On most college and university campuses, there is an inherent gap between varsity athletes and non-athletes. At bigger Division I and even some Division II school this gap is exacerbated because athletes receive preferential treatment. Athletes at Division I institutions often receive athletic scholarships, reside in dorms specifically for athletes, take lighter class loads and even receive free athletic gear and sponsorships as opposed to athletes at Division III institutions where student-athletes simply come to the school to play the sport they love in almost all cases at a less–intense level. Admissions at Division 1 institutions can also “lower the bar” in order to get certain star athletic recruits with perhaps unsatisfactory GPAs and below average standardized–testing scores. On the flip side, Division III athletes do not receive athletic scholarships, take lighter class loads, receive “free gear” or live in “athlete–only” dorms. It is often rigorous academic institutions such as Vassar that tell their athletes that they are students before athletes and that academics take first priority above all else. Despite what should be a seemingly even playing field for both athletes and non–athletes at Vassar, there remains a rather large gap between the students and student–athletes.
This gap may partly be attributed to the unique social culture at Vassar, which does not have Greek life. As a result, many students would argue that athletic teams replace this lack of Greek life, as athletes tend to travel in packs and conform to the idea of “herd–mentality.” They eat together, throw parties together and for many this rigid group environment may be intimidating. Senior non–athlete Daniel Gutowski explained how athletic teams often act as the makeshift fraternities and sororities on campus: “There is definitely a huge divide between athletes and non–athletes in the Vassar social scene. Some of the teams are de facto frats/sororities that can be seen in a positive light (because they host parties and events) or in a negative light (because they dominate and monopolize the social scene and nightlife). Because Vassar is such a small school, the extent to which sports teams control Vassar nightlife can be overwhelming.”
From the perspective of an athlete, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Sophomore tennis player Dasha Ivenitsky explained, “I think that many people feel that athletes don’t include people who don’t place a sport when it comes to parties and the social life on the weekends. But I don’t think this is fair because I have very rarely seen people get kicked out of parties and most of the time it is not due to if they are athletes or not.”
According to former athlete senior Shane Flattery, who agrees with the notion that athletes tend to associate with other athletes, explained that this “herd-mentality” is completely normal and reasonable, saying, “Human beings will naturally form relationships of convenience. Being an athlete, you are consistently involved in social events that center on the sports atmosphere. Thus, your friends will be athletes if you are yourself an athlete. The same occurs with those in the arts department and other groups belonging to different sections of Vassar culture. To argue herd formation among athletes is wrong is simply denial of what is going on in every social circle at Vassar.”
Senior athlete Stoddard Meigs does not buy into this notion of a divide. “I don’t really perceive a stigma. In fact, athletes may talk more disparagingly about athletes than any other population at Vassar. As an athlete I have never felt that there was a stigma against me and most people thought that it was interesting that I played a sport. Often times my friends refer to me as ‘the one who does sports’ but that is the extent of my special treatment,” he explained.
Surprisingly, despite the Division III NCAA restrictions preventing athletes from being receiving special treatment, many non–athletes at Vassar have voiced concerns regarding perceived athlete advantage at Vassar. What many people do not often consider is the enormous amount of time athletics takes away from school, and that athletes at Vassar are not granted special accommodations for their work like athletes at Division I institutions.
Senior non–athlete Emma Roellke expressed sympathy for athletes, “If anything, I think athletes have it harder than non–athletes here on campus. They put in crazy practice hours, travel for games, arrive to school early for pre–season and still manage to get their work done. I don’t think many people realize what goes into being a student–athlete here and the time and dedication it requires. There are no freebies–if you miss class for a game, you’re making it up somehow or you’re paying the price on the exam.”
Flattery spoke from experience, “As a former athlete, I can promise that this [notion that athletes receive preferential treatment] is absolutely incorrect. Being an athlete is a burden, because the only advantage you gain is the ability to play the sport you love. This college does a good job of keeping equality among all students.” Ivenitsky added to this, saying, “Anyone has the ability to talk to a professor about extending a deadline or taking a test a different day. [In] season, most athletes have very little time during the weekends and will have to talk to a professor about accommodating their schedules.”
Ultimately, the “gap” between athletes and non–athletes and the stigmas surrounding athletes are not unique to Vassar. However, Vassar has the reputation for being a very socially aware school, which can shed a different light on certain situations. Gutowski agreed, “I don’t think this stigma is unique to Vassar, but I believe that the stigma at Vassar takes on a certain flavor given the size of the school and the strong concern for social justice issues. I believe the
stigma exists because of prejudice on the part of both athletes and non–athletes. I do not think it pertains to all student–athletes.”
And when asked if this “stigma” is deserved, senior non-athlete Josue Lugardo responded, “Deserved? It’s more of a consequence really. The few ‘frat-like’ sports teams’ behavior is going to naturally raise a few eyebrows and force people to form their own opinions on those teams and the people in them. I don’t think it’s right to judge any athlete based on the sport they do, or the team they’re on.” Gutowski agreed, “The stigma is usually applied broadly, when in reality, there are only a few athletes and sports teams that represent themselves and their teams poorly. At the end of the day, there are going to be narrow minded people among all circles, but I guess its the job of athletes and teams to be aware of how they are being perceived and to work towards bridging the gap (as it is the job of non-athletes)!” Additionally, senior former athlete Katie Eliot explained, “I think athletes are often viewed as part of a larger group, and sometimes held responsible for their teammates’ actions, or are assumed to have certain negative traits because one of their teammates has them. I also think that the bad things people do get more attention, and that non–athletes sometimes expect the worst from athletes.”
Meigs offered his perspective on how this stigma is formed and propagated, explaining, “Often times teams take up so much of student–athletes’ time that it is the only place they are able to meet people and make friends. Many students feel that if they leave their teams it will be impossible to make friends and therefore remain on sports teams purely for social reasons. Additionally, teammates and friends can feel hurt when their teammates quit teams or try to branch out, furthering the difficulties of athlete integration with the greater student body. 48–hour rules and other obligations that student–athletes have make it hard for them to maintain regular social lives that can be flexible or interact with non–athletes, making it so that most times they are unable to spend time with people not on their team’s schedule and their free nights are invariably spent celebrating with their teammates. Athletes also feel the bond of these obligations and the bond of shared community in athletics. This causes teams to come together and exclude outsiders, furthering their isolation. If anything the stigma is a reverse stigma in which athletes do not consider the outside community as viable friends for various reasons previously stated. This may cause people to feel that they are not welcome and, sadly, react in kind.”
With respect to the issue some students offered advice to both non–athletes and athletes. Roellke suggested, “The majority of people I know who speak negatively about athletes have never taken the time to get to know them. For athletes, try to emphasize inclusion and branch out of your team comfort zone. As a general rule of thumb, don’t make broad generalizations about people based on a single identity characteristic.” Lugardo, who also has many friends who are athletes, suggested an open–minded approach, “In comparison to my experience with athletes outside of Vassar, my experience with athletes has been pretty terrific. One thing I expected coming to Vassar was seeing all the sports team acting as a ‘frat’ and not really concerning themselves with anyone but themselves. I learned very quickly freshman year that that was not the case with every team, or every member.” As for now, this stigma and gap has yet to be eliminated, so we can all just hope to cohabitate in peace. Flattery agreed, “These people are different, and though there are people who are happy to bridge the gap, generally I would say leave it alone and try to be civil. We are all smart here, and it tends to work out more than we may think.”