are allowed to shop the difficult classes before making final decisions.
I have to admit that I initially joined in the jokes. After all, it's too easy to have fun with a school that has such a rich tradition of coming up short in athletics. However, upon reflection I feel bad about the jokes. Caltech's past athletic failures do not at all reflect the modern-day efforts of the new athletics director and recently-hired coaches. The men's basketball coach Oliver Eslinger has worked hard over the past years to build his team into a respectable outfit, primarily through agressive off-campus recruiting. I play basketball with "Doc" every Monday, and I've seen him walk off the court when one of his players wants to play. Why? Because it would violate the NCAA's rule against off-season practices!
Now his efforts will be stymied by these NCAA sanctions. 
Caltech initially decided to punish itself by placing a 2012-13 postseason ban on 12 sports, vacating wins achieved by teams using ineligible athletes during that four-year period, eliminating off-campus recruiting for the upcoming school year and paying a $5,000 fine.
That should have been enough, but, of course, the knucklehead NCAA jumped in with that public censure and three-year probation. One would think officials there could have quietly shooed Mitchell away after she devised their own penalties, but, oh no, monstrous Penn State thus far goes untouched while Division III Caltech gets publicly ripped.
Want another example of why this is more sad than funny? One of my star undergraduate research students replied to my Facebook post,
 This is really sad. No postseason means no SCIACs or NCAA regionals for [cross country], among other sports (I would say no nationals, but as Caltech, we never qualify anyway). There goes a month of our season. I have been looking forward to those races quite literally since last year, I really wanted to compete again and finally make all-region. Argh silly NCAA... 
This student has an A-average in Astrophysics, and she just completed the Caltech Core, which includes 5 quarters of Physics and 5 quarters of proof-based mathematics. Here's what Freshman Math looks like at Caltech:
Ma 1 a,b,c. Calculus of One and Several Variables and Linear Algebra. Review of calculus. Complex numbers, Taylor polynomials, infinite series. Comprehensive presentation of linear algebra. Derivatives of vector functions, multiple integrals, line and path integrals, theorems of Green and Stokes. Ma 1 b, c is divided into two tracks:  analytic and practical.
She is working on finishing up her first refereed paper on secular dynamics of a three-planet system, which she started as a freshman SURF student with a colleague of mine in the planetary science's dept. Now my group relies on her to reduce our NIR spectroscopic observations from Palomar and she's working on a multiplicity study of B-type stars. 
She managed to do all of this while setting records in cross country. My point: the students who will be punished under NCAA's silly rules are not your typical sociology-majoring NCAA athletes. If there is a true "student athlete" anywhere in the US, they're right here at Caltech unable to compete in the post season for the next few years because its courses are too hard, and because it followed its own honor code.

The NCAA is a joke. It's a money-grubbing cartel. History shows that the notion of the "student athlete" was invented as a way for the NCAA to avoid paying disability insurance to injured football players while making a fortune off of their achievements, and likenesses, without paying them a dime. Don't believe me? Read just the first part of this long-form article about the history of this evil organization. A snippet:
Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”
Or, if you don't have time to read the article, just think about how a tiny university with 900 students was compelled by its own honor code to turn itself in on a technicality, and how that will result in a stand-out astrophysics student from running in the post-season. Think about this story during the next commercial break of an NCAA sporting event.


Sarah said…
It isn't just SCIACs and regionals. We've had athletes qualify for Nationals in track and field in the recent past in addition to fencing. When I ran for Tech missing out on SCIACs would've crushed me. So yes, the punishment is a big deal for a small number of people.

i just wanted to take issue a bit with what you said about past athletic failures versus the modern day program. Caltech athletes and coaches work their butts off to compete at the highest level possible. They do this with little if any support from the Caltech administration and often very little support from the Caltech community itself. They don't care. They do it because they love their sports. They do it because they love their teammates. This isn't some new era ushered in by one new coach. The success of the programs varies over time based mostly on the variation created by having such a small number of students to pull from. I realize you haven't been at Caltech very long, but as an athlete from a "past failures" era, I was a little offended (on behalf of my fellow athletes and my coaches) by what you said.
JohnJohn said…
Thanks for your comment Sarah. I'm glad that Caltech students are reading my blog and I always appreciate feedback.

Mea culpa for implying that all sports at Caltech have a losing tradition. However, as a Caltech student, I'm sure you can understand the idea of speaking to the mean while neglecting the tail of the distribution. Yes, fencing and track at Caltech are traditionally strong. But those are exceptions. Baseball, water polo, men's and women's basketball, tennis---these sports have less than stellar records. Not because the coaching staffs suck or because the athletes don't try. It's because our school is small, our academic standards are ridiculously high, and as you note, not many in the administration here care about sports.

My main point is that Caltech is commendable for coming clean, and the NCAA is the bad guy here for imposing tougher penalties than Caltech's own self-imposed punishment. I meant no offense to past athletes or coaches.

Cal Tech sets an example for what it means to have an honor code and what the words "to thine own self be true" truely mean. No one should be crushed if they can't participate in a NCAA-sanctioned function that is corrupt if they reason is because they did the right thing. They can hold their heads up high, and have true school pride. And they earn the respect of people who really matter. Penn State, on the other hand, should go down in infamy, and not only should their football team be sanctioned, but the whole school should not be allowed to participate in any sport. If someone questions why "innocent students" in other sports should also pay a penalty, I would remind them that it is not the sport that is being sanctioned, but the "ideals" and the "philosophies" of the school that need to be punished. And if the punishment is severe enough, PERHAPS, in the future, something like this will never happen again.

Victoria I. Paterno, MD (yes, unfortunately, that is really my name), pediatrician

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