The Athletics Department needs a makeover. It is no secret on campus that there is a divide between the athlete community and the non-athlete community. While I personally think that the divide has in some part to do with various misunderstandings between these two communities, there are also structural and systemic issues within the campus, and within the Athletic Department, that contribute to this divide that need to be addressed. As a former Vassar athlete, I can attest to having witnessed many of the problems I’ve listed below. While the claims that I make in this piece are my own, and I do not cite any concrete evidence, I do not think they are far from the truth.
First let’s talk about two major issues: class and race. From a quick peek at the Athletics website, the team rosters and the athletics staff, it is quickly apparent that things are pretty white. Vassar claims and strives to be a diverse and inclusive environment, yet somehow this goal does not seem to quite reach the Athletics Department. The lack of athletes of color ultimately comes down to recruitment. Why aren’t coaches recruiting fewer white athletes? Granted, generally there are fewer athletes of color present at recruiting events, but that is no excuse for coaches. They must make a conscious effort to recruit people of underrepresented identities rather than hide behind the “self-selection” excuse. After all, when an athlete is recruited, they get a little extra leg up on their application. This privilege should go towards promoting diversity, not helping people who could get in on their own.
In my experience, athletes who play at the Division 3 level do so because they love the sport and because they can afford to. At Vassar, where there are no athletic scholarships, no one is playing a sport at this campus because they got a full ride. I would say that most of the varsity-level athletes come from middle class and above. Why? Sports are expensive. The amount of money and time that these athletes and their families have put in to get to this level is a lot. Driving, flying, traveling to tournaments and meets around the country, paying for meals and travel and hotels—not to mention the gear. Even at the college level, every year players have to purchase team gear that can often be over $100. That’s a lot of money and often it is just assumed that everyone on the team can make the payment. I mean, full-paying students have to come from somewhere, right? But, I believe that there is a large concentration of them in athletics, and that in turn creates a space that is not welcoming to people who deviate from the class and racial norm and clearly divides the student body. Additionally, athletic teams typically form your primary social group. One of the draws of coming to Vassar is being exposed to different groups and opinions, but this does not happen when your primary social circle comes from cookie cutter backgrounds.
Furthermore, while there has been immense pressure within Athletics to deal with sexual assault and abuse within the athlete community, there has been little discussion of other prevalent issues, such as racism, sexism and classism. This is largely due to the relative isolation of the Athletics Department from the rest of Vassar. Coaches do not regularly interact with professors or students outside of their teams, meaning that they do not have exposure to, or interaction with, many viewpoints that most Vassar students take for granted. This kind of isolation leads to the use of potentially harmful and even racist, classist and sexist language during practices, in the weight room and in other athlete-dominated spaces. This kind of isolation has led to inappropriate outbursts on Twitter by athletic staff and unequal representation and media coverage across teams by the department.
There also needs to be a discussion of politics within the athletic community, especially when there is a nationwide movement going on. You would think that on a campus like Vassar where there are always discussions about the current state of politics and various events and protests taking place, that something similar would be happening in the athlete community. Au contraire, there is absolutely no discussion of the #takeaknee movement, or how the Athletics Department
and community could take part. This lack of political awareness is clearly connected to race and class issues and leads to people making insensitive comments about other teams and schools who do participate in these movements.
This inequality within the Athletics Department can even be seen in some of the campaigns they run, such as the recent 27 for 270 Challenge. In this campaign, the 27 athletic teams had 27 hours to receive 270 or more “gifts” specifically for the department. The team that received the most donations relative to their roster size won $5,000 in funding in turn. To raise this money, athletes were supposed to reach out to their families and to team alums. This campaign is unfair in a few ways. For various reasons, certain teams have a much larger support network than others. This means that before the competition even started, it wasn’t hard to to guess which teams were most likely to win because of their larger support networks. While Women’s Golf took the grand prize (due to a mathematical advantage of a 6 person roster), the next few teams were exactly who you would expect: Baseball, Men’s Basketball, and Men’s and Women’s Lacrosse— teams that don’t need extra money because they already have alums and family members willing to donate. The money raised from this “challenge” should go to teams that are newer, have a smaller alum network and don’t have rich families supporting them. This kind of competition just reinforces existing structural barriers in our system, something that the Athletics Department might be more aware of if they interacted with the larger Vassar community on a more regular basis.
The Athletics Department and athlete community need to be better. It would be beneficial to all of Vassar if the Athletics Department took this opportunity to reflect and reconsider the ways that they interact with the campus community as a whole. The entire Athletics Department itself is part of the problem, but it also can be part of the solution. This is an opportunity to learn and, hopefully, to make the Athletics Department a more inclusive space.