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The divide between varsity/club athletes and other students

I recently filled out Grinnell latest campus climate survey [1,2]. I’m glad to see that we are doing another campus climate survey, and I hope that we take this one more seriously than the last [3]. In addition to looking at issues of race, gender, and gender expression, it looks like we are now asking questions about differences in ability [4]. However, I do note that there is a group of students that seems to fit the characteristics of a group that experiences a less-than-comfortable climate.

What characteristics are those? Many members of this group don’t want to tell faculty members that they belong to the group for fear of how faculty will think about them. Members of the group are often reluctant to seek help (e.g., from the writing or math lab) because of how it will reflect on other members of the group. Students are known to say derogatory things about certain subsets of this group. Faculty have suggested that we stretch admission standards for members of this group.

As you can tell from the title of this essay, the group I’m talking about is varsity and club athletes, or at least some sets of varsity and club athletes. The claim may seem strange, given the stature that varsity athletes typically have on college campuses. However, I do know a number of students who don’t tell their faculty that they play on a team because they are worried about how their faculty will react. This worry primarily applies to the big three men’s sports teams: football [5], basketball, and baseball. But members of other teams also seem to feel the same way. I’ve had an excellent student who was on the men’s soccer team, and was a student athletic leader, who was still reluctant to tell faculty that he was a varsity athlete.

At the same time, I think students who are not varsity athletes or on club teams feel that students on those teams are exclusionary. Some such students have potentially had negative experiences with varsity athletes, either at Grinnell or at their high school.

Together, these issues create a divide between varsity and club athletes and other students. I’m not alone in worrying about this divide [6]. A few years ago, we had a discussion session about that divide. Unfortunately, (a) the room was populated primarily by varsity athletes, (b) that meant that the varsity athletes tended to dominate the conversation, and (c) even when the moderators explicitly called for other students to make their perspective known, team managers felt that they fit in the other students category, and tended to be the ones who then spoke.

Now, I won’t deny that some aspects of varsity teams lead to the team members being set apart from other students: They have odd bonding rituals; they tend to do things together; in the past, they’ve made some really stupid and offensive decisions in planning some of their parties [7]. The first two issues may make them feel unwelcoming to someone who is not a member of the team.

Do I think our varsity athletes want to be unwelcoming to other students? No, I don’t think so. However, when students spend twenty or more hours per week together, they are going to bond differently [8]. Do I think that our other students think poorly of the individual varsity athletes they collaborate with in class or elsewhere? No; I think Grinnellians are pretty good at looking at the individual. Do I think that, nonetheless, both students and faculty make some implicit negative assumptions about a person upon learning that they are part of a varsity or club sport? Almost certainly.

My experience in talking to students about this matter suggests that there are students on both sides who clearly experience the divide and also students on both sides who don’t seem to experience the divide as strongly, if at all. But there are a lot of students who feel the divide, and that suggests that it’s something we as a campus should address. Do I have a solution? Nope. Nothing other than talking about the issue and addressing it as we address many things on campus, through self governance and shared governance.

I know that there is a philosophy that members of majority groups cannot experience discrimination or an unwelcoming climate. Perhaps because I primarily identify with four majority groups (white, male, heterosexual, domestic) as well as two non-majority groups (culturally Jewish, fat [10]), I feel that anyone can experience discrimination.

Do I think that the experience of the varsity athlete is as bad as that of some other groups? No. By suggesting that we need to address the varsity athlete / other student divide, am I trying to undermine the very real suffering that students in non-majority groups experience? No. I think we have a responsibility to think about issues that make our campus unwelcoming to any group or individual [11].

I expect that I will get some backlash about this essay because of some people’s experiences with varsity athletes. Do I believe that some varsity athletes have done inappropriate things? Certainly. Do I believe that students who are not varsity athletes have also done inappropriate things? Certainly. Are varsity athletes more likely to violate norms? I have no idea. But I think we should consider the individual, rather than the group.

[1] You should, too, as long as you are a student, faculty member, or staff member. If you don’t have the URL, let me know and I’ll send it to you.

[2] No, it’s not about our weather (which was relatively warm today, but has been damn cold recently). It’s the other kind of climate; what it’s like for you based on your personal identity.

[3] We did the last one right before Kington became president. I remember asking him about it at the initial town hall, and I think his reaction was akin to It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

[4] I think Autumn, Angie, and their team do a great job. But, like our students, they need faculty support.

[5] I realize that applying the term big to our football team is strange, given how small it is.

[6] I use the term varsity athlete and other student because, as Jen Jacobsen has suggested, lots of our students are athletes, even if they do not play on a varsity team (or even a club team).

[7] That’s not to say that other student groups don’t also make some really stupid (and sometimes offensive) decisions.

[8] We see similar bonding among CS students, who are often working together (or at least in the same room) on homework assignments, although not for quite as many hours per week. I also think we see similar bonding in the other sciences [9], for similar reasons.

[9] Yes, middle and oldest son, I mean real sciences.

[10] Hmmm … that’s another group that I don’t think was addressed in the survey. Do you ever experience discrimination based on your body shape or appearance? But I’d have to look back to make sure.

[11] Okay, I guess I wouldn’t go so far as to saying we need to make our campus welcoming to every group or individual. Groups and individuals who do not themselves feel a need to be welcoming can probably be treated differently [12].

[12] Damn. That’s something I’ll need to think about more carefully. Maybe in another essay.

Version 1.0 of 2016-12-21.