Bridging the athlete and non-athlete divide: Calling for more conversation

I once overheard someone say, “People who don’t play sports just don’t get it.” Although I disagree, I see where he was coming from. Athletes at the College lead incredibly busy lives that demand a precarious balance between athletics and academics. Even when out of season, teams practice constantly. Their efforts have led to unprecedented athletic success for the College and, as a result, Williams has won 21 of 23 Directors’ Cups for the best Division III program. The role of an athlete at Williams is a privilege, but it is also an immense source of pressure that people who do not play varsity sports can avoid.
This massive focus on athletic success comes with problematic side-effects that are magnified by the large student-athlete presence on campus. The source of this is the amount of time that athletes are expected to spend with their teams. Because of the constant practices, travel on weekends for games and related team functions, student-athletes have little leeway to drift away from their teams. Consequently, being an athlete often becomes a primary part of their identities as Williams students regardless of other extracurricular commitments. People often gravitate towards others with shared experiences, so this incentivizes athletes to befriend other athletes.
There are a few major problems with this system. First, athletes are often white and come from disproportionately wealthier backgrounds. It is a direct contradiction for the College, which prides itself on its diverse voices, to create an atmosphere that encourages a relatively homogenous group of people to stay within their own social sphere. Not only is it logically incompatible, but it is harmful, as it unnecessarily separates students from various backgrounds and identities who would benefit from learning from one another.
Second is the issue of space. This has been written about extensively by Gregory P. Zaffino ’17 (“Out of the dorms, beyond our values,” April 26, 2017), but it bears repeating. The way that off-campus housing is currently set up gives heavy preference to athletes. This is because “off-campus” housing that is within walking distance to campus is scarce, and demand for it is high. People often must commit to these houses years in advance, requiring the renters to know exactly who they want to live with. The issue is that non-athletes are often not as sure about who they will be friends with, and so they are unable to take advantage of the off-campus housing system as easily as athletes can. The renter is also often required to sign a lease for the house as a first-year or sophomore, which many folks cannot afford to do with the risk inherent in that agreement.
I’ve laid out some problems that I think a lot of people are aware of but do not talk about enough. Part of the reason is a lack of representation of non-athletes in this dialogue. The College has the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) whose “mission is to improve the experience of student-athletes at Williams,” but there are no opportunities for people not on varsity teams to bring their viewpoints to the table. The College should have a separate committee made up of athletes, non-athletes and the administration specifically dedicated to examining and finding solutions for key issues that perpetuate this divide. All students stand to benefit if artificial barriers between athletes and non-athletes are broken down. There is a great deal of progress that can be achieved if only we begin the conversation.
I would like to end by reflecting on my personal experience with the athlete and non-athlete divide. I was a student athlete in high school and have always loved sports. I’ve been committed to athletics since I got here, writing for the football and men’s tennis teams, doing the scorebook for the women’s basketball games and working with the athletic director and other coaches in community outreach projects. Keeping these things in mind, it felt quite jarring during my first year when I was labelled a “non-athlete” because I wasn’t on a varsity team.
It should be noted that individual students are not at fault for this divide, and that some people may not follow its mandate. I have many student-athlete friends who make a conscious effort to create relationships outside of their teams. But, we as a community need to make a decision. Victory is joyous only if everyone believes it to be so. Do the countless Directors’ Cups add to the community at-large in a meaningful way? Are they worth the cost? Williams always shoots for the stars, but in doing so, we should make sure that everyone is on board.

Kevin Coakley ’20 is from Lenox, Mass. He is an economics major.