Athletes critique institutional privilege, practices and policy

[CW: mentions of sexual misconduct, sexual violence, racism, transphobia and discrimination.] 

Introduction

This article was co-written by five current and former Vassar student-athletes: Claire Basler-Chang (volleyball), Lena Stevens (formerly volleyball), Reis Kissel (soccer), Liam Condon (squash), and Kai Mawougbe (track and field). 

We feel the need to address the prevalence of sexual assault and bigoted beliefs within Vassar’s athletic community by taking a hard look at how Vassar athletics functions at both the student and administrative level. We have combined our personal experiences as BIPOC athletes, research into Vassar’s Title IX policy as well as that of other similar institutions, and data about the demographic makeups of student-athletes, athletic faculty and Vassar as a whole in this piece. 

It is important to acknowledge the factors that motivated us to write this piece. In early July, a few members of the Vassar baseball team sent an email alleging a cyberbullying incident to President Bradley and members of the student body. This email used racially charged language and stereotypes in a way many students viewed as harmful. The Vassar Insider published an article on the topic shortly after, which downplayed the vulgarity of the language used in the email. The article has since been removed from the Insider website. While the email and subsequent article catalyzed intense debate within the Vassar community, it is clear to us that they are only symptoms of issues that have existed for decades—namely, Vassar’s perpetuation of white privilege and athletic privilege, especially as perpetrators of sexual violence. We seek to highlight the systemic nature of the aforementioned problems and call upon both the administration and all student-athletes to think deeply about what they can do to be part of the solution. 

As present and former athletes, we recognize how easy it is to homogenize the wide range of athletes’ identities and beliefs. It is our belief that the majority of athletes at Vassar do not hold explicitly bigoted beliefs, even if they do hold unconscious biases as a result of instutionalized racism, but we feel it is time for every one of us to accept responsibility for our past complacencies and actively work towards change. Approximately 20 percent of Vassar students are involved with athletics. If one in five Vassar students is an athlete, it is unreasonable to assume that athletes on swim, crew or golf have any direct control over the actions of athletes on baseball, basketball or lacrosse and vice versa. They can, however, directly influence their own team culture, and in doing so indirectly influence the cultures of other sports. Passivity is privilege. We all have a responsibility to speak out against injustices we see in our community and to foster a safer, more welcoming community for our fellow students of color. Other students are right to be angry when inequities are exposed and athletics remains largely silent. So today, we say that the email sent to President Bradley by members of the baseball team weaponized racist language and stereotypes to uphold a culture of white privilege at Vassar, and that the Vassar Insider was wrong to amplify and give credibility to the narrative promoted in the email.

The student-athlete community is not the only place from which we demand improvement: A pattern of non-transparency exists within the Athletics Department. Throughout writing this article, we found obstruction in obtaining demographic information; resistance to communicating solutions and accountability with the larger student body; and inconsistencies in allegedly unchangeable policy. Our goal is to shed light on information actively withheld from student-athletes and to prompt greater departmental effort, attention and commitment in solving existing inequalities within Vassar Athletics. We understand that both athletic policy and student-athlete culture combine to create, promote and protect these systems of harm, and feel it is necessary to interrogate every level of Vassar Athletics if there is to be meaningful change.

Policy

Strong college sexual misconduct policies are an important element in the prevention of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. However, we recognize that activism centered around policy may not be a viable option for marginalized communities that have been discriminated against, treated with hostility or simply ignored by institutional systems. We need to focus on community-based prevention, support and restorative practices in addition to policy. Policy alone is inadequate to prevent violence, but does serve as a necessary deterrence and therefore merits deep attention and consideration by the college administration. 

The Policies and Sanctions section of the Student Athlete Handbook covers multiple rules, regulations and expectations, ranging from facility use to hazing to missed class time. The Alcohol, Tobacco and Drug Policy has a very specific two-tier sanction process aligning the punishment administered by coaches and administrators with the severity of the consumption and infraction. There is also a Hazing Awareness and Prevention section that meticulously outlines the definitions of hazing, its harmful nature and ways in which teams can prevent hazing from occurring. However, when viewing the Policy against Discrimination and Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct and Gender-Based Violence Policy, you are redirected to the Vassar College policy and guidelines. Once directed, you will find volumes of regulations outlining different forms of assault, misconduct and discrimination and the College’s procedures for handling those incidents. 

