Wood party rekindles debate on athletic culture

March 10, 2021

In the wake of the party at Wood, many have raised concerns about the disconnect between athletes and non-athletes at the College. (Angela Gui/The Williams Record)

It has been nearly two weeks since a large gathering at Wood House shook the College community. 127 students have come forward about their presence at Wood on the night of Feb. 26, and all have either left campus or will do so soon. Those remaining on campus will contend with the loss of friends and teammates; those going remote will adjust to their new lives away from the Purple Valley.

But even as the dust settles, the problems and conflicts raised by the party may have lasting implications. A majority of the party attendees were student-athletes, and some students attended the party because invitations circulated among sports teams, students who were at the party told the Record

Many students — including both varsity athletes and non-athletes — voiced complaints about the party culture of certain teams, as exemplified by the high number of student-athletes who attended the party. 

In an email on Friday, March 5, Chief Communications Officer Jim Reische called for the student body to stop stereotyping student-athletes at large. 

“I … hope that the people who have been demonizing party attendees, or using this as an excuse to attack athletes and other categories of students, will recognize the damage you’re doing, too,” Reische wrote. 

The division between athletes and non-athletes is not a new issue. In 2019, the Record published a series of op-eds on the subject of athletic recruitment, where athletes and non-athletes debated the role of recruited student-athletes in building a diverse, academically excellent community at the College. 

Now, amid a global pandemic, the questions became: What has caused the division between athletes and non-athletes? How did the Wood party highlight and exacerbate that division? And what will it take to bring students together? 

The Record spoke to athletes and non-athletes alike about the effects of the party on athletics; the often-heated debate about athletics; the ties among athletic culture, party culture, and privilege; and where the student body can go from here.

Widespread impact for different student-athlete groups

For spring athletes, the incident at Wood dealt a heavy blow to their optimism about spring competition. (The interviews below were conducted before the NESCAC announced yesterday that it would proceed with spring competitions.) 

“It’s something that’s really upsetting to the whole campus, and especially us,” said Azaria Vargas ’22, a member of women’s softball who said she did not attend the party. On top of delaying the campus reopening process, she said that the incident also “could have unfortunate consequences for [the spring] season.” 

Other athletes echoed these sentiments. Siri Bohacek ’22 — a member of the Nordic skiing team and a co-captain of women’s ultimate frisbee, who said she did not attend the party — also expressed frustration with the party and its consequences. “Starting [March 1], we were supposed to be allowed to take vans to really good skiing about 10 minutes from campus,” Bohacek said. “There’s no skiing on campus, and we can’t access that skiing that’s about 10 minutes away now because of that party, and by the time the restrictions are lifted, the snow will likely be gone.”

Ultimate frisbee, a club sport, was also affected. “We were hoping to make petitions to scrimmage in a way we felt was completely safe from a public health standpoint, but maybe would concern the community just as they saw people scrimmaging. Now, the community is extremely on edge and mistrustful of college students, particularly athletic teams affiliated with the College,” Bohacek said. 

Yesterday, the NESCAC announced that it would host “a limited schedule of conference competition for spring sports” from mid-April to mid-May. Soon after the statement was released, the College declared it would join nearly every other school in the NESCAC and opt in to the spring season.

According to Carolyn Miles, associate director for student athlete services, athletic teams will still move forward with their spring seasons despite some student-athletes transitioning to remote status. All spring sports have enough athletes on campus to compete, she said.

“Just as remote athletes were able to join team Zooms for meetings and educational sessions in the fall, anyone remote this spring will be given the same opportunity,” she added.

‘We know who it is’: Party culture among student-athletes

Emotions ran high after news of the Wood party broke. 

Alexa Walkovitz ’21, a non-athlete, said that they were initially baffled by the news. 

“What would make you think that’s OK? Like, we can barely gather in groups of 10,” they said. “[It just felt like a] big ‘f— you’ to the rest of us of, like, we don’t give a s— about you, your families, the people in town, the efforts you’re putting in, your pain. We’re going to do what we want, because we want to do it.”

While everyone makes mistakes, Walkovitz argued, this was not a mistake. “We’re a year, over a year, into a pandemic… It just felt so disrespectful, privileged, stupid,” they said.

