Volume XXXV, Issue 2, March 8, 2013
I’m writing this letter with mixed feelings. As a proud Amherst athlete, I have the privilege to represent one of the best Division III programs in the nation, which has given me an unbelievable sense of pride and achievement. Professor Dumm’s argument in his letter to The Student was an affront to the love that I and my peers have for our respective sports. It translated our sense of achievement into a kind of irredeemable egotism that, in its worst form, might allow us to believe we are above issues as serious as sexual respect. I believe that this implicit—though barely so—assertion was what was so infuriating about the article. I have invested 16 years in my sport, and it has certainly heightened my confidence as a person. But not to the extent that I would ever disregard the right that others have to make decisions about their body or whom they sleep with. Sure, lots of money is allocated to the Athletics Department to rebuild facilities, or buy new uniforms, but that is because our alumni still hold that same sense of pride that we do. It is very difficult to explain how, to use Professor Dumm’s words, a “violent sport” can mean so much to me, but it is important to understand that sports reinforce community, build character, and have taught me how to love and respect those around me.
My hope, though, is that Professor Dumm’s intended message was not to undermine us as athletes, but to push us to question the structure of the group to which we belong as it relates to issues of sexual misconduct. If that is the case—and I think it is—we athletes must take Professor Dumm’s assertions very seriously.
Professor Dumm cited a section from the report of the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct: “In the end our committee came to the conclusion that it was counterproductive to try to indict any one demographic. Rather we need to work as a community to identify structures and patterns of collective behavior that facilitate sexual misconduct and discourage reporting.”
It should be no surprise, however, that our social group was pursued first in discussing sexual misconduct. I completely agree, as many critics of Professor Dumm’s article have argued, that there should be no finger-pointing during this entire process named “Toward a Culture of Respect.” But we are taught at practice to communicate in a direct and efficient manner, and I must do that now. In some ways, we are guilty. We do act inappropriately, we do exclude, and we do think we are better. Most important, there is plenty of research supporting the claim that homosocial and hypermasculine spaces, of which athletic teams are an obvious example, are linked to misogyny and, ultimately, sexual misconduct. We can spend our time being offended, reinforcing the idea that athletes cannot take criticism, that we silence alternative viewpoints, or we can critically examine and try to understand this unfortunate dynamic. How might athletic structures lead to social and sexual intimidation? We must engage the question.
Anyone who knows me knows that I will be openly honest no matter what. It saddens me, but I am not afraid to say: I struggle to maintain consistently high self-esteem around male athletes. There is often no harm meant behind sexist comments or even “playful” touching in the socials, but it does not follow that no harm results, when you consider how these actions make a woman feel. But not wanting to be “that girl,” I say nothing because that would be “uncool.” Most often, you are a particular type, “uncool,” “slutty,” “cool,” not just to one athlete, but to a microcosm of that team, if not the entire team. The whole dynamic of team unity functions as source of success on the field, but a source of social intimidation off the field.
What all of the controversy truly means to me, though, is that we as a community are approaching this issue too delicately. We have to be able to make critical observations of actions made by groups, individuals and most importantly, ourselves. The only way to progress toward a safer, more respectful and more sexually comfortable environment, is to begin in discomfort and ask the hard questions. Discomfort means acknowledging the problems within and beyond our own social groups. Already we are tiptoeing around some serious issues. For example, the report, as Professor Dumm asserted, fails to discuss the intimidating social structures that emerge from athletic groups and underground fraternities, particularly as they relate to underreporting. That is not to say that these examples are the biggest, nor the only groups linked to sexual misconduct and assault. But the report subtly perpetuates the same culture of silence that we are trying to eliminate. If we cannot take up the uncomfortable questions, we will always be “Amherst awkward”—the athlete/ “NARP,” “Melvin,” non-athlete divide will remain. I want more for us. Athletes, we are not gods, and we are not infallible. Non-athletes, we also have feelings and some of us, myself included, recognize our problems and are willing and trying to fix them. Professors and administrators, we athletes are a part of a courageous and academically successful community, so do not reduce us to the stereotypical athlete that was accepted to Amherst on athletic merits alone.
We can all be better. I realize that my thoughts will provoke argument and disagreement. Regardless, my hope is to provoke discomfort, for that is the necessary starting point as we work towards change.