By John He ’16

Volume XXXVII, Issue 2, April 4, 2014

Athletics can be a touchy topic. Speaking about it risks alienating almost half of the student body. But surely this is understandable: to touch on athletics directly or indirectly addresses one-half of the identity of anybody who identifies as a student-athlete. It certainly is true that, regardless of whether it is the result of an artificial division or of actual differences in interests and personality, for many students, “athlete” or “non-athlete” has become an integral part of their identity.

So we call it the elephant in the room; we poke it gingerly and then flinch back. Everyone sort of talks about it, but nobody really wants to be on the record saying anything. Aside from one or two other articles on ACVoice, we’ve gently thrown a cloak over the issue and treat it simply as a lumpy mass impeding our progress. Given the prevalence of passionately held opinions and the frequency with which we hold up this divide as a critical problem, there has been a surprising silence on campus publications that directly address the root of the issue.

But it’s tragic how we have collectively come to accept it as simply the way things are. Difficult as the issue may be, we have come to a point where we can no longer hide behind the status quo that is the elephant.

Ned Kleiner and Giaco Corsiglia’s article in this issue takes a large step towards bringing some of these problems out into the open. But many more questions call out for our continued attention and for deeper probing.

We might start, tentatively, with the small and innocent questions, like What does the term student-athlete even mean? Does the label “student-athlete,” being distinct from a mere “student” who might be athletic but only incidentally athletic, preclude someone from being simply “student”? Does it suggest something quasi-professional, as “student-musician” or “student-artist” would?

Maybe we can then move on to bigger questions, like Why does it make sense for teams to practice during orientation? This, at least, we know the administration has pondered. Yet even as the school is poised to prohibit practices for the first four days of orientation, the next three days of FOOT and CEOT—for many the most formative experience of the week, the time when most lasting friendships are actually made— may remain open for athletic programming, in an apparent compromise with the Athletics Department. Dilemmas like this force us to seriously reconsider our priorities: conditioning that would be vital to teams’ successes, or a mere three days of community bonding?

We could also pause for a bit and entertain some more interesting questions and conspiracy theories, like, how in the world did the athletic department consolidate so much power to command such influence over orientation and admissions? Why does the Athletics Department occupy an especially exalted position, relative to other extracurricular activities (like the music department, for example, which also has sway over admissions, but much less)? 

Then there are more serious questions, fraught with hazards, like, How does the administration reconcile recruitment policies with the values of the College? Indeed, for students and outside observers alike, the prominence of athletics in admission continues to be a source of discussion. How does an admission policy that disproportionately promotes athletics shape the way we think about ourselves as a community? These are big questions.

But finally, the ultimate question: What is varsity athletics, anyway?

The problem is, as Ned and Giaco point out, even if the Athletics Department really is doing something to contribute to the divide, we can only concede that they are actually doing precisely what their job is to do: promote varsity athletics.

In a way, varsity athletics is a peculiar institution of American higher education. In most parts of the world, athletic programs are integrated into higher education exclusively as clubs, external to official administration. We could hardly say that their athletic experience is of any less worth or merit, any less serious or rigorous. It is therefore worth questioning how a varsity program even came about and why it was necessary: why do we need a behemoth institution to succeed on the field? Though we are far from the Division I schools (whose athletes, in some cases, feel the need to unionize), the fact remains that our programs are of a fundamentally different nature than club sports.

The idea of varsity programs, as we know it, inherently implies an institution that is self-sustaining. Whereas mere athletic teams come into being to serve the serious athletic endeavors of athletic students, to provide an outlet and space for the diverse athletic needs of the community (see, for example, Nick Bruce’s article in this issue), a varsity program recruits student-athletes in order to sustain itself. It exists as an end in itself. It exists to win (or, according to some, to attract alumni donation). And in order to win, it must necessarily recruit, or risk falling apart in years of weak interest.

Of course it seems natural to us that teams exist to win. Professional clubs, after all, also recruit and trade players—in order to win. Varsity sports, in its serious aspirations to succeed, fittingly, do not exist for the community, but for the medals they bring back. Yet could it be possible, as unpalatable as this possibility may seem, that the athletics program that we so cherish is actually not in line with our values as an institution?

I pose these questions not only because I’m curious, but also because I think as a community we ought to be more curious and critical about this. I doubt that we’re anywhere close to real answers, one way or another. But regardless of what the answers turn out to be, one thing is for sure: as much as we might pride ourselves in our athletics, we cannot simply write off the social divide as an unavoidable fallout of our yearnings for triumph on the fields and courts, and then proceed to suggest some ways of bridging that gulf. Because when we treat the divide as something that needs to be overcome, we only presuppose and accept as inevitable the original fault that divided us all, a fault that should never have existed in the first place.