Illustration: Ron Barrett

The child sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State seems a long way from Princeton: It’s hard to imagine Princeton students rioting to protest the firing of a coach. But the affair should remind us of just how much can go terribly wrong when a team and its revered coach become too powerful, their success far too much a part of a university’s sense of its own worth. 

There’s an enormous difference between football at Penn State and cross country at Princeton, as I well know, having spent four years on Princeton’s team in the mid-’70s. In high school I had been a good enough middle-distance runner to get several scholarship offers. Rice University promised to fly me down to Houston so I could check out the school during my freshman year if I decided I didn’t like Princeton. But of course I did — partly, I suspect, because I knew that at Princeton no one could make me run. Doing so always would be my choice.

There’s not another country in the world that makes sports such a huge part of undergraduate life or that expects university students to provide athletic entertainment for adults on such a scale. At Oxford, where I spent two years studying 19th-century English literature while running cross country and track, varsity teams were essentially clubs, run by the student-athletes. We elected a club secretary who was responsible for booking the bus for away meets and organizing tea after home meets. The team had no coach, no trainer, no team doctor. We had to pay for our “kit,” or uniform. My academic supervisor clearly was baffled to have a 27-year-old grad student who still took running seriously, but he managed to be polite about it.

We don’t have to go as far as Oxford does to guard against fanaticism. Prince­ton and the other Ivy League schools — not to mention many smaller schools in Division III — get the balance right. It’s possible to be a great athlete at Princeton, but very few come here for the primary purpose of becoming one. You come for the academics and find a way to fit in the other stuff, whether that’s swimming or fencing.

Students themselves help enforce this balance. Peter Farrell, who has been Princeton’s women’s track coach for 35 years, watches his runners hurry back on the bus as soon as their warm-down is complete — they are eager to get back to the lab or library. Farrell thinks they might run even faster if they weren’t so fixated on their studies, but he has made his peace with this.

That’s the right balance. And it’s up to the alumni, as much as anyone, to see that it stays that way. Not because we don’t care about Princeton’s student-athletes, but because we do.

Extra Point, a new PAW column, explores the people and issues in Princeton sports.

Merrell Noden ’78
Merrell Noden ’78
Frank Wojciechowski

Merrell Noden ’78 is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated and a frequent PAW ­contributor.