Herein lies the problem. If there is racial discrimination, harassment or sexual misconduct perpetrated by a student-athlete, the incident is handled only by Vassar College resources, rather than athletics also utlizing it’s own system of sanction and punishment. In some instances, coaches and staff are mandated to report to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA). Once an incident is formally handled by a College entity such as the EOAA, the Vassar Athletic Department and the coaches lose all autonomy and authority in administering athletics-based punishment or even evaluation. The language of the Student Athlete Handbook prevents Athletics Department intervention or ruling once an individual’s case has been formally brought to Vassar College resources. Privacy policy also dictates that “Dissemination of information and/or written materials to persons not involved in the complaint procedure is not permitted…[and] may lead to disciplinary action by the College.” So if an ongoing case involves a player, their coach cannot directly discuss or address it with their team. Confidentiality surrounding student conduct records also ensures records are private unless with written consent from that student, so there is little to no demographic information available on how many students at Vassar, student-athletes or not, have been found guilty of sexual misconduct and assault. Additionally, Section 11 of “When the Accused Is a Student” in “Title IX Hearing,” states that “Retaliation, intimidation, or reprisal of any kind following a hearing, or during or after any phase of the Title IX investigative process, will not be tolerated.” Thus, once a punishment is administered by the Title IX office, the athletic administration is not allowed to take any further punitive action against that player since legally the player has completed their sanction administered by the College. 

The reason privacy and anti-retaliation policies exist is to provide protection for all parties involved in Title IX cases. Specifically, anti-retaliation policies aim to protect anyone involved in a Title IX case from discrimination such as harrasment, bullying or unfair treatment by staff and students. These policies are vital to the protection, safety and rehabilitation of not only survivors but also of the accused. The problem occurs when policies, or lack thereof, privilege athletes and members of orgs on campus, and become tools to maintain and promote complicity and secrecy.

The language of the Student-Athlete Handbook dictates the power the department has in holding student-athletes accountable for their actions on and off the field. Since Vassar receives federal funding, it is legally obligated to follow federal policies like Title IX. Thus, the administration has little control over the baseline standardized federal procedure. However, this does not necessarily mean the college and other departments within the college, such as athletics, cannot add on to the existing policies. While Vassar’s Student-Athlete Handbook denotes primary authority for sanctions to the Vassar administration, new policies granting greater autonomy to the athletic department are not outside the bounds of possibility. Page 14 of the Amherst College Student-Athlete Handbook states that “Any athletics-based consequences are entirely separate from any discipline or disciplinary process that may be applicable under the Amherst College Code of Student Conduct. Athletics-based consequences are not contingent upon any outcome or process under the Amherst College Code of Conduct.” The key articulation in this statement is non-contingency. This grants the Amherst College athletic department the capability to administer punishment regardless of whether the Amherst College administration has already given a sanction. Furthermore, even if a student-athlete has carried out their punishment dispensed by the college, they could still lose their privilege to play on an athletic team. The wording of the Williams Student-Athlete Code of Conduct is similar. They maintain a board within athletics that makes their own rulings, in addition to the college administration decisions, on any violations of the code which includes sexual assault and misconduct. We believe Vassar Athletics should adopt a similar clause for the Student-Athlete Handbook.

Athlete Privilege

How then does the layout of Title IX in tandem with Vassar College’s policies create a dynamic in which athletes are privileged over non-athletes? As was ascertained by both the aforementioned Privacy Policy and Section 11 of “Title IX Hearing,” although coaches are mandated reporters like all Vassar employees, they have no autonomy in the administration of discipline to any of their athletes accused of sexual assault. This applies in the instances when an athlete is found guilty by a Title IX hearing, an athlete is not found guilty by the evidence provided and when a victim chooses not to proceed with a Title IX hearing. Unless the actions taken by the College itself involve suspension or expulsion as is stated in Section 7 of “Hearing Procedures” (this decision is made by the Dean of the College), any athlete that is found guilty of sexual assault resumes practice, play, travel and competition as normal. It is at the discretion of the Dean and not the coaches or athletic director to decide if such a punishment will include forfeiting athletic activity. As participation in athletics is a privilege afforded to some college students that includes travel, competiton, potential awards and interaction with other institutions, the truth of this dynamic is that athletes accused or even found guilty of sexual assault may retain these certain acquired privileges even when their actions could, or have been proven to pose a danger to others. This puts into question the oft-used trope that athletes are held to a higher standard. As an accused athlete’s punishment does not extend to the privilege of athletic participation, and as coaches risk serious legal and professional repercussions for following through with potential punishments for sexual assault accusations, it appears as though athletes are not held to a higher standard than other students but in fact their abilities placed at a greater value than the safety of other students. 

