The value of varsity

Sitting in my “Philosophy of Education” class this week as we were talking about the role of athletics at American colleges, I imagined a hypothetical world where varsity collegiate athletic teams at the Div. III level were replaced by clubs. In this article, I will present arguments for and against this hypothetical system and discuss what would be sacrificed and changed if we shifted away from a system of varsity athletics and the subsequent recruiting processes.

In class, Professor of Philosophy Will Dudley ’89 listed the aims of varsity athletics and why they have been vigorously pursued in the past 25 years. Among the more compelling reasons for the presence of varsity sports at Williams are the school pride and school unification that they beget (among current students, community members and alumni), their role in student development and how competitive sports programs align themselves with the College’s culture of excellence.

Anyone who has been to a basketball game in the past two years at Williams has witnessed the palpable excitement and sense of camaraderie that an excellent sports program successfully cultivates on campus. Not only do Williams students fill the arena with their European soccer cheers, but neighborhood children paint their faces purple and gold and alumni show up in droves (ideally with their pockets lined with money for donation). Would this culture be lost if Williams and its competitors stopped recruiting athletes? Would our athletic teams be less talented? As someone who plays rugby at Williams, I can truthfully state that the alumni’s dedication to the Williams Rugby Football Club is equal to, if not greater than, alumni attachment to the varsity teams. For the club’s 50th reunion, over 75 percent of all former players made the journey up to Williamstown! I know that other club sports like the Williams Ultimate Frisbee Organization (WUFO) have similarly passionate alumni. Therefore, the argument that alumni support and attachment to Williams would be greatly diminished if club sports became the norm is not overly compelling.

However, one could ask if the decreased skill level of Williams sports teams would lead to less enthusiasm for them on campus. Well first, I think we all know that the support for the basketball team is sort of an anomaly at Williams, as friends of mine who play on sports teams often lament the lack of student and community interest in their sport. Next, if it is assumed that our competitors, specifically Amherst, also did away with varsity sports (or at least recruiting), then while the athletes on the fields would not be as skilled, the scores in each game would probably be close since Williams and Amherst attract similar applicants. Given the equal level of competition, the nature of the Williams-Amherst rivalry, and the fact that sports have always been popular at Williams even prior to recruitment (which began roughly 25 years ago), I think it can be safely concluded that there would be some student and community interest in these less talented teams.

There are those who correctly posit that sports teach skills like leadership, responsibility and work ethic, which directly apply to the classroom and the world outside of the College. Would these traits be lost and would the hypothetical Williams student’s character be less developed if varsity sports were replaced with club sports? Well, there is certainly an argument that the work ethic demanded by a varsity sport is much greater than the work ethic demanded by a club sport, where attendance at practice is often optional and “in season” entails more drinking, not less. However, it could be argued that leadership and responsibility are emphasized even more at the club level since students drive their programs. Students contact teams at other schools to create the season’s schedule; students act as treasurers and pay bus drivers, order jerseys and open team tabs at the Spirit Shop. If anything, it could be argued that club sports are more empowering for students. Furthermore, a salient argument for club sports is that they are nonexclusive (although one could imagine a scenario where there are tryouts, or ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams within clubs). As a result of their inclusionary nature, more students than the 33 percent of current varsity athletes can cultivate these character traits of leadership, responsibility and work ethic.

Finally there is an argument that Williams is the manifestation of intellectual and physical excellence. How can we pursue the excellence of the mind without due consideration to the excellence of the body? Williams is famous for its Sears Cup victories as well as its superb faculty and intellectually engaged and capable student body (if I can toot our own collective horn). But this begs the argument of why the school should emphasize excellence of the body as opposed to excellence in dance or excellence in the arts (essentially excellence in creativity). Which types of excellence are best aligned with the mission of the College?
Ultimately, this piece is not intended to call for the dismantling of varsity sports, since I personally enjoy attending sporting events and definitely see a value in the presence of competitive athletics at Williams. Rather, this piece should be more of a mental exercise and an overall reflection of ideals that Williams holds dear.

Raphael Menko ’12 is a history and economics major from Narberth, Pa. He lives in Currier.

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