As soon as I arrived on campus this September, itching for one final soccer season and to finally begin my tenure as Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC) co-president, I heard grumbling about an issue that the student body was going to have to wrestle with. It seemed that no matter where I went, somebody was talking about a student-athlete/non-athlete divide at Williams. As it was explained to me, this divide was a toxic rift that was ripping our community apart. Athletes felt they were unjustly blamed for this divide. Non-athletes felt that if you wore a varsity jersey for Williams, you were automatically higher up on the social hierarchy.
In one full semester of exploring this issue from every conceivable angle – talks with teammates, SAAC meetings, College Council meetings, all-campus forums and random conversations – I learned a lot about us as a student body and as a community. While I do not believe that our community is as divided as some suggest, I must admit that I did find some areas where our community can improve relationships, not just between athletes and non-athletes, but at the most basic level between students.
The first thing that must be made clear is that there are some irreconcilable differences between an athlete’s experience at Williams and that of a non-athlete. In season, athletes must commit a significant portion of each day to their sport. Practice may be followed by a team dinner and on some weekends maybe even by a trip up to Maine. Spending so much time together means that athletes may be forced to spend less time with their first-year entries. In some cases, an athlete’s friend group may be defined entirely by their teammates. This is a tricky issue, especially for first-years. Incoming athletes are immediately part of something. Their support group is made up for them the second they accept their admittance to Williams. On the other hand, non-athletes have to fend for themselves to find these support groups. The entry system is meant to be the vehicle for friendship freshman year but the system is not failsafe. First-years have to navigate the Purple Key Fair, a capella auditions, countless screw dances and entry snacks in search of those key friends that make college a worthwhile experience. Without those friends, this place can be paralyzing and for a non-athlete struggling to make those connections, the athletic teams seem to be built-in shortcuts to finding a place at this school.
So how can we address this issue? Part of the answer lies in each person increasing his or her willingness to make new connections at school. Starting conversations with people you’ve never spoken to or getting involved in new groups on campus are simple ways to do that. People also need to increase their investment in what their peers at Williams are involved in and what they are achieving. An increase in caring and celebration across the athlete/non-athlete spectrum would be great for this community. We need to celebrate the talented physics students as much as the gifted swimmers or incredible thespians at this school.
Another step revolves around attendance. Athletics are a big part of the College, but if Williams were a place where athletes ran the show, then there would never be an empty seat at a hockey or basketball game for both men and women. Some of the most successful teams in all of Div. III often play in front of only a couple dozen fans. Why not go to more games? More performances? More concerts? That way, when you see an athlete or a dancer or a musician, the conversation is easier to start.
Attendance at social events is also part of the solution. Everyone says athletic teams have filled the void left by the abolition of fraternities as the social engines of the College. However, there’s not a party that you would be turned away from because you don’t play a sport. Let’s celebrate together no matter what niche you occupy at Williams.
We athletes come to Williams because we are students first and athletes a close second. I think this belief that academics come first is shared by all students at the College. To me, the divide only exists because of things that cannot be changed. We can navigate those obstacles by increasing our understanding of each other’s responsibilities and gifts. I don’t think our community is doomed to fail because of this difference in experience between athletes and non-athletes. There are ways that athletes and non-athletes can improve their relationship on campus and this has to begin at the individual level.