Although it has been made clear by the student conduct policies of both Amherst College and Williams College that Vassar is not unable to implement something similar so that no student, athlete or non-athlete, found guilty of sexual assault or misconduct retains unnecessary liberties, it should be noted how deeply ingrained this kind of athlete privilege is within higher education. While Division III schools like Vassar are not required by the NCAA to have athletes be certified by the NCAA Eligibility Center, Division I and Division II schools are. There are different ways in which an athlete can lose their eligibility, including, but not limited to, failing to meet academic requirements, receiving payment for play from a team or using a recruiting agent. What is not included in this list of risks to eligibility is being found guilty of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. This essentially means that athletes at Division I and Division II schools found guilty of sexual assault remain eligible for sport. Even in the event of expulsion, a guilty athlete can transfer to another school within the same division and continue to play. For schools such as these, neglecting to mention the impact of sexual violence on eligibility sends a message that the athlete’s ability to play is valued over the safety of other students at these schools. Division III schools like Vassar don’t require these same guidelines. According to the NCAA’s website describing the differences between Division I, II, and III schools, Division III schools provide an environment focused primarily on academic success while Division I and II schools focus on high-level competition and manage the largest athletic budgets. This illustrates the way in which Division III schools like Vassar are meant to and tend to place greater value on a student’s academic and social experience over their athletic experience. Athletes at Division III schools are subject to their college or university’s own conduct rules that regulate the eligibility to participate in sport. This is why it is so vitally important that Vassar’s policies, like that of the Student-Athlete Handbook and Title IX, be revised to allow for the Athletic Department to operate as a somewhat autonomous entity, especially when it comes to disciplinary matters involving sexual assault and misconduct. Athletic privilege in no way should be valued over the academic and social well-being of all students present at the College. Vassar has the opportunity, the power, and most importantly the responsibility to ensure that it is not. 

Culture and Standards 

As discussed in the prior sections regarding athlete privilege, athletes are supposedly held to a “higher standard.” Coaches and other athletic department staff often use this expression during trainings, meetings, practices and games, and it is accepted and often internalized by student-athletes. But what is this “higher standard” that the athletic community claims to abide by? In athletics, an individual has the power to represent the whole. Consider this example: A soccer player from Vassar swears at a referee on the pitch. The opposing team, fans and said referee will now view Vassar Athletics in a negative light, even though the actions of the individual may not necessarily represent the values of the rest of the Athletic Department. Due to the responsibility of being an athlete, our behavior is put under a microscope. Thus, each athlete’s attitude, respectfulness, mindfulness, kindness and other attributes/characteristics must be especially well-mannered because they represent more than just themselves. We would argue that because athletes most frequently represent Vassar when they depart campus for games and other team events, they should indeed hold themselves and their actions to high standards of respect. Unfortunately, off campus is where “higher standards” are primarily enforced and enacted. In reality, for many athletes, these standards become twisted and manipulated into a culture that allows greater athlete privilege, leeway, freedoms and entitlement when on campus. In other words, Vassar Athletics’ attempt to hold athletes to a “higher standard” in practice translates to athletes facing a separate system of accountability than other students; one which is deeply flawed. 

What are these “higher standards,” how do they get manipulated into a harmful culture, and how does this translate into a separate system of accountability? Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger articulates the phenomenon of athlete privilege and its many faces in an excellent editorial titled The Boys in the Clubhouse.” Elements of the culture within Vassar Athletics are analogous and at times almost identical to the themes Bissinger examines. 

When discussing a year spent with the St. Louis Cardinals, Bissinger illustrates how he was struck by the cocoon of insularity and extreme pampering seen throughout the team’s clubhouse. He says, 

“Sadly, and too often with tragic repercussions, athletes don’t distinguish right from wrong because they actually have no idea of what is right and what is wrong. Rules don’t apply. Acceptable standards of behavior don’t apply. Little infractions become bigger ones, and adults turn a blind eye. If someone gets into trouble, the first move is for an authority figure, usually in the form of a coach, to get them out of it. When that doesn’t work, whether they’re high school quarterbacks or pro-ball pitchers, one of two things happens. Sometimes, especially at the high school level, the community rallies around the accused, wanting to believe that ‘boys will be boys.’ … If and when the tide turns against players, they are immediately cast as bad apples, single exceptions to an otherwise acceptable moral status quo…We don’t want to admit that in all these stories, it’s not about the individual, or the individual sport, but about the culture we have allowed to grow around them (The New York Times, “The Boys in the Clubhouse,” 10.18.2014).”

The specific examples from professional sports are far removed from a Division III school like Vassar, but the prevailing themes still remain: atmospheres of willful ignorance; the prioritization of victory, reputation and economic well-being over morals, ethics and justice; lack of personal accountability in the face of a severe transgression (meaning: modest to no punishment or disciplinary action); deflection of blame; and many others. These systems of accountability and privilege are inextricably linked, giving athletes special rights and advantages that other members of the Vassar community do not have. 

