It’s Actually Just a Game

By Hannah Bristol

At Middlebury, we claim to prioritize balance. Students here are not only students, but also actors, journalists, artists, unicyclists, and of course, athletes. But not all of these traits are created equal, both in the admissions process and on the Atwater dance floor. 

The divide between NARPs and athletes is apparent from orientation. Athletes are juggling practice with mandatory orientation events, leaving them unable to fully commit to either. In the meantime, the NARPs are hunting for their own community, building friendships around any other shared interest.

The media this fall was full of stories of athletic privilege, from the Ray Rice scandal to the horrifying tales coming out of Florida State. At Middlebury, it is easy to look down from our mountain and pretend these cultural influences don’t affect us. We are a DIII school; we hold our athletes to the same academic standards as the rest of our student body. But athletic privilege is still at play on our campus. This piece is less a reflection of the athletes as individuals, and more a matter of the culture we create surrounding athletics, both as an institution and a society, providing behavioral signaling and direct messaging that bolster athletic superiority.

First is the way financial resources are allocated. For all other student activities, student leaders apply for a budget. This money comes from the student activities fee, a separate line item that is explicitly stated in our tuition bill. Other students judge the value that the club offers the student body and allocates funding as they see fit. For athletics, this is different. Teams are given budgets through the athletics department, which all of our tuitions fund, but from which only some of us benefit. This provides state of the art facilities, coaching staff, travel, uniforms, etc. to athletes, but these students rarely need to prove their worth. 

We claim to support athletics because of the community they foster, which increases quality of life for the students involved and leads to greater alumni giving after graduation. But club teams, like Rugby and Crew, apply for budgets with the Finance Committee the same way the Campus does, or the Fly Fishing Club, and still manage to create an equally tight knit community. This puts an inequitable institutional priority on the extracurricular activities of some over others. While some clubs fight tooth and nail to get money from the finance committee, athletes sail through year after year with bloated budgets and only the occasional telethon to sponsor their break training trips. In exchange, they are given staff resources that other clubs could never have, with dedicated people on payroll to support them.

We propose sports teams apply for budgets with the rest of student activities. At the end of the day, though, sports are no different  — they are very important to the participants, but no more important than anything else. This doesn’t mean that these sports shouldn’t be funded at their current level, but just that they should be considered of equal value as the myriad other activities we provide. This is about the message we send to our athletes from day one. 

Which brings us to our second point. We are a DIII school. Very few, if any, of our current athletes will ever seriously play their sport again after college. And yet for these four years, they are disproportionately valorized and require a tremendous time commitment. Students get tremendous enjoyment out of their sport. They have learned teamwork and leadership, made their best friends and love their varsity Middlebury experience. But let’s be honest. You can reap these benefits without dedicating most of your time to your sport. Games are given priority to class. Practice is placed above all other commitments. But nothing else in our time here is given that kind of premium. If other students want to miss class for an extracurricular commitment, they must explain themselves to their professor or just take the unexcused absence. Athletes are given an implicit pass because their professors know the ropes. 

Moreover, we have people who are incredible athletes in biking, snowboarding, and a host of other non-college sponsored sports, proving that institutional support is not imperative for athletic success. We also have students who go onto to do incredible things with the skills they learn from their non-athletic extracurriculars. Some students start businesses, or volunteer or learn other valuable lessons that are honestly more applicable to the job market than the ability to chase a ball. Yet these skills are not given the same premium. Athletes also lose in this system, for they often do not have as much time to invest in other activities about which they are passionate and feel peer-pressure to stick with their teams.

While the time commitment is a problem throughout Division III sports, this is an opportunity for Middlebury to be a leader, even if we take a hit in the standings. We should further limit sports practices and hours on the road for our student-athletes, which would allow them to engage with other parts of the community by making new friends or trying a new club. Both the broader community and the athletes would benefit.

This discrepancy in how we value different skill-sets is evident especially in the admissions process. While coaches are given a voice and athletes are assigned extra points, professors are not given a seat at the table when an incredible writer submits his application or when a young scientist applies with a slew of awards under her belt. Certainly, other extracurriculars also come into play, but shouldn’t athletics be in the same category and with the same emphasis? How is it fair that an athlete can know ahead of time that they will probably be accepted while a poet is left biting their nails waiting for letters to go live at 8 a.m.?

We call on the Middlebury community to revisit the premium we give athletics on this campus. We are paying into a system that fetishizes athletics at all levels, from parents who put too much pressure on their kids in Little League to the fans who romanticize professional sports players. Society lets athletes feel like they run the show — it’s the most classic high school rom-com plot line. But we should be leaders in pushing us into a world where the kid who loves chemistry is just as celebrated as the kid who loves hockey. We should value all skill-sets and passions equally and see how the effects resonate. It could improve the body image problem that is often discussed. It could lead to a more inclusive party scene. Who knows?

But we must be the first to take the plunge, to rethink the relationship between athletics and academics, and not use alumni donations as a cop-out, because people give to schools when they love the community, not because the sports teams win. We need a cultural shift, and that will take time, but no change happens without a leader, so put us in coach. We’re ready to play.

Hannah Bristol ‘14.5 is from Falls Church, Va. and Isaac Baker ‘14.5 is from Shelborne Falls, Mass.

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