Affirmative Action by a Different Name: How Sports Helped Me Get into Harvard

alt="Affirmative Action by a Different Name: How Sports Helped Me Get into Harvard "

Affirmative Action by a Different Name: How Sports Helped Me Get into Harvard

December 2018

Melissa Bellin

By Melissa Bellin (@MissyBellin)
Center for Health and Social Policy Ambassador


Most students apply to Harvard. As an athlete, Harvard applied to me.  

Harvard University

When I was 17, I received a hand-written letter from the Harvard hurdles coach. He had followed my high school track career, and he asked me to consider applying in the fall. I remember staring at the letter, dumbfounded. Valedictorians and the children of presidents went to Harvard – not suburban athletes with an A-minus average. Yet, several phone calls, two visits, one interview, and an application later; I received a letter that fundamentally changed my life. I had been accepted. I would attend Harvard as a member of the class of 2013.

Sports opened a hidden, highly coveted door for me. Some, like Saahil Desai in The Atlantic, have equated this process to affirmative action. As Desai notes, Ivy League athletes are disproportionately white, wealthy, and receive a significant boost in the admissions process. Last year, 65 percent of student athletes at elite schools were white, and 46.3 percent came from families with household incomes of $250,000 or higher. Perhaps most strikingly, student-athletes received a 48 percent boost in the admissions process, compared to a 25 percent boost for legacies and an 18 percent boost for racial minorities.

Desai’s article is impeccably timed. Harvard’s admissions process is on trial and affirmative action is on the chopping block. The plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, have accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian applicants. The group claims that the University holds Asian students to a higher standard than other applicants and uses an illegal racial quota system to shape its incoming class. Harvard denies the allegations and claims to consider race as one factor among many in the admissions process.

In light of this context, Desai’s article is particularly insightful and personally painful. I am the athlete Desai describes: white, privileged, and in need of an admissions boost. However, the form of affirmative action that benefited me is not on trial. Here in lies the problem. Affluent white students receive countless advantages in the college admissions process—most of which work silently behind the scenes. White students are not only overrepresented as athletes and legacies, but also in high-performing high schools and in the top ranks of SAT scorers across the country. When race is not considered, admissions processes favor the white and wealthy. To correct for this system failure, Harvard must reserve the right to consider an applicant’s race.

If Harvard loses this ability, everyone will be worse off. Various advocacy organizations, including the NAACP and the ACLU, have released statements in support of Harvard’s system, noting that a lack of race conscious admissions would disproportionately harm Black students. Likewise, it seems that the Asian American community itself is divided. While some fiercely oppose Harvard’s system, others have advocated on behalf of affirmative action. Likewise, others within the community have noted that the law suit appears to have an ulterior motive and is more focused on repealing affirmative action than helping Asian students.

As an alumnus, these pleas resonate with me deeply. I cherish the diversity I experienced at Harvard. Like many Americans, my high-school was incredibly homogenous. Harvard was the first place that I lived and learned with people who grew up in radically different environments than I did, and this diversity was paramount to my academic growth. I learned new ways of thinking and problem-solving. I was challenged to question my assumptions and acknowledge the privilege embedded in my identity. I gained empathy and a fierce desire to understand others. In today’s world, full of hateful rhetoric intent upon demonizing our differences, these skills are more important than ever. 

Should Harvard discriminate against Asian applicants to create a diverse student body? Of course not. If Harvard is judging Asian Americans more harshly than their peers – even implicitly – the University must adjust its policies. However, stripping Harvard of its ability to consider race in the admissions process is misguided. Regardless of the outcome of this trial, forms of affirmative action will persist. The question is whom these policies will benefit?

In 2017, Harvard admitted its first majority-minority class. According to University’s website, the Class of 2021 is 50.8 percent non-white, with 22.2 percent of students identifying as Asian American. After 380 years, this milestone was an important step – a sign of the University’s commitment to shed its stubbornly white hue. In order to continue down this path, it is imperative that affirmative action not just exist for white athletes, but rather that institutions like Harvard open their doors to applicants of every class and color.  


Melissa Bellin is a first-year candidate for the Master of Public Affairs (DC Concentration) and CHASP Ambassador at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She studied Sociology at Harvard University, with a certification in French. While earning her undergraduate degree, Melissa directed an after-school program for low-income youth, supervised over-night shifts at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, taught English to students in Tanzania, and interned with Advocates for Children of New York City. After graduation, Melissa moved to Washington D.C. to teach elementary school at KIPP DC. She then transitioned to the non-profit organization, Flamboyan Foundation, which builds the capacity of DC public schools to practice effective family engagement. As an education professional, Melissa developed a deep interest in the external factors that impact student achievement – including race, class, and housing.

More about the Center for Health and Social Policy Ambassador Program.

> Back to Perspectives Blog main page

The views, information, or opinions expressed by blog contributors are solely those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Health and Social Policy, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, or The University of Texas at Austin or affiliated employees.