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Perceptions of privilege in athletic culture

March 10, 2018

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.”

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