There are connections that can be drawn. First, athletes are held to a supposed higher standard. This standard gives athletes a separate system of accountability for when they commit a transgression. This “system of accountability” includes more than just the individual athlete; because the reputation and economic well-being of the other members of the team, coaching staff, athletic administration, and the entire institution are threatened, it is within the best interest of all parties involved (excluding the victim), to use their institutional power to give preferential treatment to the alleged assailant. This “preferential treatment” can be equated to privilege. Privilege, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is a “right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.” This right or immunity can be attached specifically to a group of people (i.e., Vassar athletes), as well as assigning a “higher value” or “superior position” to one mode of discourse over another. For example, an athlete accused of sexual misconduct has multiple layers of protection coming from the coaching staff, athletic administration and the school itself, while a non-student-athlete generally only has oneself and their individual resources. In other words, the way in which a sexual misconduct case would be approached and dealt with for a student-athlete is drastically different for a non-athlete. What happens when Vassar athletes are treated in such a way where acceptable standards of behavior do not apply? The recent submissions to the Instagram accounts @vassarsurvivors and @blackatvassar, where survivors of sexual violence and antiblack racism may anonymously submit their stories, demonstrates how apodictic this culture is; student-athletes are featured frequently as perpetrators of violence. Moreover, white male athletes appear to be the predominantly featured assailants. Whether the athlete is conscious of the consequences of their actions or not, this privilege creates a culture of harm in which those who are outside of the athlete bubble are subject to the indubitable violence of Vassar Athletics. 

We understand that painting the entire athletics community with a single brush stroke is an oversimplification and is unproductive when engaging in constructive dialogue that promotes meaningful change. However, the harmful cultures created by systems of privilege and injustice that have remained for years in Vassar Athletics exists, and, in turn, has marked the entire athletics community with a reputation of toxicity. Whether you have committed an injustice, remained complicit or are actively fighting existing systems, this reputation includes all of us. Although not intended, this is part of all our identities. The aperture between positive intentions and positive impact on the BIPOC community at Vassar is cavernous and continues to expand. The loud silence that the Vassar community has felt from the Athletic Department regarding the events that took place this summer—the email sent to President Bradley from members of Men’s Baseball, the Vassar Insider article, COVID-19 fall planning—have left people confused, concerned and deflated. Not once were student-athletes asked about whether or not they felt safe competing in the fall, and not once were they asked for input on how to safely participate in competition during a global pandemic, a failure of communication that resulted in many athletes believing they would be faced with the possibility of deciding whether to put themselves and others at risk by competing or quit their teams. After advocating for safety, inclusion and anti-racism initiatives, the silence from the Athletic Department makes it appear that they are falling short of their proposed goals. By ignoring clear trends of harm within Vassar Athletics, the Athletic Department has enabled athletes, especially white athletes, to ignore and dismiss the impact of their actions and perpetuate a harmful culture.

What does a harmful culture entail? Culture encompasses a myriad of elements, some of which are highly visible, while other aspects are mostly unconscious, even instinctive. A culture of whiteness and homogeneity has developed within the Athletics Department, in which rape culture, sexism, misogyny, racism, toxic masculinity and classism have found ways to flourish. Members of the athletic community have not proactively analyzed these norms to the extent where tangible steps in uprooting this behavior from campus can be taken. Although harm may be enacted by few, silence enables the culture to thrive. Examples of behavior by coaches and athletes that have shaped this toxic culture include, but are not limited to, the tolerance of sexual harassment within the “hush-hush” attitude when a teammate is accused of sexual misconduct (where dialogue towards anything related to the perpetrator and their alleged sexual crime is frowned upon); objectifying and degrading others at sports-affiliated TA or TH parties; and shrugging off a teammate saying the N-word in the locker room because it was in a song.

