by Helen Mayer, Sam Wohlforth, and Daniel Ahn

We were motivated to write this editorial because we believe that the national conversation started by Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” comments has added precious little to the conversation around sexual violence and athlete culture. Until recently, we had no reason to believe that the Amherst administration might be prepared to act on team-wide messages of the kind exchanged by the Harvard men’s soccer and cross country teams and Columbia men’s wrestling team. We obtained emails from a team-wide mailing list maintained by the Amherst men’s cross country team between June 2013 and August 2015 and found that the contents bear a striking resemblance to the Harvard and Columbia messages.

Our peer institutions’ decision to publicly condemn and discipline their athletes for messages similar in tenor to the Amherst men’s cross country team’s racist and misogynist email exchanges suggest to us that the Amherst administration might be able to craft an appropriate response. This editorial is intended to frame the impact of discourse between athletes in virtual spaces on Amherst writ large.

Members of the team frequently wrote explicitly racist messages that were either not addressed or praised by teammates. A former track team captain who also ran for the cross country team asked, “do asians really have horizontal vaginas?” In a GroupMe message, a white team member used the N-word. A current captain’s “fetish for the Orient” was noted. A then-rising first year on the team wrote, “If Rachel Dolezal can be president of an NAACP chapter, I can be a sophomore,” equating deceit about academic standing with the actions of Rachel Dolezal. One of the current seniors on the team wrote to a incoming recruit, “we may have to get you working out with mid d[istance], where we value bigotry, racism, being better than the distance squad and traditional conservative values.” The claim seems to stand.

Current team members repeatedly dehumanized women. An email from a current junior on the team and current Student Health Educator refers to two current women Amherst students as “meat slabs.” Another email, also by a current junior, was intended to introduce the incoming first years to the “friends of Amherst (XC)” and referred to a woman as a “walking STD.” The “Qualified Amherst Survival Guide” produced by a current junior on the team states that one of the current seniors on the team “won’t acknowledge anyone on the girls team as a human being.” No one on the team condemned any of these messages. In fact, the “Qualified Amherst Survival Guide” was widely praised, including by current captains of the team. If a group of men is comfortable referring to women as inanimate pieces of meat and refusing to acknowledge them as human beings, they are likely to think of women as undeserving of respect. Two years into campus-wide discussions about sexual respect, including mandatory athlete-specific education about sexual respect, this group of men consistently chose to not respect women.

The “Qualified Amherst Arrival Guide” includes a picture of a current junior who was kicked off the team during his first week of college. The description reads: “To put things in perspective: there are roofies in that Rubinoff […] To be honest, [current junior] really isn’t a bad guy. But much like a Bull in a China Shop, he did far too many drugs while allegedly sexually harassing a girl and got kicked off the team.” This description manages to casually refer to a person’s ongoing practice of using date-rape drugs and to his previous alleged act of sexual violence, and then to state that he “really isn’t a bad guy.” At best, this is a failure to condemn a suspected rapist. But it’s hard to see how this message doesn’t exonerate and glorify this current student who is elsewhere referred to as a “legend.”

In their offline interactions, both within the team and with other members of the Amherst community, team members might act respectfully towards women, people of color, LGBT people, and members of other marginalized groups. But those who feel policed in face-to-face interactions may realize the potential for duplicity and choose not to voice their misogynist and racist comments in public but instead voice them in a space where they can reasonably expect impunity.

It’s worth noting that the cross country team doesn’t have a reputation for being a hotbed of toxic masculinity. But being exempt from a reputation as a hotbed of toxic masculinity does not absolve the men’s cross country team of its responsibilities toward the larger Amherst community. If Amherst is serious about bridging the student/athlete divide and minimizing the toxicity of athletic spaces, we must insist that every team mandate respect for all members of the Amherst community, within and without the team.

The degree to which the team discourse rapidly devolves into degrading remarks when team members are placed behind keyboards should give us pause. The email chains’ explicitly stated purpose was to provide rising first year athletes with a window into team culture and culture at the school at large. In using misogynist and racist speech in this introduction, the older members of the team signalled to first years that the team would condone misogynist and racist speech and behavior.  

In maintaining this toxic email chain, the team leadership fails its first mission to its first years and to the school community. Team leaders are supposed to model and enforce a culture of respect towards members of the team and of the Amherst community at large. Even if the team does not generally condone this behavior during the year, celebrating it on the summer emails signals to first years that they need not take their obligations to respect others seriously during the year.

Racist, homophobic, transphobic and misogynist messages exchanged in a GroupMe for members of the Columbia men’s wrestling team recently came to light. Most of the seniors were kicked off the team after a Columbia investigation revealed that they had played a driving role in the messages. Hudson Taylor, who was an assistant coach during the seniors’ first season, penned an editorial for the Columbia Spectator. In examining the role of coaches in team culture, he wrote, “Maybe our vigilance pushed that kind of language out of the locker room and into cyberspace. Maybe our conversations focused too much on optics and not enough on attitudes.” His comments suggest that virtual spaces are a blind spot for coaches and athletic directors, which is confirmed by these emails.

The national debate about athlete culture has been framed by President-elect Donald Trump’s description of his bragging about acts of sexual harassment as “locker room talk.” This defense prompted many athletes around the country, including athletes here at Amherst, to adamantly assert that their locker rooms are free of “locker room talk.” But if we allow the debate to be framed in terms of “locker room talk,” we are centering our discourse on the words of an assailant. Every time we say “locker room talk,” we are also suggesting that athletes need to keep one another accountable only in the locker room. If we keep using this phrase and choose to keep ignoring the role of virtual spaces in athlete culture, we will allow this discourse to keep unfolding with impunity. It’s time we critically examine all athlete spaces.