For student-athletes who are graduating from Harvard College in 2023, the past four years have been marked with ups and downs — difficulties compounded by the loss of full sports seasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The chance to play on an NCAA Division I team offers students the highest possible college-level competition, representing the culmination of years of hard work and commitment. But, whether walking on or committing early, student-athletes at Harvard sign themselves up for a college experience markedly different from many of their peers.
Harvard prides itself on its rich athletic tradition, boasting 42 Division I teams and with more than 10 percent of incoming students recruited to play a varsity sport.
According to an analysis of year-by-year rosters by The Crimson, approximately one in four students who played on a varsity sports team in the 2019-20 season left their team before the 2022-23 season. This statistic includes both recruited athletes and “walk-ons,” students who join teams after arriving at the College.
Interviews with nearly a dozen former Harvard athletes suggested that time commitments, battles with injuries, and balancing a beloved sport and the desire for a more well-rounded Harvard experience contributed to decisions to step away.
Athletes also said Covid-19 added hurdles to the athletic experience and contributed to burnout, as many members of the Class of 2023 lost one to two full seasons as Harvard athletes during the pandemic.
Of the 295 freshman student-athletes from 2019-20 rosters, 220 remained on their teams in the 2022-23 academic year, putting the overall retention rate at roughly 75 percent. Still, there was significant variation by team.
The Crimson’s survey of the graduating Class of 2023 found that roughly 31 percent of the class did not remain on their team all four years, an increase from 20 percent in 2022.
Harvard lists rosters for 40 sports teams on its official athletics website. Of these teams, 13 experienced perfect retention of the 2019-20 freshmen class, while six had retention percentages at or below 50 percent.
These six included women’s ice hockey, men’s golf, women’s heavyweight rowing, women’s rugby, men’s lightweight rowing, and women’s lacrosse. Women’s teams experienced lower retention — at 71 percent — than men’s teams, which saw 78 percent retention.
Women’s ice hockey had the lowest retention rate of all 40 teams, with just 20 percent of the original freshman class remaining for the 2022-23 season. Earlier this year, dozens of current and former players leveled allegations of emotional abuse spanning years by longtime head coach Katey Stone in investigations published by the Boston Globe and the Athletic.
While Harvard did not comment directly on the full data or team retention rates, Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that the University encourages student-athletes to take advantage of the “myriad academic, social, and athletic experiences” available to undergraduates.
“We are thrilled when a student-athlete, whether recruited or not, chooses to participate in competition during the full course of their time at Harvard, but we also support student-athletes choosing to pursue different paths once they arrive on campus.”
Analysis by The Crimson for the graduating Class of 2020 similarly found that roughly a quarter of athletes in the class quit their sport by the time they graduated.
The student-athlete experience was dramatically shaped by Covid-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021: as case counts rose and fell, the Ivy League canceled four consecutive seasons.
Lindsey S. Lawson ’24, who played on the women’s basketball team for three seasons, said her athletic experience suffered from “a ton of restrictions” that were in place her freshman year. She noted difficulties caused by practicing with just one or two teammates in a limited training group throughout the fall 2020 semester.
Even after the return to campus, Lawson said, the consequences of these changes lingered.
“I was kind of burnt out at that point from the previous year of training alone and not having a season and not playing in games, really,” she said. “That was something that was weighing on me.”
Nina A. McCormack ’24, who quit the women’s lacrosse team in her sophomore spring, said she longed for the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team while experiencing difficulties in building connections remotely during her freshman season.
“All around, everyone was pretty heartbroken and people are dealing with that in their own ways,” she said. “So building community remotely with the sophomores, juniors, seniors that you’ve never met in person, as incoming freshmen, is pretty difficult.”
Arsh Dhillon ’23, who quit the women’s lightweight crew team, said coming back from Covid-19 offered an opportunity to reimagine her Harvard experience outside of athletics.
“It’s so crazy how the Covid year and then coming back not as a rower — it felt like an entirely new fresh start on who I am,” Dhillon said.
For some students, other opportunities at Harvard — and beyond — made playing a varsity sport too large of a tradeoff.
Per Harvard’s Student-Athlete Handbook, varsity athletes can expect to spend four hours a day and 20 hours a week on their sport while in season, and up to six hours per week in the offseason.
But travel to competitions, as well as social pressures to spend additional time with the team, can lead to athletics being a larger-than-expected commitment, many athletes said. Respondents to The Crimson’s senior survey reported devoting an average of 29 hours to athletics each week.
Cayla A. McFarlane ’24, who left the women’s soccer team before her junior season, cited the wealth of other opportunities at Harvard as a key reason for her departure.
“We’re gone all the time on the weekends and we practice every day, and that was very — both mentally, physically, and emotionally — taxing, but I don’t necessarily think that was specific to Harvard,” she said.
“I did feel like I was missing out on other things happening on campus,” she added.
Justin G. Han ’24, who quit the men’s lightweight crew team, said the time the sport required was “the most important factor” in his decision to quit.