In a March 7 email, Mandel addressed the emotional and social dimensions of the incident’s aftermath, specifically mentioning what she characterized as some students’ inappropriate displays of anger. 

“I know you feel frustrated,” she wrote. “But on social media some of you have descended into derision, stereotyping and stigmatization. This must stop. The college has already imposed consequences. It is gratuitous and cruel to pile on.” 

The reference to social media likely alluded in part to memes in the Facebook group “Williams Memes for sun-dappled tweens,” where some students posted memes making fun of athletes for their disproportionate presence at the Wood party.

Walkovitz said they were disappointed in  the administration’s response, which “felt really protective of [the student-athletes] and really hostile towards people who were upset.”  

According to two students who attended the party, a majority of the attendees were student-athletes, and the invitation to the party was circulated in part through connections among sports teams, although non-athletes were also present. 

“I definitely heard of students who were connecting with teammates,” one party attendee who asked to remain anonymous told the Record. “But I would say that’s much more coincidental. I definitely heard about it through not teammates as well. It definitely was more of people just connecting through their social network of other students that happen to go out — whether or not they were an athlete or a non-athlete was totally coincidental.”

Of course, the stereotype that student-athletes are social and inclined to party even during a pandemic is not representative of all teams or all the students on any particular team. Still, student-athletes agreed that some teams — especially tight-knit, team-based sports — may be associated with partying culture, especially as compared to sports that focus more on individual performance. 

“Team sports definitely give off [the sense that] they’re in lieu of Greek life,” Cristina Young ’22, a track and field member, said. 

Vargas agreed that there is a reason that the College’s athletes are in general associated with partying. “I can’t speak for what happened regarding the Wood party, or even this year,” she said. “But I do know most parties in other years, a lot of them take place on Hoxsey, and a lot of them take place in sports houses. So I think that that pretty much produces that stereotype of ‘athletes like parties’, but I definitely think it differs team to team.” 

At Wood House, this difference in cultures manifested itself. The Record spoke anonymously to a student at the party who told the Record that “the majority of teams [there] were team sports.” The student is a member of a varsity team. 

“A lot of individual sports weren’t there. Swimming, track, cross country, Nordic skiing, tennis… I didn’t see those in large numbers,” they said. “I think there may be more of a pack mentality on team sports.”

But even among team sports, cultures and attitudes towards partying could vary greatly from one team to another, according to Bohacek. “There’s no one culture that can define Williams varsity sports or Williams club sports,” she said.

The generalization that all student-athletes hold the same attitude towards partying could cause a sense of being unfairly accused for athletes uninvolved with the Wood party, according to Emma Tapscott ’22, a runner on cross country. 

“I think as a cross country/track runner it’s been an interesting position because we don’t really have the same partying/frat-like culture of most other teams,” she wrote via email to the Record. “So I think some runners have been frustrated by anti-athlete sentiments, because it feels like we’re being unfairly lumped together … and it’s easy to feel like we have to explain ourselves even though none of us went.” 

Tapscott added that it is still important in the wake of the Wood party to have conversations about the privilege that athletes hold, especially because of the correlation between athletic culture and whiteness and wealth.

“I think taking accountability for that culture should be the focus of the discussion (in a constructive, non-attacking way), even though it’s tempting as a runner to want to focus on how we’re the ‘exception’ and ask people to absolve us,” she said.

Student-athletes not at the party voice frustration

According to Vargas, in a team discussion on Monday, softball confirmed that no one on the team attended the party at Wood and reaffirmed its commitment not to attend any large gatherings. “We have to be responsible for ourselves and for this team and for this campus,” Vargas said. “All of us want to get to play, but we also want what’s best for this campus.” 

For some, however, having team discussions is not enough. 

“As someone who was on a sports team, I was kind of appalled at the fact that we didn’t cancel in-person sports, at least for this week [after the party] as a basic precaution against anything,” Young said. 

As an athlete who was remotely enrolled in the fall, Young said the emotional impact of the Wood party was twofold. “I, along with everybody else on this campus who wasn’t at the party, was extremely disappointed, extremely infuriated,” she said. “And it was scary for the first couple of days after that Saturday email. I truly feared that if not enough people had come forward, we would all get sent home.” 

