Not a tough decision: space belongs to IM

Last Spring, with financial backing in place and an impressive list of reasons to move forward with the project, the Committee on Priorities and Resources recommended the College build a lighted artificial turf field for use by varsity, club and intramural (IM) sports. However, after last Thursday’s town zoning board meeting, and in subsequent conversations with those involved in the process, it is obvious there are still many unresolved issues with the field. The College clearly rushed through the design and planning process without consulting those most affected by the decisions – town residents and, most importantly, students.

The proposed plan calls for construction of a complex on Upper Cole Field, currently home to the College’s IM sports program, the Williams Ultimate Frisbee Organization’s practices and green space for general recreation. A turf field would add varsity teams to those interested in using the space; indeed, the field would host varsity women’s field hockey games and early Spring practices for lacrosse. The College has, at the moment, ruled out building on Lower Cole because of flooding issues and on Weston because it would necessitate moving the baseball field.

At face value, the turf field is needed by, and benefits, lacrosse and field hockey the most. Yet, by helping those teams, the College risks severely damaging the IM and club programs. One must recognize the importance of intramural and club sports to the College community. Over the past few decades, it has become increasingly difficult to gain access to varsity athletics for students not identified as having an “athletic attribute” prior to admission. With the exception of the crew teams, the idea of the “walk on” athlete has become an anachronism. This is a statement of fact, not an endorsement or condemnation of the arrangement.

Given the difficulty posed to any student who does not have the coach’s eye, the importance of club and intramural sports for non-varsity athletes increases dramatically; they provide students with the opportunity to play sports even if they are not talented or committed enough to join a varsity team. Well over 400 students – 20 percent of the school – now use Upper Cole for IM Frisbee, IM Soccer and IM Flag Football. The College has even made reinvigorating IM sports a significant part of its reforms of undergraduate life.

Even without delving into the obvious aesthetic problems with building a lighted turf field on Upper Cole, it’s clear the College must reevaluate its current plan. To be sure, the current field situation is far from ideal. Despite our rural location, there is not enough field space to support all of the athletic programs that students would like to see. But constructing the turf field on Upper Cole will exacerbate rather than alleviate these problems for most of the year.

In the Fall, a space that can currently support four IM Frisbee games will be converted into a turf field that can accommodate only two IM games and zero IM games if a varsity team is using the facility. For the Spring, the turf field would ease demands on Towne Field House, because Spring sports that wish to start practicing before the outdoor fields are ready for use in April would be able to use the turf. In either season, though, the turf field’s more-regimented 360 ft. by 240 ft dimensions restrict the current creative placement of multiple IM fields on Upper Cole.

Moreover, the College’s division of the day undeniably sets 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. as the ideal time for athletics, with homework and other extracurricular activities to follow after dinner. It would be unfair, except perhaps for varsity games, to dictate to 170 IM soccer players that they must play from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. while 20 to 30 varsity athletes occupy the 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. slot. Ultimately, with a limited amount of field space now, IM and club sport organizers should not settle for, at worst, a break-even scenario, as Athletic Director Harry Sheehy suggests might happen. IM and club sports must come out ahead if any turf field is built.

This leaves two options for the College to explore. First, reducing the size of the field to the dimensions of a lacrosse field, which would also be sufficient for field hockey, and placing it on the field to the north of the tennis courts. It is a strikingly bad idea to build a field larger than would normally be necessary merely to accommodate one or two hypothetical end-of-season soccer games. The other option is to look at locations off-campus. Admittedly, this would make the turf field closer to a dedicated varsity space than it is suggested the Upper Cole field would be. However, in the interest of leaving Upper Cole as a dedicated intramural and club space and preserving the programs’ ability to function, it is possible that building a varsity turf field off-campus would be the best way to address the needs of all constituents.

At this point, the only thing that is absolutely clear is community members have not had an opportunity to adequately address the issues related to the size and placement of a turf field. The CPR, Athletic Department and administrators have placed themselves in a bind: They have already obtained funding for the field and even dedicated it to retired lacrosse coach and IM coordinator Renzi Lamb, basically necessitating that the field be built somewhere. Yet this shouldn’t force the decision. It is time to give the Williams generalist his due over the special interest: Priority on Upper Cole should be for IM and club sports. Otherwise, the turf field should not be built.

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