To provide a more detailed example of the manifestation of this culture, we will share a recent example of an incident from a current team at Vassar, while using no names, ages, identities or any other specific information in order to protect the anonymity of the involved parties. A player was involved in a sexual misconduct case, and their teammates were made aware of this by a coach during a team meeting prior to their season. The story was brief and was presented by the coach as being highly off the record and classified. The information was presented surreptitiously—too surreptitiously to be objective. Any team member who brought up this information would be socially outcast within the team environment and subject to unknown backlash. The discussion concluded with “advice” given from the coach cautioning his players about how to interact with women because people “are out to get you.” Rather than promoting consent and care, the coach maintained patriarchal views of assault, telling his players to proceed with caution because of potential consequences instead of centering the safety and well-being of the people his players were interacting with. While the language of the Student-Athlete Handbook prevents coaches from administering athletic-based punishment or evaluation when a player is involved in a Title IX case, there is no legal barrier to condemning sexual violence. Coaches need to consistently reevaluate their team culture, habits, and norms. This thinly disguised misogyny centers the assailant, which, although not explicitly stated by the coach, further supports and feeds into the cultural norms and institutions that protect perpetrators of violence. This promotes a vicious cycle of impunity, shaming and blaming victims, and teaching men how to avoid “catching a case” rather than teaching men not to rape. This “advice” further suggests to the group of athletes that it is okay to tolerate sexual violence, because it is framed in a way that encourages the rest of the team to protect the perpetrator’s feelings and suggests consequences for speaking of their crime. Clearly, these issues are not being approached properly.

What is the best way to approach these issues? A great place to start would be to integrate a proactive educational approach on sexual assault prevention (which evidently needs to be more effective than the current workshops for athletes). This could integrate a combination of education (including unlearning accumulated inner-biases or preconceptions), non-judgmental discourse, accountability for prior complacency, forgoing the discriminative nature of a heteronormative approach, and other forms of prevention strategies into practice sessions. However, the discussion of sexual violence should not end within the confines of practice; these discussions should become the new norm within the team environment, which could hopefully create a domino effect in which first an individual, then a full team, then the entire Athletics Department can actively fight against sexual violence in all other aspects of their lives. 

Ultimately, by examining the actions and inactions of the Athletics Department, we can see the process of the maintenance, and arguably promotion, of harmful cultures that student-athletes, coaches, and administration perpetuate. The obvious insular, self-segregating nature of athletics is not the fault of one individual, a group of individuals, or frankly, even an entire team. Although it would be easy to scapegoat a few teams, we must instead think about the ideological conditions that led up to the manifestation of this culture, how these standards are backed by systems of power, and what can be done to dismantle them. The current athletic culture is a product of policy and culture seen on all levels of Vassar Athletics, which, time and time again, has enabled the perpetuation of white privilege, athlete privilege, sexual misconduct, and ignorance. 

Vassar as a Whole

One of the defining aspects of Vassar is its whiteness. Some may initially be resistant to this fact, and reasonably so, as when people mention Vassar it is often under the labels of “progressive,” and “inclusive.” There are other labels, however, that carry much more weight, especially among people of color. One of these labels is PWI, as Vassar is first and foremost a primarily white institution. When examining Vassar’s mandatory Common Data Set for the 2019-2020 school year, we found that the school reports a total of 2,441 undergraduate students. 288 are Asian, 270 are Hispanic/Latino, 216 are multiracial, 228 are international students, 91 are Black/African American, 1 is Native American/Pacific Islander and 11 represent ethnicities unknown. 1,336, over half of the student body, are white. The numbers themselves seem initially shocking; it’s strange to see that the combination of all other non-white ethnicities don’t even make up half of the Vassar population. Additionally, past data sets reveal a disheartening trend: Vassar’s racial makeup has barely changed in the past 17 years. For example, the number of Black students at Vassar currently is actually less than it was in the 2003-2004 school year, in which Black students made up 4.7 percent of the population with 116 students in total. Over the past 17 years, the percentage of Black students never grew larger than 6.1 percent and has been on a downward trend for the past five years. The 2019-2020 year saw both the lowest number (91) and the lowest percentage (3.7 percent) of Black students since 2003-2004. So what then is the defining factor in making a school appear “progressive,” and why can this label apply to a school with such a glaringly regressive trend? It is Vassar’s “progressive” reputation that creates a facade that distracts from the obvious and dominant whiteness from which no part of the institution is immune. Athletics is but a small part of this institution that has suffered the toxic effects of a lack of diversity for far too long.

Athletic Demographics

Comparing Vassar Athletics’ demographic makeup to that of the entire school is easier said than done. Unlike the institution as a whole, there is no mandatory common data set for the athletic population on either the Vassar Athletics website or on the Vassar College website. The NCAA collects and releases demographic information each year in a public database, but does not release information by school. One could find the racial and ethnic makeup of all athletes in the Liberty League, but not in Vassar specifically. Additionally, if anyone from the public wanted a Vassar-specific analysis, their only available resources would be the rosters and staff directory on the athletics website, which relies solely upon the (often absent) headshots and bios of athletes, coaches and staff. The nature of profiling anyone based on their appearance alone is inherently biased, so to make any accurate analysis not based on profiles alone, contacting the administration of the athletic department is a necessity.

