Sports cliques at Williams: are they a problem or not?

Ask Williams football star Sean Keenan ’00 if sports have inhibited his ability to branch out and meet new people and you will see an expression of surprise and hear a list of reasons why athletics have been a positive influence in his life. “I’ve met a lot of people through sports at Williams. And with so many people at Williams playing sports, everyone has a common ground,” Keenan said.

But Keenan, a starter on the varsity basketball team and a star quarterback who is getting attention from the NFL, has not had the typical social experience at Williams. Since Keenan has played football and basketball, he has met a large percentage of the male student population; one out of eight males at Williams plays either football or basketball. And because he has captained both teams, one out of eight men at Williams has looked to Keenan for leadership. So at almost any social function Keenan is met with high-fives and “hellos” from a number of teammates and acquaintances.

A freshman wishing to remain anonymous, who does not play a varsity sport but is interested in performance art, says she has not experienced the same social outreach from Williams students. She describes a social experience in which her options to meet new people are limited; a social world littered with impermeable cliques. She recognizes sports teams to be some of the most prevalent social cliques on campus; she also believes they are some of the most impenetrable.

One of her suitemates is an athlete, but she says she gets along better with the non-athletes in her freshman suite. “It’s not that there are any personality differences between me and my suitemate. But sometimes, when her teammates come over to hang out with her, they see me and the other suitemates, but they don’t want to hang with us because we don’t play on their team,” she said.

The Evolution of Sports at Williams

Social implications aside, in the last decade, sports have taken on increasing significance at Williams. Sheafe Satterthwaite, a professor of art history who has been teaching at Williams for 33 years, recalls, “20 or even 10 years ago, sports were not so serious at Williams. Athletics now play a much more salient role in defining what Williams is and who Williams students are,” Satterthwaite said.

The philosophy of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), of which Williams is a part, encourages athletes to play several different sports but also maintains that athletics should never infringe on academics. NESCAC schools limit the number of regular season games for each sport, and, until four years ago, banned all NCAA post-season involvement.

In 1995, though, NESCAC decided to allow participation in NCAA post-season tournament play for a trial period of four years. Since this decision, sports have changed at Williams. “I think in the last three or four years, sports have become much more intense,” Peter Murphy, dean of the college, said.

And NESCAC’s success in national tournaments has been remarkable. The Sears Cup is an annual award given to the school in each division with the highest athletic achievement, based on a point system that reflects final season rankings in national polls. In 1998, NESCAC schools occupied three of the highest five spots in the nation, with Williams winning top honors. Williams won the award for the third time in four years in 1999, establishing itself as the athletic hotbed of the nation in Division III athletics.

Athletes and the Social Scene

The NESCAC’s four-year trial period of NCAA involvement came to an end this year. Williams is now struggling to define the role that athletics should play at the college. A debate has emerged regarding whether or not NESCAC should allow future involvement in NCAA tournaments. Many student-athletes are pleading with NESCAC schools to be less cautious of the growing importance of sports.

Athletes such as Jon Tremontozzi ’00 of the varsity soccer team say that their involvement in sports has enriched their college experiences. But the experiences of students like the aforementioned freshman and the concerns of administrators like the Murphy, who says balkanized social groups are a problem on campus, also carry weight in the discussion of how important sports should be at Williams.

“In the last three years, the intensity with which students identify with their sports teams seems to have increased,” Murphy said. If this is true, student housing arrangements may reflect this best. Murphy is particularly concerned that defined social groups are clustering in dorms after freshman year. The majority of rooms in dorms such as Tyler Annex, Brooks, Doughty and Tyler House are inhabited by athletes, often of the same sport.

But Renzie Lamb, coach of the men’s lacrosse team for 32 years, said that the clustering of student-athletes in dorms is not a serious problem at Williams when compared to many other colleges and universities in the country. “An argument I use to attract recruits is that they can’t pick their roommate freshman year, so they’re placed in an environment where they are forced to meet new people. And at no point since I’ve been here have my freshmen been clustered in one dorm,” Lamb said. “At many universities and colleges in the country, there are freshman athletic dorms, special living accommodations for athletes who must live together. I think Williams has done a pretty good job making sure nothing like that happens here.”

A student from University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC), Bradley Patted, recently visited a friend at Williams and compared the College to UMKC. Although it was only his first time to Williams and he stayed just two weeks, Patton recognized that sports teams seemed to be less intense at Williams than at his Division I school. He noted, also, that at UMKC athletes often lived together. “There is definitely a tendency for athletes to live together [at UMKC]. I know, for example, that almost half the UMKC soccer team rents out one big house,” Patton said.

