Stanford Athletics: A Great Tradition

March 2024

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Portrait of Richard Saller in the Quad

Photo: Andrew Brodhead

In the first months of my presidency, the Israel-Hamas war and its ramifications on campus have occupied the largest share of my attention. Not far behind is intercollegiate athletics and the historic change that is occurring nationally.

In January, we celebrated with women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer as she broke the record for most career wins by an NCAA basketball coach. Tara already was a legend across the country and here at Stanford. This joyful new milestone provided a reminder of what Tara embodies: unsurpassed excellence with deep humility.

Tara’s achievement adds to a proud history of athletics at Stanford. Throughout our history, athletics has been an integral part of the university. Sports play a vivid role in the student experience, propelling traditions, creating memories, and adding to the education we provide in the classroom.  

Stanford also has been a special place for athletics because of our commitment to providing student-athletes with two things simultaneously: an education of the highest caliber and the opportunity to compete nationally at the highest levels. By integrating academics with sports, we are carrying on a tradition of the ancient Greeks, who invented the Olympics.

I am especially proud of the academic success of our student-athletes. In 2023, Stanford Athletics registered an overall graduation rate of 97 percent in the NCAA Graduation Success Rate, with 17 programs scoring 100 percent.

The scale of change that is occurring in collegiate athletics  is remarkable, yet Stanford has always confronted change with optimism and innovation.

In addition to their academic prowess, our student-athletes are unmatched on the field, on the court, and in the arena. Stanford teams have won a nation-leading 134 NCAA championships, well ahead of second-place UCLA with 121. More than 170 Stanford-affiliated athletes have won a combined total of 296 medals in Olympic competition, and at the 2020 Tokyo Games, only 10 countries had a higher medal count than Stanford’s 26.

The past few years, and especially the past few months, have made clear that we are operating in a quickly changing national landscape. 

Last summer, the Pac-12 Conference faltered after eight universities decided to leave for other conferences despite Stanford’s efforts to stabilize the conference and its proud tradition. It was imperative to join a new conference that would provide our outstanding athletes with top-notch competition. After exploring the available alternatives, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne secured an agreement for a new home in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). This move will provide a foundation of stability for our teams but will also challenge us to ensure that our student-athletes receive the support they need for their academic success.  

To complicate matters, college sports are undergoing a major transformation with new and powerful incentives. The transfer portal has enabled athletes to switch schools with unprecedented ease. Institutions have begun making education-related payments of up to $5,980 to student-athletes under the Alston court decision; we will begin doing this for our own scholarship student-athletes. In addition, our student-athletes are eligible to benefit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). The changes in the relationship between student-athletes and their institutions are likely to continue at a rapid pace unless legislation provides a framework.

Fortunately, I have been able to rely on the advice of Professor Condoleezza Rice, trustee emerita Mariann Byerwalter, ’82, and a new Athletic Affairs Committee to chart a course that navigates these dynamics and stays true to our values while minimizing the financial impact of the transfer to the ACC.

The scale of change that is occurring in collegiate athletics is remarkable, yet Stanford always has confronted change with optimism and innovation. Amid the uncertainty and turbulence, the university will continue its commitment to supporting our student-athletes’ pursuit of academic and athletic excellence.

Richard Saller is president of Stanford University.

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