“Eventually I decided that I myself wasn’t getting a lot out of remaining on crew, and that my time could be spent on more important things, like for my career, or classes, things like that,” he said.
Carolyn A. Wang ’23, who walked on to the women’s sailing team freshman year, said sailing did not feel like a sport she could do “half-heartedly.”
“There’s a bit of a stigma to not participating to the fullest extent, especially at the higher levels of the sailing team,” she said.
After quitting, Wang said she was able to take a painting class that met when she previously had sailing practice.
"It’s not something that I would have been able to do if I was still on the team,” she said.
Lawson said the diverse array of opportunities at Harvard — both in and out of the classroom — “empowered” her decision.
“I think if I were at any other school, I would have felt obligated to continue on even if it was very, very detrimental to my health,” she said.
McCormack said her departure from the women’s lacrosse team was influenced by a feeling that she “wasn’t being invested in” and had limited time on campus.
“I wanted to be putting my time and energy into something that was giving back to me and really something I was excited about,” she added.
Several students cited persistent or severe injuries as a key reason for departing from their teams.
Max Keck ’24, who has played water polo since he was 10, left Harvard’s team due to concerns around sustaining further serious injuries.
“I felt that if I was going to be running a risk anyway, I’d rather just have a more holistic student experience as someone that wasn’t on the water polo team, or as an athlete, since I hadn’t experienced that yet,” he said. “I really hadn’t experienced that ever in my life.”
Lawson said struggles with concussions, beginning in her sophomore year and continuing through January, gave her time to reflect on college athletics.
“I had kind of exhausted all my options with concussions specialists from MGH, all the support resources at Harvard — like mental health support, just like self-help, that type of thing,” Lawson said. “Still working out and still attending all the games and practices and not really taking the time that I needed to probably recover initially.”
“I wasn’t really getting better,” she said.
Melissa Meng ’24 left the women’s golf team halfway through her sophomore year in part due to chronic injuries.
“I realized that while I love the team, and I love golf, I also want to explore some of these other interests and given all the injuries and everything, I found that it might have been a better use of my time to go into these other passions that I had,” Meng said.
A handful of Harvard students leave their teams each year to play professional sports. NCAA regulations dictate that once a student chooses to compete at the professional level, they are no longer eligible to participate in college athletics.
A defenseman for the men’s ice hockey team for two seasons, Jack C. Rathbone ’22-’23 was drafted to the Vancouver Canucks, an NHL team, in July 2020.
“You know, you dream of playing college hockey and the next dream is to try and play professional hockey. That was kind of an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he said.
But for most other Harvard student-athletes, college athletics represents the end of their playing career, leading them to weigh their options differently.
McFarlane played soccer at the international level for Trinidad and Tobago, but she said limitations in infrastructure and compensation made playing professionally feel “less viable.” She struggled to find other career paths at Harvard while balancing the time required to play a varsity sport.
“My biggest fear was just leaving Harvard not knowing what I wanted to do and ending up in a job that pays well, because, you’re likely to get a good job coming out of Harvard, but wasn’t my passion,” McFarlane said.
Dhillon said the lack of women’s crew opportunities was a motivating factor for leaving the team.
“You’re thinking about the rest of your life, versus two years of your life and no one rows outside of college on the women’s side of things,” she said.
Still, many former student-athletes said they missed competing in their sports and being on a team after departing their athletic programs.
“Being able to compete and getting ready and getting up for games is something that I definitely miss. It was a huge part of my life,” Keck said. “It was a huge part of the reason I wanted to go to Harvard.”
Han, who joined crew through the novice program, said he misses the group environment.
“There’s just a group of people that you see every day who you spend a lot of time with, you all work together towards a common goal, that sense of camaraderie,” he said. “I definitely miss that a lot.”
Despite no longer being a member of the golf team, Meng said her relationship with sports has changed only marginally.
“My love for athletics will never go away. I think it’s just — I have a slightly different approach to it now,” she said.
McCormack said she struggled with the idea that her departure would reduce diversity within Harvard Athletics.
“Representation matters, and I’m a person of color, and I’m also part of the LGBT community, and those types of people are very underrepresented in lacrosse, and in a lot of other sports too,” she said. “So that is one thing I’m pretty sad about is that Harvard Athletics loses that type of diversity and that experience in their community.”
Despite the myriad of factors involved in the decision, Dhillon said she has no regrets.
“I think I miss sometimes playing a sport, but I don’t miss rowing. And I know that it’s probably the one decision during my college life that I’ve never looked back on,” she said.
The data includes the 295 current and former student-athletes who entered Harvard as part of the Class of 2020 whose names appeared on an Athletics Department roster published in the 2019-20, 2020-21, 2021-22, or 2022-23 academic years. The data included all athletes, both recruits and walk-ons.
To gather data for this article, The Crimson cross-referenced the four years of rosters, which are available on the Athletics Department website.