Dean Murphy said it is difficult to gauge to what extent athletics extend into the social activities at Williams. Unlike housing arrangements, there is little objective data concerning cliques of athletes in social settings like parties. But if general student opinion is an appropriate indicator as to whether there are exclusive social cliques on campus, the data is mixed.

Students Speak

Bert Leatherman ’00, co-president of the College Council, said that the issue has been a concern for some administrators and students. However, Leatherman said that the discussion of this problem has been focused on social groupings in general, rather than just sports teams. But Leatherman said he could speak more specifically about athletes’ social groupings from his own experience.

“On the surface,” Leatherman said, “it may appear that there are a lot of athletic groupings on campus. That was more my impression during my first year, but it has been really encouraging – as a non-athlete, I have all types of friends, athletes and non-athletes.” Leatherman feels that most people on campus are very approachable, and for the most part, not exclusionary.

But Alexander Horn ’00, who does not play a varsity sport, believes that some sports teams are more exclusive than others. “It’s a natural tendency for athletes to become friends because they spend such a large part of their days together when they are in season. But some teams are especially exclusive, almost incestuous,” Horn said.

Horn believes that, in particular, the swimming, water polo and rugby teams separate themselves from the student body. Horn said that students who play these sports commonly live in clusters and often wear jackets or uniforms that distinguish them from the rest of the student body. But Horn believes that although there are many athletic cliques, in most cases it is not a serious problem.

Michael Ramberg ’00, a political science major who spends much of his time organizing community service activities for the Lehman Council, says that stereotypes exist in the social scene at Williams. “There seem to be two main stereotypes: the ‘dumb jock’ and the ‘nerd.’ I think that people who prejudge using these stereotypes will be less inclined to branch out. The stereotypes reinforce divisions and make groups further segregate. They hamper campus life and close different avenues of social interaction,” Ramberg said.

But Ramberg said the exclusivity of sports teams’ social groupings varies depending on the group. “Some teams are more intimidating than others and their social circles may seem harder to break into, but certain groups are always going to separate themselves from others. Sports teams are maybe just a more visible group.”

Other students commented that cliques exist in specific settings. One freshman student said, “It seems that Baxter [Dining Hall] is divided into two sides, one [the North side] for athletes and the people that they generally associate with and one [the South side] for everyone else. Many of the football players sit around a long table on the North side and get pretty loud. It can be intimidating. I wouldn’t sit at that table and try to start a conversation.”

It is clear that students recognize the existence of athletes’ social groupings on campus, but students disagree as to whether it is a negative aspect of campus life.

Psychology of the Group

Professor of psychology and specialist in social group effects, Al Goethals, says that social groupings are a natural phenomenon. “One function of groups is to tell you what to do, to set behavioral norms, and then another function is to put you into contact with peers that are similar so that you can evaluate yourself – how smart you are, how athletic you are – in relation to that. So the tendency to affiliate and establish groups is quite basic,” Goethals said.

Goethals said that groups may become more significant in a small school like Williams. With about 2000 students attending Williams, a student may interact on a superficial basis with the majority of students on campus during his or her four years, but to form meaningful relationships with a manageable number of people, groups must form.

Goethals said that the athletic team represents a perfectly manageable number of students with which to associate. “The team is a group that can absorb a lot of social energy. So athletes may find that once they form many relationships and sub-groups within the team, they may not be interested in meeting new people,” Goethals said. He said, though, that the number of friends a student seeks out is individual and depends on how extroverted each student is.

Goethals also says that “in-group favoritism” – favoritism towards the group one is a part of – is an unfortunate but common tendency of groups. In-group favoritism might manifest more easily in sports teams than others because of their nature. “It’s pretty clear with teams. You’re either part of it or you’re not,” Goethals said. Teams, like all groups, tend to minimize the differences of the people outside the group which gives rise to stereotypes. “Stereotypes are a part of inter-group differentiation . . . you see your group positively and other groups less positively,” Goethals said.

Is There A Solution? Or Even A Problem?

Murphy and the College Council, as well as the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL), will continue to discuss whether housing clusters are a serious problem on campus and, if so, how they should be handled. But it seems that very few students or administrators have an active solution for what some students complain are varsity sports team cliques. “I think students talk about it, but I don’t know how much talking can do. I don’t necessarily like it, but maybe it’s just natural inclination for athletes to hang with athletes and non-athletes with non-athletes,” says an anonymous first-year student.

And many who admit that there are sports cliques do not see a problem with it at all. “Extending team activities into social activities is an important bonding device; it makes the team more harmonious on the field,” said Keenan. Lamb sees groupings of athletes as any other group such as theatre or musical groups who have common interests. “There’s nothing wrong with the bird of a feather. And there are a lot of different birds gathering on this campus, athletes and non-athletes,” he said.

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