To Young, the possibility of returning home after two weeks on campus brought not only disappointment, but also great risk to personal health and the health of her family. 

“I feel very strongly about this on a personal scale,” she said. “I have asthma, which means I’m high risk and I currently take medication for asthma. My mother is immunocompromised because she had cancer, and she’s still on steroids for that. Luckily, she got vaccinated. And then my father is a frontline health worker. So it’s kind of like the trifecta of people who would get COVID, and it’d be really scary.” 

Discourse erupts on Unmasked

The diversity of community responses to the Wood incident was most visible on the Unmasked Project, an anonymous virtual forum. While the app was intended as a platform for students to discuss their mental health anonymously and find direction to necessary resources, following the Wood incident and Mandel’s initial email, it became a breeding ground for discourse that grew vitriolic at times. The dialogue on the app centered largely around the perceived privilege of student-athletes and the potential reevaluation of the role of athletics on campus, though some posts also called for others to stop directing anger at student-athletes.

While the co-presidents of the Unmasked Project at Williams, Cailin Stollar ’21.5, Katie Nath ’23, and Claudia Ianneli ’23, closed the Unmasked forum relatively quickly after the fierce dialogue appeared, many students saw the discussion posts before the page was taken down. For students who did not get the opportunity to see it live, screenshots were quickly spread among teams and other student communities. 

Many student-athletes felt targeted by the posts on Unmasked. “I was extremely disappointed with some people’s immediate reaction to target athletes as the sole perpetrator,” JP Wong ’24, a first-year on the men’s baseball team, wrote to the Record. “Judging by the broad insults and sweeping accusations, it seemed like these comments were not based on actual evidence and rather just a way for people to point blame.”

Marit Hoyem ’24, a first-year on the women’s volleyball team, said she was not surprised by the responses. “I can understand why people are hurt and upset, especially when the consequences would affect the entire campus,” she said. 

Hoyem added, however, that the anonymity of the app likely accentuated feelings of hurt. “People are going to say stuff that they don’t necessarily mean or can ever say to your face when it’s an anonymous, online conversation,” she said. “So it’s also hard to differentiate what’s someone messing around … or actually expressing how they feel.”

While the anonymity of the app amplified frustrations during a period of heightened emotions, both student-athletes and non-athletes agreed that the discourse reflects a campuswide tension. “[I have] definitely seen a lot of anger and people upset on both sides,” Sam Holmes ’22, a junior on the men’s crew team, said. “This is just another example of how the divide is maybe growing in our school.”

Perceptions of privilege in athletic culture

Athletic culture and its association with privilege is not a new concern. In a 2019 op-ed titled “Let’s lose the Directors’ Cup: A call to end athletic recruitment,” Katherine Hatfield ’22, who is not an athlete, called into question the benefit of athletic recruitment to the college. In the wake of the Wood incident, Hatfield believes her hotly debated views have been justified.

“The Wood party, for a lot of people, exemplifies the entitlement of many athletes,” Hatfield told the Record. “The glorification of athletes, which is related to their disproportionate whiteness and wealth and thinness, leads to entitlement.”

According to Hatfield, the response to Wood shows that tensions between athletes and non-athletes have increased even further. “People think my op-ed created the division, but it was polarized even before then — people just weren’t aware of it,” Hatfield said. “Athletes feel that the anger they’ve received is disproportionate to the event, and therefore they feel like victims of anti-athletic bias. For non-athletes, it’s outrageous that athletes feel like victims, so we’re sort of at an impasse in the discourse there.”

“The Wood party testifies to the polarization because a lot of non-athletes could not even imagine doing that,” Hatfield added.

Gwyn Chilcoat ’24, who is not an athlete, critiqued the notion that athletes have given up more than non-athletes due to the pandemic. “Some say that athletes are in an even worse position because the activity that’s a part of their blood was taken away from them, but that simply isn’t unique,” she said. “My raison d’être is making music in a hall full of musicians; I haven’t done that in a year and some days it kills me, but that does not give me the right to put my community’s health in danger. Not even if I really want to.” 

