Athletics must fit within college mission

The Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Athletics has just released a detailed, thoughtfully considered analysis of the status of athletics at the College. Although it is open to interpretation, it appears that the report finds, in general, that there is not a major problem with the athletic program at Williams, but rather with a small number of athletic teams. Nonetheless, in the context of those teams, the report reveals a number of disturbing tendencies among some athletes and the faculty that teach them. And while the report will not be released to the student body, both the administration and faculty should realize that many of the problems the committee notes in its report requires changes among both faculty and students.

Athletics are not part of the Williams curriculum – they are extra-curricular. While they may not be academic, however, they are clearly educational. The benefits of athletics, especially at a liberal arts college, are too numerous to name, but they are too infrequently acknowledged in discussions of athletics at Williams. Athletics teach confidence, time management, leadership, group dynamics and self-awareness; all are important skills that can benefit both a student and a human being. It is the duty of the College, insofar as these lessons can supplement an academic education, to make athletics available to as many students as want to participate.

The education that athletics provides, however, must be understood in the context that the primary mission of the College is to provide the best possible academic experience to the 2,100 students who attend the College at any given time. While it is undeniably productive to engage in extra-curricular activities at the school – whether a varsity sport, the arts or student governance – when Williams accepts a student and he or she chooses to attend, both parties do so with an implicit understanding. The agreement provides that Williams will offer the challenging academics, unique environment and intimate faculty-student relationships that a liberal arts education demands. In return, students agree to remain engaged in their academic work, recognizing that it takes precedence over any other obligations. While it is unfair to say that this student breach of contract is exclusive to varsity athletes (athletics is perhaps only one part of a greater problem and we can only infer from the report that three teams are truly problematic), in one way or another, the Committee’s report finds that a significant problem exists among a portion of athletes and faculty, including coaches, who are considered athletic faculty, whose commitment to the College’s academic mission could be called into question.

Especially with learning based on small classes, remaining engaged in academic work does not simply mean maintaining a satisfactory grade point average: it means choosing the classes that interest you—not just the easiest ones possible; it means attending class—and contributing to the intellectual discourse in the class; it means that if you came to Williams to play a sport for a great coach and an excellent athletic program, that you still maintain the level of participation in academic life that all other students are expected too.

The report finds, in general, that female athletes on campus do not suffer from these tendencies. However, particularly in two men’s teams whose members predominantly (78 percent) major in Division II subjects, this is not the case. The greatest concern of faculty in the two departments within division two “is evidence of anti-intellectualism, of clear disengagement and even outright disdain, on the part of varsity athletes. . .in particular sports,” the report states, referring to two specific men’s teams. Division II faculty feel that often they have athletes who only want the bare minimum grade, which forces them to “dumb down” courses or structure courses around menial assignments that check whether or not students are doing their work.

However, in the same paragraph faculty also admit that they “feel badly for teams” if they hold the line on attendance and rescheduling. “Athletes have worked, and it seems unkind and unfair to expect faculty to spoil their dreams by refusing to accommodate their demands,” the report states. If this idea is pervasive, it is perhaps the most disturbing sentiment expressed by the faculty in the entire report and indicates a blatant undermining of the academic mission of Williams. A Williams diploma is a sign of academic, not athletic, excellence, which is a point that both athletic and academic faculty must embrace more dearly. Whether for captains’ practices, regular practices, games, tournament play or even nationals, at no point should Williams compromise on the point that students must attend classes, nor should classes be “dumbed down.” Williams is a liberal arts college which prides itself on small seminar classes—it follows that students must attend and actively participate for the educational model to work. If faculty feel that any students’ attitudes, attendance and work ethic are affecting the quality of the class, then those students’ grades should suffer accordingly.

It is important to recognize that the problems highlighted have been ones that apply to specific men’s teams, but that it is uncertain whether the attitudes of those specific athletes are a result of professors’ opinions of the athletes, or vice-versa. Nevertheless, all these factors point to a need by the College to more strictly define what the role of athletics is at Williams. For instance, it is important that students go to class. Therefore, any statement must forcefully dissuade coaches from accepting invitations to tournaments where their players miss a number of classes, or scheduling games that will obviously conflict with classes that end in the afternoon. If the College must invest in logistical solutions, such as lights on fields or additional indoor practice facilities, then it is imperative for those facilities to be added.

On a broader level, however, Williams must commit to making athletics more accessible to the student body at large. Another aspect of going to a small school is that students should theoretically have the ability to “walk on” to teams. We accept that at this point in the athletic and admissions game, such a possibility seems slim. However, taking its cue from the success of club teams at the College, Williams can increase its support of both additional club and junior varsity teams. This includes hiring coaches who match Williams’ tradition of providing an excellent athletic program—within the context of the College’s athletics mission statement—and involves a broader segment of the campus in athletic life. At a school that, for the most part, rightly prides itself on its athletic program, there is no reason why those students admitted specifically to Williams to play sports should be the only ones who have the privilege of participating in an alternate aspect of the Williams education.