The painful saga of “The Problem of Athletics” at Williams is set to enter a new phase as the standing committee on athletics gears up to formulate a mission statement for the College’s athletics program. About a year ago, somebody realized that the “student-athlete,” that ideal paradigm of the liberal arts philosophy, had disappeared.
This revelation has left the College (along with many of its peer institutions) scrambling to find a way to rediscover this elusive “student-athlete,” and unfortunately led to a misguided attack on the varsity program.
The controversial debate over this issue has sparked conflict, passion, resentment, and generally a lot of people getting very hot under the collar. This leads one to question what exactly is wrong with the athletics program that makes all this havoc worthwhile?
Clearly, it is not a matter of athletic underperformance. Williams has won six of a possible seven Sears Director’s Cups, and is widely recognized as “the perennial powerhouse of Division III,” according to a recent report by Amherst on the impact of athletics. Moreover, Williams’ athletic faculty is arguably peerless.
Faced with the statistics, nobody can â€“ and to my knowledge, nobody has â€“ argued that Williams needs to improve its athletic performance. The contention is rather that the sacrifices made to maintain this stellar performance on the field have led to a decline in the classroom. If this were the case, the current clamoring for reform would be understandable and warranted.
The findings of Williams’ own investigation, as well as those of external studies (“Keeping up with the Williamses?” The NCAA News, July 22, 2002), debunk the assertion that “athletes” do not perform as well as “non-athletes” in the classroom.
Thus, it seems that “athletes” can be differentiated from “non-athletes” based not on their performance in the classroom, but rather by their performance on the field. Not an observation that really ought to occasion much surprise or alarm.
But herein lies the problem: the College is approaching the task of resurrecting the “student-athlete” backwards. The very nomenclature used in its investigations belies an entrenched viewpoint that distinguishes “athletes” from “non-athletes,” or dare I rephrase this, “athletes” from “students.”
The liberal arts philosophy dictates that this distinction should rather be “athlete-students” versus “student-athletes,” since all undergraduates should be allowed to function as both. I would argue that the College serves “athlete-students” very well: varsity athletes are encouraged to perform to a high standard on the field and in the classroom.
The College is looking in the wrong place for its lost “student-athlete,” however. He is not to be found among the varsity athletes on campus, but among the so-called “non-athletes.” This is where the College’s athletic program fails its students. The “student-athlete” has become merely a “student” (or “non-athlete”) because his opportunity of performing on the field is severely limited.
Professor John Thoman, chair of the athletics committee, understands that the committee’s mission statement must “reflect the needs of the College at not only the varsity level, but also at the PE, JV and club levels”(“Committee to establish overall mission of athletics,” Sept. 26, 2002).
I beg him to leave the highly successful varsity program alone and focus instead on revitalizing JV and club athletics. Enable the “non-athlete” to become the sought-after “student-athlete.”
He might start by addressing the absence of a women’s JV tennis program. Many female students who played tennis in high school are simply not good enough to join the Williams varsity tennis team, who recently repeated their 2001 success to become 2002 NCAA Champions.
Despite the resulting overwhelming interest among the female student body, the athletics department recently rejected the idea of establishing a JV team. It was apparently more important to create a new varsity program: women’s golf, whose roster currently lists a whopping 12 athletes.
I venture to claim that the majority of Williams students join me in wishing our varsity teams well. We like to watch them play; we love to see them win. Rather than pursuing a misguided attempt to restructure athletics at the varsity level, the standing committee on athletics has a unique opportunity to enhance the College’s athletic program by providing and improving sporting opportunities for non-varsity athletes. I sincerely hope they take advantage of it.