While the controversy surrounding the issue of athletic culture had died down in the year since Hatfield’s op-ed, it has now been rekindled by the gathering at Wood House. As the public health situation remains dire nationwide, some athletes themselves raised the prevalence of privilege in athletic culture and the role that may have played in the Wood party. 

“I’ve personally come to realize that the people who went to that party probably benefit from both, or at least one of these privileges,” Young said. “One is, they’re able-bodied. And they probably also have a pretty good home life, in the sense that if worst comes to worst, which is the situation in which they are being sent home, that’s not a bad option for them. And so when you have one or both of those assumptions, that’s what I think leads people to think that going to parties is OK.”

“It’s a lot of layers of privilege, is what I’ve come to understand,” she continued. “And it’s hard to understand that as someone who doesn’t have a lot of those privileges.” 

The athletic program itself also offers a different kind of privilege, one that is particularly highlighted amid the pandemic: While other student groups have been discouraged from meeting in person since returning to campus last fall, sports teams were and are able to meet and train, giving athletes the opportunity to form unique social connections. 

According to the student who attended the Wood party, while these social connections offer a way for first-years to get to know upperclass students and settle in on campus, they also offer a preset social comfort zone where many tend to stay, especially during the pandemic when there are few extracurricular opportunities to form in-person bonds with other students. 

“I definitely think that given the COVID precautions on campus, it’s been really hard for a lot of freshmen who aren’t athletes to befriend sophomores and juniors,” the student said. “Meanwhile, the athletes really have the ability to go out there, and they meet these older kids through practices, through lifts, through meetings. So you get that automatic connection that just kind of led [team congregation at Wood] to be coincidental, unfortunately.” 

Hoyem explained that the pressure to be a “good teammate” can play a role in athletic party culture. “When your team says, ‘Let’s get together and let’s do something,’ it’s difficult to say no, because this is a group of people that you’re going to be spending a lot of time with for the next four years,” she said. “I think maybe non-athletes just don’t necessarily understand the commitment that being on a team entails — that’s socially and physically.”

A path forward

As campus continues to respond to the Wood House party, so do the conversations on athletic privilege and trust within the College community. Athletes and non-athletes alike have questioned: Where do we go from here? 

Some, like Young, called for broad changes to the student-athlete culture and discourse at the College. “I would urge people who are focusing their energy on the ‘student-athlete with target on the back’ discussion to shift that and to realize how centering that is,” Young said. “You’re centering yourself in this discussion that should really be about preserving the safety of the campus.” 

For Vargas, the process of healing starts with conversation between athletes and non-athletes. “I think what’s really important to get out there is, I don’t think people say a lot of the stuff they say with malicious intent,” she said. “I just think they don’t realize how harmful and hurtful it is to a large population at the school.” 

In particular, rhetoric that invalidates the academic merit of athletes is unhelpful and frustrating, said Vargas, who is a first-generation student. Instead, she said, sports teams should work alongside the administration and the rest of the College community to make broader institutional changes to reflect a dedication in diversity and inclusion. 

“Almost all of us [on softball] are all public school kids,” she said. “A lot of us are first-gen students, a lot of us come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, different racial backgrounds… I think we can always do a better job of it, and I think Williams needs to do a better job of making our campus a more accessible place for especially marginalized communities, but I think to just blame athletics as the problem isn’t really getting to it.” 

Much like the athletes, Hatfield said non-athletes should reflect upon themselves as well during a time when emotions tend to run high. 

“I hope that the conversation takes a more productive turn,” Hatfield said. “A lot of non-athletes are enjoying that athletes are being punished for once, and I don’t think that it’s a productive way to channel their anger about athletic culture. I think we need to find out why we’re angry and articulate that, and have a real discussion about athletic culture rather than just getting caught up in the drama.”

“Having conversation in friendships and relationships between people who are athletes and non-athletes, I hope, will slowly get rid of the divide,” Holmes said. “I think it’s all about building the community, the connections between people… Hopefully we can use [the anger] to make our community safer and help close the divide that, I mean, everyone sees.”

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