By Giaco Corsiglia & Ned Kleine
Volume XXXVII, Issue 2, April 4, 2014
Every year, Amherst publishes a report on student housing patterns that presents the percentage of each dorm’s residents that fall into a given set of categories: Pell Grant recipients, male vs. female, international, legacy, etc. There are some interesting trends, but the one that we’re going to discuss here is the breakdown of athletes vs. non-athletes. Leading the pack is Waldorf, followed closely by Stone, which, with its ratio of one non-athlete for every six athletes, represents the largest population of athletes concentrated in a single dorm. On the other end of the spectrum, not one of Marsh’s 26 residents plays a varsity sport. All of the social dorms fall at or above the average of 35 percent varsity athletes, while most other suite-style residence halls, as well as the other dorms on the Hill and theme housing, have significantly lower percentages of athletes. This may not come as a surprise to residents of any of these dorms, but it does highlight the divisions that exist on Amherst campus; not one of the other categories in the report had such significant variation between dorms.
As a college, Amherst makes a big deal out of the diversity of students’ backgrounds and the benefits of bridging the divides that arise out of this diversity. The mission statement of the Diversity and Community Committee (one of the core committees of Peter Uvin’s Strategic Planning initiative), acknowledges the need to “change the culture of segmentation on the Amherst campus.” We would argue, based both on the statistics quoted above and our experience of Amherst’s culture, that the oft-mentioned athlete/non-athlete divide is one of the most important—and the most artificial—causes of segmentation.
We believe that varsity athletes are not fundamentally different from other populations at Amherst. Most people would agree that we’re all worried about similar things: our relationship dramas, our grades, and whatever other activities we choose to pursue. Obviously, everyone is not going to interact with everyone else, and athletes are probably more inclined to spend time with each other than with non-athletes. But there is no reason why the two groups should exist in near complete polarization as they currently do, since being an athlete is by no means the central feature of a person’s character. The present division is artificial, and therefore must spring from some systemic problem at Amherst.
We maintain that the Athletics Department is primarily responsible for creating and reinforcing the athlete/non-athlete divide. There is no other department on campus that exists only to serve a preselected group of students, and there is no other department that prioritizes the needs of those students above those of the general population. The Athletics Department, through its apportionment of resources and effort, constantly reinforces the idea that there really ought to be an athlete/non-athlete divide, since students are more or less entitled to use the athletic facilities only if they play a varsity sport. In fairness, the department isn’t actively trying to create this division; it’s simply apportioning limited space according to its priorities: the molding of teams and athletes into the best and highest-performing competitors in the ‘cac. But inherent in this goal is an indifference toward students who aren’t varsity athletes, even, at times, to the point of disrespect.
Both of us are on the ultimate team, which has had a series of problems with the Athletics Department—from negative interactions with coaches, to consistent difficulty in reserving any sort of field space, and even to threats from the department that club sports as a whole could be disbanded. One of the most egregious incidents came when baseball and soccer coach Brian Hamm began a practice cutting across the middle of a field that we had reserved and were already using to scrimmage, effectively ending our game. His actions were so blatantly disrespectful that one of his players actually emailed the ultimate team to apologize later that day. These problems put a strain on the team because of the constant worry that we will be denied access to the field space that is necessary to our existence. Of course, Athletics’ attitude toward our team is not in itself creating the athlete/non-athlete divide. But it is indicative of the department’s general attitude, which is that athletic activity—in which, supposedly, all students should be encouraged to engage—is in reality something which we can participate in only at the convenience of varsity teams’ schedules.
The athlete/non-athlete divide begins during Orientation Week, when first-year athletes fall into the most comfortable social group available to them: their team. While the rest of the freshman class wanders forlornly across the Social Quad (or doesn’t), those students who have upperclassmen teammates to look out for them are able to avoid many of the most uncertain moments of what is easily the most awkward part of college. And there’s no real problem with that. What is a problem is the existence of a full-time position for an adult whose job it is to foster team bonding. Too often, this costs athletes the opportunity to develop more diverse social circles. And as the adult acts as a role model for these students—when coaches exhibit clear disrespect for non-varsity athletes—he or she implicitly encourages the same indifference in their own athletes.
This is not an intractable problem. There are some very specific steps that the administration, if it actually cares about fostering a true campus-wide community, could take to reduce the athlete/non-athlete divide. The first is to divide the Athletics Department’s resources more equitably. Most would consider sports and physical exertion an integral part of being healthy and having fun, but the Athletics Department often seems to be standing in the way of students’ abilities to enjoy the benefits of exercise, particularly if they’re not varsity athletes. As an example, the fields for the soccer teams—fully half of the available grass field space—are completely off-limits in the fall, even when the teams are not using them.
It’s also not difficult to envision an athletics department that supports athletes of all sorts, not just varsity ones. The Athletics Department should sponsor campus events to encourage physical activity among students who aren’t athletes. Imagine a school-sponsored kickball tournament one Saturday in September. We would definitely be there, and we imagine that plenty of varsity athletes would be as well. It would be a great way for both groups to compete together, something that almost never happens.
In short, we’re suggesting that the Athletics Department should attempt to inspire a love of athletics in all students, rather than just those who are recruited to play a varsity sport. Just as all students are students, many of us would also like to be athletes, but we’re constantly being told that the school doesn’t consider us as such. If that’s not a good way to create an artificial divide, we don’t know what is.