When contacting the Athletics Department for the purpose of this article, we asked if they could share a few key pieces of information, including the demographics of student-athletes, faculty and staff; and exit data of athletes who choose to leave teams. In response to the request, we were told that they would not give us the data because it required “clean-up” and further investigation to transform it from something that, in their words, was more “anecdotal” to an analysis than they felt comfortable sharing with the public. This response was mostly in reference to the exit data, but no other requested demographic information was given either. We unequivocally know that Vassar Athletics has fewer black athletes compared to its peer institutions in the NESCAC and compared to the rest of DIII Athletics. While researching for this article we saw data that the Athletic Department refuses to release to the student body. When asked why we could not publicly share this information the response was nearly verbatim to the reason we could not have any of the other data—it wasn’t a clean enough analysis and required a larger sample size. This is a recognizable pattern with the athletic department—although they collect necessary demographic data for the NCAA, they have no willingness to share it with the students to whom it pertains.


While we acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented circumstances requiring the majority of the attention of the athletic department, these responses still reveal significant problems. First being, the fact that data describing demographics and the attrition of athletes is collected and kept in an “anecdotal” fashion. With data that holds great importance regarding ways the Athletics Department should respond in future recruiting efforts, hiring efforts and satisfaction levels of both athletes and staff, one would expect the process of data collection to be concrete and formal. One would also expect information of this nature to be analyzed at the end of each year for recognizable trends. Anything less implies the information is unimportant, that it is collected only out of requirement and analyzed only when prompted. The second noticeable problem with the information is the lack of accessibility. The very fact that the only way to receive reliable demographic information is through contacting the department implies that it is something to be hidden, not to mention the extreme resistance in sharing it. Prospective student-athletes, especially non-white individuals, consider attending Vassar after having been promised the “inclusivity” and “diversity” described by Vassar’s website, tour guides, and brochures. They expect these promises are fulfilled in both the academic and athletic communities. They are given little to nothing to ensure the truth of those promises before they decide to make Vassar their home.

Attrition of Athletes of Color 

In the withheld demographic data lies the possible confirmation to a noticingly unsettling trend: the attrition of athletes of color over the years. Viewing the exit data intrigued us, because when we began discussing the demographics of our respective teams for the purpose of this article, we noticed that not only did we all share the experience of only having a few (if any) people of color on our teams, but we also shared the experience of often watching them leave. We wanted to see if what we and others have noticed confirmed a larger trend of athletes of color leaving teams at a higher rate than white athletes. 

People leave teams—it’s a phenomenon that isn’t exclusive to our teams or to Vassar Athletics alone. But what makes Vassar different is how few people of color there are on sports teams to begin with. When one of just two or three on a team decides to leave, the hole left behind feels immense, especially for the athletes of color remaining. The key question isn’t so much, “How many are leaving?” but, “Why are so many leaving?” Yet with so few athletes of color to begin with, the two questions are inextricably linked. This necessitates the compilation and examination of exit data—specifically the demography and frequency at which BIPOC athletes are leaving teams. As was previously discussed, analysis of the exit data by the athletic department has not yet occurred and official analysis is the first step in getting to the root of the problem.

It’s not uncommon for first-years or walk-on athletes to decide that playing sports in college isn’t what they anticipated or wanted. College is, after all, a place where most people find the areas in which they feel most at home. But what of the athletes who in their junior or senior year decide that the discomfort of the athletic community outweighs their years of devotion to the sport? Their experiences should draw a magnifying glass upon the toxicity of athletic culture at Vassar to which people of color continuously fall victim. 

Recruitment and Admissions 

As the demographic makeup of Vassar Athletics is white-dominated and likely disproportionately white compared to the whole Vassar student body, there needs to be an examination and questioning of how recruiting and admissions function within sports teams. Recruiting entails a number of different aspects, including travel costs, official visits and tours, email correspondence, recruitment camps, grades and video. Some of a coach’s recruitment bandwidth is tied to travel funds allocated for them by the department. There has been discussion of awarding money for visitation to low-income BIPOC prospects and running free or cheaper camps to allow greater attendance. However, if Vassar athletics is truly committed to “recruiting diversely,” then they must do more than simply providing more funds for recruiting—achieving athletic diversity requires a holistic and thoughtful approach.

