Williams College has won the NCAA Div. III Directors’ Cup, awarded to the collegiate institution with the best athletic program in the division, 22 times in the last 24 years. Our commitment to athletic achievement requires athletic recruitment, since our competitors also recruit. Athletics contribute little to the economic well-being of the College. We are not a Div. I school. Our sports teams do not charge for entrance to games and therefore do not earn ticket revenue. The success of our teams does not determine alumni donations, unlike how it might at larger, Div. I institutions.
Since our athletic program does not bring in significant revenue, it is our campus culture that motivates our decision to recruit almost a third of every Williams class for athletics. Privilege facilitates athletic success, since getting good at a sport is often a money-intensive endeavor. With only a couple of exceptions, sports teams are heavily white. Recruitment for the ski, lacrosse and hockey teams, among others, effectively reserves spots for white prep-school kids.
I’ve heard the argument that recruitment of athletes brings in more well-rounded people. The implicit opposite of a “well-rounded” athlete is a one-dimensional nerd. Academic achievement isn’t everything, of course, but neither is athletic achievement. Participation in athletics could be a small factor in admissions like other extracurriculars, such as those involving community service, the arts, preprofessional opportunities, leadership or political involvement. But our heavy recruitment of athletes glorifies a particular form of well-roundedness and a particular type of person: likely thin or strong, white and privileged. This value system is rooted in the College’s history as a place for white, privileged men, pursuing their masculine endeavors of physical dominance.
The lowering of academic standards in admissions that is necessary to support our recruitment program further divides the campus. There are many brilliant recruited athletes on this campus. But some athletes feel that they have to prove themselves because they are assumed to be less smart than the average non-athlete. Behind the selfdeprecating jokes some athletes make lurks a real question about whether they would have gotten in without athletics. Indeed, some “non-ers” feel that some of their athletic peers do not deserve to be here.
Excessive focus on our athletic program comes at the cost of the stated goals of admissions as set forth in our mission statement: diversity of all kinds, academic achievement and varied forms of personal promise. So, let’s stop recruiting for athletics.
Of course, if we stopped athletic recruitment, we would lose the Director’s Cup. But our athletic program would survive. Ideally, our current competitors in the NESCAC would also stop recruitment so that they would remain fair competition. If not, our teams could play community colleges or club teams at Div. I institutions.
Athletics can pull the campus together: Sports teams create school pride shared by athletes and non-athletes. And yet recruitment, the rarity of walk-ons and the enormous time commitment of being on a sports team separate athletes from the rest of the campus. We need to redefine success in terms other than a quest for dominance, both physical and in our athletic rankings. We do not need to have the best Div. III athletic program for athletics to bring us together.
Our teams do not need to be the best for students to enjoy and learn from athletics. As a mediocre high school runner (look me up on MileSplit), I gained confidence, learned the value of hard work and teamwork, and enjoyed winning and losing with my team. I lost with humor, with the knowledge that I had tried my hardest, and with teammates whom I loved. We need to lose more and enjoy what we have gained.
Let’s stop recruiting athletes and start reaffirming our values as a small liberal arts college. Let’s continue our athletic program but fill teams with walk-ons. And let’s not let our commitment to athletics continue to be a commitment to winning at all costs.
Katherine Hatfield ’22 is from New York, N.Y.