Let me correct a myth on this campus.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an athlete is defined as a person trained or skilled in exercises, sports or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina.
That’s all. That’s it: trained or skilled in exercises, sports or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina. Not a person on a school sports team, not a person who was recruited to be on a school sports team, and not a person who is a captain.
I’ve held multiple conversations on the Williams campus concerning a misunderstanding that seems to have occurred – apparently the Williams dictionary has an altogether different definition for what makes an athlete. Since the issue has been lacing many encounters as of late, I endeavored to discover where the misunderstanding was taking place.
I didn’t have long to wait. A couple days ago, I myself had one of a long chain of similar interactions concerning, “What it means to be an athlete.” So as not to waste time, there were three important points made by the three individuals who approached me: (One) there are specific indicators of a Williams College athlete, (two) one of the most telling indicators is a specific combination of clothing, apparently designated singly for athletes and (three), an individual who wears that specific combination of clothing, but does not fit the definition of being a Williams College athlete, has something to prove.
I was wearing gym shoes, sweat pants and a beanie. A pair of gym shoes, a non-descript pair of sweatpants and a beanie from my local college back home. “You’re not an athlete, so why are you out here dressed like one?” they asked me. Before I could answer, they provided their own, “You’re faking ’cause you want the attention athletes get. You’re not even a real athlete. You’re just a nonner.”
The language is all too familiar; the audacity is all too pungent.
Obviously influenced by a vacuous, doltish reasoning leaving much to yearn for, I was undecided as to what to be angrier about. I concluded I was more appalled by the utter factual certitude with which they affronted my person, their sick compulsion that motivated them to stop me in order to inform me of the fact that my clothing choices didn’t seem to match my social status. It was the conviction with which these young men felt it was perfectly okay to insult my clothing choices, my sense of self and my own personal work ethic in order to deliver a self-serving conclusion, as though someone had deemed them notaries of the mythical Division III Athletic Qualifications Board. I was at a loss for words in the moment.
So from me, and all those who’ve been unfortunate enough to suffer the same insolence, to you people out there who think you are the gatekeepers of athleticism: screw you.
Athleticism is a lifestyle. It is a manner of maintenance, an attitude of dedication and perseverance. It is a lifestyle geared towards challenging yourself to set, reach and constantly exceed your own goals concerning growth and development in the arenas of strength, agility and stamina. It is a test of not only the physical, but also mental and character strength, agility and stamina. It is the ability of an individual to structure their schedule, mentality and diet towards attaining self-set health and welfare goals.
It is a process that is intended to be inherently positive, inherently valuable. A personal journey, discovery about the ability of your body and its systems to support yourself, and any weight you decide to take on – it’s a lifestyle of consistent challenge, failure, progress and success.
It’s not a means to a trophy, awards or title. It’s not just a word. It’s not how many pair of mesh shorts you go through in a week. It’s not how many weekends you host a themed drinking party with the same people in other people’s dorm buildings. It’s not how many bags of ice you can wrap around your body; not how many tables you can take up in Mission. It’s not how many pair of Lululemon headbands and spandex capris you own. It’s not how many times you visit the trainer’s office, or how sloppy your post-workout buns are. It’s not about the fake call Nike headquarters made asking you and your team to police the campus for those who violate their “For sports team members only” rule. It’s not how many times you can make a Yak about Livingstone or what type of sneaker you wear. It’s not the number of hours you spend watching baseball, football and hockey highlights, or how many rooms you occupy in Sawyer to do it.
It’s not how many words you can create to make an unnecessarily offensive distinction, designed to make you feel special about your decision to dedicate yourself to yet another social group.
Athleticism is not a badge or a social status lubricant that permits you to perform an inherently negative, violent practice intended to make a distinction based on a false binary. In short, no matter how many hours you spend aching and sore on a track, on a field, in a pool or on a court, you have no right to create an oppressive environment for those who do not pay to behave like you. You are not better. You are not worth more. You are not greater.
And for the young men who informed me of my apparent “nonner” status – I’m in the gym five days a week, earning my muscle, earning my sweat, training myself in exercises, developing my skills in strength, agility, flexibility and stamina. I will wear what I want to wear, when I want to wear it and in the specific combination as I so desire.
Next time I need someone who power cleans less than me to inform me of my athletic status, I’ll ask.
Rika Shabazz ’17 is from Richfield, Minn.