Statistical data gathered by Inequeality.org (2020), the Pew Research Center (2018), and countless other resources show that BIPOC students are more likely to be economically disadvantaged than their white counterparts. Other research, like Kirsten Hextrum’s 2017 essay “Racing to Class: School, Sport and Inequality,” shows how massively inaccessible all levels of athletics are for people of color in the United States. Although accessibility, financial resources and social resources (which are inextricably linked with race) are major systemic issues and failures for American athletics as a whole, denoting these as the sole and primary factor in the under-recruitment of athletes of color at Vassar College is a deferral and over-simplification of the recruitment process. The Athletic Department can implement many approaches to combat systems of white supremacy. 

Outreach by coaches and the administration is just as important as financial capabilities. What tools are coaches using to recruit diversely? What areas are coaches reaching out to? How do coaches determine what region they will put greater time and energy towards? How much effort are coaches putting in to recruit from a diverse pool of students? How is diversity in athletics discussed with coaches? What discussions about diversity is the athletic department having with Vassar admissions? What training or education are coaches receiving to inform them about the importance of understanding intersectionality, systemic racism, and anti-racism in athletic recruiting? These are questions that should be addressed publicly and constantly because regardless of the athletic administration’s good intentions, systemic racism plagues every aspect of society and will deeply affect recruiting and admissions of BIPOC athletes unless it is actively combated. 

Personal Experience

What is the end result of a recruiting culture that does not prioritize recruiting from diverse populations and does not combat the overwhelming lack of diversity in Vassar Athletics? When we do recruit athletes of color, they are placed in an environment where it is almost impossible to find fellow athletes who look like them, or who understand their experiences as people of color in a white-dominated society. However well intentioned the coaches or players are, these few athletes are often tokenized, forced to serve as ambassadors of their race or forced to educate their white teammates. Lena Stevens shares her experience as a Black woman on the predominantly white women’s volleyball team at Vassar: 

“Islanded. That is how it felt to be the only Black woman on my team. I was oceans away from everyone and I couldn’t bridge the gap no matter how hard I tried. 

As a team, we ate dinner together every night and lifted weights together every morning. We laughed, cried, screamed and cheered together. Even with my name on the roster and a jersey on my back, I felt so out of place. To this day, I have a difficult time identifying why I felt so alone. I was loved and valued by almost everyone, and still I spent six-hour bus rides sitting by myself, racking my brain for ways to make myself more likable, more palatable, more wanted. 

My first year was the hardest. I have an anxiety disorder, which I hadn’t quite realized as a freshman. Being in social settings and unfamiliar environments gave way to a paralyzing fear that inhibited my ability to create meaningful relationships. ‘Fake it till you make it’ was my motto. So everyday before practice, I’d lace up my shoes and put a smile on. I cheered until my throat bled, clapped until my hands were red and suppressed every pang of profound loneliness till I was absolutely numb. Looking back now, I think I was trying to provide others with the comfort and support that I felt I was lacking. If I could make sure that no one else felt as lonely as I did, that was enough.

The second semester of my freshman year, tragedy laid waste to my mental health. I didn’t tell anyone on the team exactly what was going on. It took everything I had to force myself to go to practice, and it brought me to tears on more than one occasion. To make matters worse, one of my teammates obviously did not like me. I conditioned myself not to react to her comments, and I refused to speak up because I was petrified of being labeled as a confrontational Black woman. Over time, things got worse, and I wanted to quit. Other teammates had noticed that she was rude to me, and I imagine coaches did as well, but no one ever asked if I was okay. No one ever stood up for me, not that I saw. 

Later, one of my teammates told me that they had asked her why she didn’t like me. Her response was that I was confrontational. Hearing this, I feel defeated. I knew that no matter what I did, no matter how I censored myself, I was going to be perceived as an angry Black woman. 

By my sophomore year, I had found communities that felt like home—better than home even, as I had always felt lonely as the only Black person in my family. I recognized the importance of acting with self-preservation and put more effort into relationships and orgs outside of athletics. On multiple occasions teammates and coaches asked me where athletics fell on my list of priorities. I spoke candidly about how important it was for me to invest time in identity orgs and other campus activities. Those questions brought on feelings of guilt and shame. I worried that I was neglecting my team by embracing a community of BIPOC students who could relate to my feelings of isolation.

After my second season, I quit. Remorse and anxiety made me second-guess myself, but I know now that I made the right decision. My quality of life and mental health have improved substantially since I left athletics, but even after everything, I am incredibly grateful for the relationships I formed while on the team.

There is great potential to cause unintentional harm to students of color, but current athletes have the opportunity to provide much needed love and support to their BIPOC teammates and peers. Vassar is not yet a safe and healthy environment for POC, especially those who are in the LGBTQIA community, and that is something that absolutely must change. If you’re on a sports team, consider asking your teammates of color how you might better support them, acknowledge your privilege and make space for their voices to be heard. It is imperative that we speak candidly about race, sexuality, gender, intersectionality and lack of diversity within athletics. Failing to have these conversations and acknowledge harm done perpetuates a cycle of suffering. If we are going to see any change, we need to be receptive to criticism and listen to those whose voices we have suppressed.” 

