Since the inception of the NESCAC in 1971, the 11 member schools of the athletic conference have challenged themselves to make their athletic programs conform to the aspirations of the conference founders. With the Faculty Athletic Committee working to formulate a mission statement for the College’s Athletic Department, now is a useful time to go back and consider the ideas behind the NESCAC’s founding.
At its core, the NESCAC strives to create an environment where academic excellence is supplemented by an athletic program available to the entire student body. In its mission statement, the NESCAC makes two assumptions: first, academics will always be prioritized over athletics; second, athletic excellence supports the academic mission of the College.
By and large, Williams has the athletic-academic formula right. Though there is always some fine-tuning that can and should occur at the margins, but a major overhaul of our athletic program is unnecessary. The level of participation in the athletic program does, however, leave something to be desired. The College should make resources available so the Athletic Department can have more programs similar to men’s soccer: a first-rate varsity program with a junior varsity team available to most player’s capable of playing soccer at a reasonably competitive level.
The Conference also requires that each sports season have a definite beginning and end â€“ this is not a trivial requirement. At the core of the NESCAC vision of athletics is an understanding that a student-athlete should be free to play a varsity sport in the fall, perform in a play in the winter and play on a club team in the spring. Captain’s practices in the fall should not inhibit athletes’ participation in other activities. Williams should strive to assure that the NESCAC actually provide that opportunity.
At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect that a person who plays a varsity sport at Williams would not be interested in improving in the off-season. It is patently ridiculous to expect somebody who has played soccer his entire life to come to Williams and limit his time on the field to 16 games a year plus the post-season. The definition of “captain’s practices” agreed upon yesterday by President Schapiro and Harry Sheehy, director of athletics, will allow the College to assure that a reasonable balance is drawn between an athlete’s desire to improve and the community’s desire to have its 2,100 students all equally involved in every aspect of life at Williams.
While the creation of a mission statement for athletics should be the Faculty Athletic Committee’s first priority at this time, the Committee also needs to understand the importance of the other responsibilities it has been given, specifically its role as an investigative body.
Comments made in the first two months of the school year raise concerns as to whether the Committee understands the importance of this role. In our Sept. 17, 2002, edition, Jay Thoman, the faculty chair of the Committee, specifically denied the Faculty Athletics Committee has an investigative role. Thoman and the Committee should review its mandate as approved by the faculty last May â€“ item three of the “Proposal for Athletic Committee” gives the Committee the duty to assess athletic teams on a team-by-team basis, and justifies this role due to a “wide range in the culture and academic performances of teams.”
Though the Committee does not have the power to impose sanctions on a team or the Athletic Department, it does have the power to investigate teams that may be problematic and make recommendations to the president and the faculty relating to specific problems in our athletic program.
As the faculty implicitly confirmed in their vote last spring by allowing team-byteam evaluations, each athletic team has its own specific culture. Usually this culture promotes all of the benefits we typically assign to athletics: camaraderie, teamwork, leadership etc. However, if there are problems with a specific team’s culture which impact its relationship to the rest of the community or its performance in the classroom, the Committee has not only the power, but the obligation, to unearth that problem and bring it to the attention of the president and the faculty. To fail to do so would be to inexcusably shirk the responsibilities directly given to it by the faculty last May.
Lastly, the Athletic Department must understand that the scrutiny it has been under over the last couple of years is not unfounded. The perception that a gun has been to the athletics department’s head more so than any other department is false and primarily due to the fact that before the publication of William Bowen’s Game of Life and the discussion that followed it, the Athletic Department was remarkably absent of oversight. Every academic department at the College answers to the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP). Similarly, the Athletic Department should be accountable to the Faculty Athletic Committee.
These past few years have highlighted the role of athletics on our campus and at other NESCAC schools. Many of the recent changes are simply the result of an institutional catching-up due to years of neglect which had left much room for improvement in the athletic system. Unless oversight bodies such as the Faculty Athletic Committee exert their authority when necessary, like any unchecked organization, athletics will once again require a serious reevaluation in the next decade.