Op-Ed on the Sports Quota Admissions in IIT Madras

Starting this year, IIT Madras is introducing the Sports Excellence Admission (SEA) program to reward and encourage students who have excelled in sports. Two supernumerary seats per branch in each of the B.Tech. programs will be added. One of these seats is reserved for women athletes while the other is gender-neutral.

Besides the introduction of supernumerary seats, this initiative is supported by a new sports complex that also houses the  Center of Excellence in Sports Science and Analytics (CESSA). The institute has introduced eight sports electives such as ‘Mechanics of Sports’ and offers flexibility in elective choices for incoming sports students. The newly-inducted students need to opt for only 60% of fixed electives and are free to choose the remaining 40% from the sports electives.

To read more about SEA, eligibility criteria, and the selection process, visit: https://jeeadv.iitm.ac.in/sea/information.html . This is an opinion piece.

Fresh after winning the General Championship in the Inter-IIT Sports Meet, an enthusiastic Director Kamakoti confirmed the introduction of a sports quota starting next year. Some of us were surprised, some of us felt threatened, and some of us felt that this had nothing to do with us. But some of us had thoughts about this move, which may be echoed in the piece below.

At the outset, let us address the positives.

The presence of a high-performing athlete on the field can definitely motivate other students to engage more seriously in the sport. Besides just performance, such athletes carry invaluable insights on diet, muscle recovery, and game strategies, which allow them to function as additional coaches/mentors on track. A national or international medallist has more sporting credentials than most of our existing coaches. Given the current coach-to-student ratio, the presence of sports quota students can help our sporting culture thrive directly – through on-field guidance, and indirectly – by being role models and inspirational figures that other students try to embody. 

In a primarily technical institution like IIT Madras, the incoming batch of sports students can foster an interdisciplinary approach to academics and life beyond it. The institution, at large, can create a more holistic educational environment that values diverse talents and perspectives. Such an approach mirrors the structure of some of the top colleges and research institutions in the world such as Harvard and Stanford, where collaboration across different fields leads to innovative solutions and better learning outcomes.

Immediate sentiments against the sports quota often stem from two schools of thought.

The first is the argument of technological purity, which posits that IIT should remain solely focused on technology, maintaining its status as the pinnacle of technical education. This argument is one that is definitely not new to the humanities, management or new medical students on campus. “The T in IIT stands for technology bro,” remarks Student A while finishing 100 out of his 400 BTech credits in the HS department.

The second argument is based on the notion of merit, suggesting that admissions based on sports excellence devalue the efforts of those who cleared the rigorous academic entrance exams. Thankfully, wellwishers on smail over the last couple of days have made these arguments so that I didn’t have to repeat. Again, the problem is that such an argument is ideologically similar to those made against reservations for marginalized communities or women, relying on an assumption of “true merit” that is purportedly compromised by diversification. 

Both these narratives rest on the same flawed assumption that merit is an absolute measure unaffected by external factors. This very idea of merit is problematic, as it assumes a level playing field where everyone has equal access to resources, capital, and networks. In reality, especially in cultures of hypercompetitive exams with standardized testing, this is rarely the case. Significant rural-urban, caste, class, and gender differences exist, making the playing field uneven. The idea of an IIT remaining exclusive, for the “top 0.001%” or “creamy” layer, anchors firmly on these asymmetric power structures. Despite no explicit mention of intent, the sports quota, in some small way,  recognizes these disparities and moves towards a more equitable system where different forms of excellence are valued equally and are allowed to co-exist.

With that being said, let us address a few shortcomings from the perspective of the existing sports culture on campus. We begin with a simple math problem.

The current size of the IITM Contingent is around 160, with about 60 women and 100 men. 

Each year, 20 students will enter through the sports quota the four-year B.Tech Programmes. 

Let us assume that there are 10 male and 10 female students.

It is also fair here to assume that a student who enters through sports quota is most likely to be better than the best institute sportsperson and therefore, will definitely make it into the Inter-IIT Contingent.

Within a span of four years, 80 out of the 160 students in the Contingent will be from the sports quota, reducing the number of spots available for non-sports quota students by 50%, with a much higher effect on the women’s contingent.

While the above math assumes an equal intake into each of the Inter-IIT sports, we also argue that the effects may be more or less pronounced on certain sports. In individual sports such as athletics, the maximum number of students from one IIT allowed to compete in a single race is two. The advent of two ace players essentially takes away a majority of spots given that they are likely to be faster in multiple distances. In team sports such as football or volleyball where spots are assigned based on the position played, the presence of a superstar player essentially precludes others from trying or succeeding in that particular position. 

The problem here simply doesn’t rest with the fact that the spots of existing members are ‘threatened’. In a sporting culture that is driven by the collective goal of Inter-IIT, adding accomplished athletes with a sure-shot chance of selection alters the reward mechanism for other players. Existing sportspeople might experience dejection or despondence as the existing rewards (medals, coach recognition or institute awards) disproportionately fall to the sports quota students. New joinees of a sport or ‘probables’ might also lose their enthusiasm since they know that there are less seats to compete for, therefore flipping the payoff mechanism of them trying to make it. Even competitions such as Schroeter’s or Dean’s may become predictably unfair due to the concentration of sports students in certain hostels. 

Such trickle-down effects are pertinent because pursuing a sport on campus is a physically and mentally rigorous task. Most teams practice for about 2-3 hours a day and follow a strict diet and training regimen. The ‘feels’ of being selected for the team or possibly winning an Inter-IIT medal are the main motivators for student athletes beyond just a personal love for the sport. Therefore, at every stage of sporting culture, from new joinees to probables to existing players, the likelihood of despondence and consequently, dropout is much higher. The existing structures of competition and incentives need to be altered to accommodate for these changes.

This article further argues that such a program is also antithetical to the spirit of Inter-IIT as a whole. Inter-IIT began as an avenue for students from primarily technical institutions to showcase their sporting talents and compete for a legitimate chance at victory; as opposed to finding the best sporting talents of the country. Having national and international medallists in our contingent undoubtedly gives IIT-Madras a competitive edge over other IITs, making each match, and the GC fight at large, very one-sided. As much as we would like to milk content for another four months straight by winning the GC again, this removes the excitement or healthy competition that comes from having two equally matched sides compete on a bigger stage. One can expect other IITs to oppose this, and hopefully, Madras has a workaround. 

To conclude, both on the upstream (Inter-IIT) and downstream (novices) aspects, the sports quota raises questions of fairness and equal opportunity. While moving beyond the language of “academic merit” and opening our gates to students of diverse backgrounds, there needs to be an uncomfortable but necessary shift in our mindsets, structures and, importantly, playfields. Nonetheless, let us welcome these achievers with open arms and forge our future together!


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