Engagement Beyond Athletics 

Vassar Athletics is dangerously insular. Many student-athletes engage predominantly with teammates and members of other sports teams, the overwhelming majority of whom are white and cisgender. Lack of exposure to students outside of athletics makes it easy for athletes to overlook the impact of their actions on marginalized communities within Vassar. “Marginalized” is a word frequently heard around campus, so much so that we often forget what it actually means. In the words of Abrianna Harris ’21, “To be marginalized is to be forced into periphery, to be situated discursively in a no man’s land.” Individuals in these communities are pushed into the outskirts, so that their very existence is only acknowledged as an afterthought, if at all. It is impossible to provide care for those that hardly cross our minds at all, and Vassar Athletics has perpetuated a culture of willful blindness that makes it so easy for athletes, particularly cisgender white athletes, to enact harm upon their BIPOC and LGBTQIA peers.

One of the few occasions where athletes engage with the larger student body is at parties. @VassarSurvivors has shown that parties hosted by sports teams regularly give rise to sexual misconduct, and that many athletes have acted and continue to act in predatory ways at social events. There is no question why students have been extremely critical of Vassar Athletics, given the ways in which the department has perpetuated a culture of violence and complacency. According to the NCAA, it is the responsibility of SAAC (Student-Athlete Advisory Committee) to promote communication between the athletics administration and student-athletes, build a sense of community within athletics and much more. Given their role, SAAC should be an exceptional resource for those who have struggled to find community within athletics and those who have been wronged by members of the department. However, SAAC is a predominantly white group of students, some of whom have expressed homophobic, transphobic and racist sentiments. Although many of these things may have been said without malicious intent, how can we expect those who have been harmed to look to those who have hurt them for comfort and support? 

The Athletics Department has failed to address harmful patterns of behavior and failed to speak candidly about prejudice and lack of diversity. These errors have made it so that athletes and staff can navigate their entire careers without ever acknowledging their inherent biases and the impact that their privilege has on their peers. Athletes and staff, I ask you to recognize that your silence does not protect anyone. In fact, it has and will continue to cause harm within Vassar Athletics and the campus at large if we do not make it a point to change. 

Conclusion

As we have all seen, there are serious issues surrounding the culture and policies of Vassar Athletics, particularly when it comes to sexual assault and lack of diversity and inclusion. We would like to conclude with a few questions for Vassar students and the administration. 

Why is the administration claiming that Title IX policy prevents more from being done to protect survivors when our fellow institutions such as Amherst College have shown that this is not the case? 

How can we use the structure of athletic teams to create a system which holds its members accountable instead of protecting and privileging them? 

What role can coaches play in this system? What about fellow teammates? 

How can we claim to be a progressive and diverse school when we are actually a PWI trending in the wrong direction? 

What does it say about the priorities of our administration that demographic data clearly showing unsettling disparities has been available, yet unanalyzed for years? 

Why is there so little emphasis on athletics interacting and engaging with the greater Vassar community? 

What can you personally do to ensure athletes and all students of color feel welcome at Vassar? 

What can you do to actively work against systems and cultures of harm? 

We each have a role to play, and we have ignored the problem for far too long. It’s time to make a change. To the athletic department specifically: we are asking you to make an accountability statement recognizing the role you have played in allowing this harmful culture to form, because only then can an earnest effort to create a safer community begin.

3 Comments

  1. This is an outstanding article, and I think Vassar should not only be proud of their courageous students for writing it, but should listen carefully to their voices and suggestions.

  2. I found confirmation, in this long read, of my own growing apprehension as Vassar poured more and more funds, facilities and admissions efforts into prioritizing competitive sports. I see college sports mainly as an extension of high-school sports, with the concomitant extension of the same unhealthy, oppressive culture. Team sports can be constructive for its participants in so many ways, but the risk of entrenched abuse looms constantly. Vassar must address this problem.

  3. Such a comprehensive article!!! So so grateful for the fact that former and present athletes have come forward to critique a system that they have been a part of, rather than perpetuating this idea that there is a divide between “silent” vassar athletics culture and “vocal” vassar activist culture. This closes that gap and makes it known that there ARE athletes who care about bringing these issues to the forefront, and this a very real problem with vassar athletics culture that ALOT of people are interested in addressing, including athletes themselves (and if they aren’t, then they should be). A really effective way to instigate institutional change.

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