Rebecca Ford Article Illustration

Ex-Varsity by Rebecca Ford ’18

If you’ve ever wondered what Amherst athletics has to say about its program, here it is:

“Amherst College has the oldest athletics program in the nation, dating back to a compulsory physical fitness regimen that was put in place for all students in 1860. Today, over a third of the student body participates in varsity sports with eighty percent involved in intramural and club sports teams.”

Now, these are just words on a web page, but the words manifest themselves in a tangible way on campus through what is known as the “student-athlete divide”. It is felt by everyone, though the degree to which people are affected varies. People on both sides of the divide have plenty of feelings about it.

Personally, my problem with the idea of the divide is that it is exclusively two-sided, leaving no room for people like me: ex-varsity athletes.

One of the problems with conversation surrounding the divide is the idea of what it means to be a student-athlete. Being a student-athlete can be one of the most rewarding, exciting, and challenging experiences. My sport was basketball, and for me, there was an undeniable thrill that came with putting on my uniform on game day. I felt invincible and powerful. There was an unparalleled excitement that came with the anticipation of game day, especially after preparing for what felt like forever. And then there was my team; I had the opportunity to play a sport that I loved with a talented group of hardworking, intelligent, and kind women. They pushed me to be not just a better athlete and student, but a stronger person.

Now I go to games as a spectator, and while I’m sitting in the gym, all of those exciting memories come rushing back. I remember the feelings of being on the court: the need to win the game, the drive to execute the play, and the desire to exceed Coach’s expectations. I miss the game. I miss my team. I want to be out there playing, not sitting here watching. I think to myself, “Why did I leave again?”

And then, just like that, I’m reminded of the tougher moments. Those times when I wanted to be anywhere else. These moments consisted of heading to 6 a.m. lifts in the bitter cold, having to sit on the sidelines while injured, leaving my family early in the morning on December 26 to come back to school and practice, the challenges of being the only black player on an all-white team, the stress of feeling like I had to perform to the best of my abilities in both academics and athletics all the time, and feeling like I was looked at negatively by non-athletes. For me, those looks seemed to be saying, “You have something that you didn’t earn and it makes non-athletes feel alienated”. Those are the memories that I prefer not to think about, the ones that played a larger part in my decision to stop playing.

My reasons for not continuing to play are complex but they do not represent the only reasons that students stop playing their sports. Each sport operates differently, and all student-athletes have to decide for themselves exactly what they want to get out of their experience at Amherst.

Amherst Athletics at large claims, “… student-athletes are encouraged to pursue the full spectrum of opportunities available during their time in college. In this way, DIII provides an integrated environment for student-athletes to take responsibility for their own paths, follow their passions and find their potential through a comprehensive educational experience.”

Personally, I found that I could not make their vision work for me while playing basketball. My inability to pursue the full spectrum of opportunities available to me and play a varsity sport, in combination with my feelings of alienation along racial lines, and  my struggles with remaining healthy for a full season all played a part in my decision not to play.

Shifting to think about the “us vs. them” mentality of the student-athlete divide, where do people who have existed on both sides fit into the conversation? Is it even a conversation that we should be a part of?  Maybe ex-varsity athletes have a certain privilege in their ability to transcend the territory divide at Val or the anxiety walking into the gym. But perhaps that is too simplistic of an observation. Former athletes have a complicated existence. We understand both sides of the divide, and feel things on both sides without being able to truly belong on either side. At a place like Amherst, where belonging is so important, former athletes exist in a difficult space.

After having left the team, however,… things feel different. Now I go to games as a spectator, and while I’m sitting in the gym, all of those exciting memories come rushing back. I remember the feelings of being on the court: the need to win the game, the drive to execute the play, and the desire to exceed Coach’s expectations. I miss the game. I miss my team. I want to be out there playing, not sitting here watching. I think to myself, “Why did I leave again?”

And then, just like that, I’m reminded of the tougher moments. Those times when I wanted to be anywhere else. These moments consisted of heading to 6 am lifts in the bitter cold, having to sit on the sidelines while injured, leaving my family early in the morning on December 26 to come back to school and practice, the challenges of being the only black player on an all- white team, the stress of feeling like I had to perform to the best of my abilities in both academics and athletics all the time, and feeling like I was looked at negatively by non-athletes. For me, those looks seemed to be saying, “You have something that you didn’t earn and it makes [non-athletes] feel alienated”. Those are the memories that I prefer not to think about, but they the ones that played a larger part in my decision to stop, to not continue playing.

rford18@amherst.edu

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