Eph abroad evaluates sports culture divides

April 27, 2016 by Sam Siegel, Contributing Writer

In a previous article I addressed the distinctions between college sports at Williams and at Oxford, but this is an important topic and, in my opinion, it deserves to be revisited in greater depth. More specifically, I’d like to talk about rowing here at Oxford and compare it to the crew teams at Williams, and then relate the differences back to college sports as a whole.

To begin, crew at the College is inclusive, compared to other equally competitive sports teams on campus. It recruits aggressively from across the student body, and even absolute beginners are welcome; however, someone who is an absolute novice is unlikely to compete in important races unless they are an athletic freak. In comparison, crew at Oxford exists at the college and University-wide levels. Each constituent college that makes up Oxford has its own team that competes against other colleges. These teams are made up of average students, and no serious recruiting is done. As a result, these teams don’t compete at a particularly high level, but they are incredibly welcoming to beginners, and forgiving of less-than-stellar performers. As evidence of this, I’d simply like to point out that three Williams students currently at the Williams-Exeter Program at Oxford are members of the Exeter College rowing team despite never having rowed before this year. Jackson Myers ’17 rows on the men’s second boat for Exeter, Molly Bodurtha ’17 rows for the women’s team, and Devyn Hebert ’17 picked up the sport just this past week at the start of term and has been thrust right into action.

At the University level, Oxford has men’s and women’s teams that compete with other universities, and most notably with Cambridge. While these teams are excellent, they are by no means guaranteed to beat Williams’s top squads, and again, they do not recruit aggressively from secondary schools. Talent rises to the top at European universities, creating a welcoming and inclusive system. Furthermore, the fact that beginners can easily join a sports team and compete in important events says a lot about the athletic climate of Oxford, and in my opinion, this is something that The College should seek to emulate. Unless everything has changed in my year abroad, divisions do exist between many of our sports teams and the non-athletes at the College. The best way to change this is to change the College’s attitude towards sports.

While our board, administration, and donors would balk at any plan to eliminate high-school recruiting in favor of a more open system based on on-campus recruiting and student interest, such a system would improve the campus climate at the College, and that of any other American school that adopted it. If American colleges stop putting recruited athletes on a pedestal, and treat their sports teams just like European schools treat theirs, then a slew of problems facing our colleges will decrease or disappear. The academic scandals that plague the sports teams of big Division I schools will disappear, because a meritocratic system will eliminate the need for schools to recruit unqualified students or prevent students from spending sufficient time on their schoolwork. There won’t be any need to integrate athletes and “civilians” because there won’t be any difference.

College sports teams will be good or bad based on (among other things) the skill of the students that choose to go to a particular college, rather than on the abilities of large and violation-prone recruitment machines. Of course, such a system would also imply less time commitment by athletes to their teams, and that the teams might be worse, but this will be true universally, so there will still be exciting competition. If a year at Oxford has taught me anything about sports, it’s that less is more: less recruiting, less competitiveness, and less time commitment together make for a better campus atmosphere.

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