Report on Athletics Raises More Questions Than It Answers by Sam Wohlforth ’17

“The place of athletics at Amherst is fucking ridiculous.”  I was halfway through my interview with a professor about faculty concerns with the recent report on the place of athletics at Amherst when she blew my hair back with this line.  I looked up from my notebook.  I expected professors to be frustrated with the failures of the athletic and admissions departments–the report itself points out some real problems with athletics at Amherst, and recommends several reforms–but not to this degree.  “The report is vague and biased,” she said, and the letter from Biddy appended to the beginning of the report is “even more of a gloss of something vague and biased to begin with.”  

She has a good point.  On first read, the report, starting with Biddy’s glowing preview (“It is a very positive report”) suggests that the administration is proud of how Amherst has balanced the costs and benefits of fielding a premier D-III athletic program, and that any problems are being dealt with.  But read between the lines, the report contains several findings that speak to how the large role of athletics at Amherst has significant costs to our pursuit of the fundamental goals of the College.  Read between the lines, the report isn’t positive at all.  

For one, many faculty members are particularly worried about athletics leading to “de facto racial segregation on campus,” as another professor put it, and they’re furious that the administration has dismissed their concerns as hysterical.  The demographic numbers, buried in the middle of the report, are totally damning.  73% of athletes are white, compared to 35% of non-athletes.  Only 4% of athletes are low-income and only 3% are first-generation students, compared to 31% and 20% for non-athletes, respectively.  Consider what this means for the social dynamics of the College: the student-athlete divide is also a racial and class-based divide.  

The consequences of these disparities are massive.  We see the “racial and economic segregation on campus” pretty clearly in Val, where athletes dominate the entire back room.  Now, let’s add the racial realities to our analysis: white people dominate the entire back room.  (This is mostly for my white readers.  Students of color are, I’m sure, well aware of this dynamic.  I never noticed it until I made friends with people who weren’t white and could point it out to me.  Now, it’s obvious and glaring.)  Remember the uproar earlier this year when a group of women used a single table in the back room to stage a protest against rape culture? Consider how that level of entitlement plays out every day in the back room.  If you’re a person of color, there is no guarantee that you can even get a drink from one of the far drink machines deep in the back room, let alone sit in one of the booths, without having to put up with a level of aggression that would shock a white student.  

The problems go beyond Val, of course.  One of the most durable findings in all of social science is that, in our society, white people hold strong but unconscious biases against people of color, particularly black people.  The only way to combat these biases is to become conscious of them, and because they’re held unconsciously, we’re most likely to find out that we have them when someone else points them out to us.  In a locker room comprised of practically all white people, these biases are never going to be corrected.  In many cases, the social pressures against doing so are high, even for other white students.  For people of color, the costs of speaking up are even higher, the degradation even more pronounced when they are inevitably dismissed.  Another persistent finding from social science: if less than 10% of people in a space do something, bystanders will never go along with them.  But if more than 15% to 20% of people do that thing, practically all bystanders do something.  Let’s say a white athlete makes a racist joke in, say, a GroupMe chat.  A large percentage of the white athletes in that GroupMe won’t even recognize the joke as inappropriate at all, and those that do are not likely to say anything since nobody else is saying anything.  It will take at least a few people on every team who are prepared to call out every offensive joke for bystanders on that team to join in for the team to have any hope of reigning in its abuses.  And by the time that a person works up the gumption to call out every offensive joke or comment, their teammates have already learned to cut that person out of the loop.  What’s worse, for 10% to 20% of people, social pressure will never be enough to get them to start performing a behavior (in the case of calling out oppressive speech) or to stop performing other behaviors (like making oppressive comments).  The inevitable, inexorable result of this is that the thresholds needed to even begin to cultivate more just environments cannot be met, and white athletes will continue to oppress people of color, and their teammates will continue to let them do it.  

Obviously there are grossly entitled people on this campus who aren’t athletes.  But I think it’s obvious that being part of a tight-knit group (like a sports team) full of people who are as privileged as yourself makes you, at best, less likely to do anything about the entitlement exhibited by your friends, and, at worst, more likely to act entitled yourself.  Multiple times at parties on the hill, football players have mocked the gender-neutral bathrooms.  This year alone, there have been several well-publicized incidents where athletes and former athletes attacked students of color with racist remarks.  Last semester, a white student told a group of Asian students that he deserved to go to Amherst more than they did and that, as a full pay student, he paid for them to attend.  On Friday, March 31st, at a mixer between men’s basketball and women’s squash in Seligman House, several members of the men’s team mocked the names of residents of the house.  According to an eyewitness, one of the men’s basketball players said, “They all probably grouped together. This is like China.”

[Author’s Note: Previous versions of this article quoted, without necessary context, a member of the women’s squash team as saying that it is ‘difficult to live with people with different expectations.’ The original article then suggested that these words were meant to defend the actions of certain members men’s basketball team described above. However, The Indicator has learned that the words of the women’s squash team were misinterpreted and taken out of context, and were not meant to defend the actions of certain members of the men’s basketball team. In reality, the member of women’s squash said these words in the context of different expectations regarding loud music and loud events.  The author sincerely regrets the error and wishes to apologize to all who were adversely affected by it.]

Even worse, campus police gave the party a half-hour grace period to disperse.  The behavior of campus police in this incident, coddling the behavior of athletes, is part of a larger pattern.  Two years ago, while the men’s lacrosse team held a formal in Tyler House, with beer pong tables in the common room and lines of coke in the bathroom, two students of color were written up by campus police for smoking a joint behind the dorm.  While the sheer number of stories of entitled athletes are much too numerous for me to hope to cover even a small fraction of them in this article, we should notice a pattern: one teammate does something horribly entitled, and other teammates fail to do even the bare minimum to reign that behavior in.  What’s more, the school’s attempts to instill more healthy cultures on teams likely make the problem worse.  Athletes receive bystander training, not, say, sexual assault seminars that would highlight the likelihood that some members of the teams receiving that training are likely perpetrators themselves.  In fact, even calling it bystander training frames it as a problem in which none of the team members are at fault, as if everyone were a bystander and nobody a perpetrator.  

Sports teams are incredibly isolated from the larger campus community.  They live together, eat together, drink together, and spend almost all of their free time together.  Functionally, sports teams act like fraternities do at other schools, particularly in how both teams and fraternities act as vectors of privilege.  But the most common way the problem is phrased, as it is in the report, is as an “athlete/non-athlete divide.”  This framing has the result of making it seem like the problem is that athletes and non-athletes are just two ships in the night, attending the same college but never interacting in any meaningful way.  This is true, but it isn’t the problem.  The better way to put it is that athletes segregate themselves away from everyone else.  It follows exactly the same logic as white flight: just as white people, uncomfortable at living in neighborhoods with pluralities or majorities of people of color, fled to the suburbs, so too do athletes isolate themselves at their back room tables and in their suites, rarely, if ever, inviting someone who is not also an athlete into their spaces, and when they do, practically never as equal partners.

But, of course, you won’t get any of this from the report.  That’s because the administration only interviewed four students who weren’t athletes, compared to nine athletes.  Did the committee on athletics want to hear the voices of non-athletes? Or were they only interested in making the lives of athletes as balanced as possible?  The balance of who they interviewed certainly points to the latter.  Non-athletes didn’t have any meaningful seat at the table in the making of this report, and it shows.  

Some of the faculty’s biggest worries are around housing.  The numbers alone are staggering:  in the Fall of 2014, 85% and 80% of the residents of Pond and Stone, respectively, were male athletes.  When the socials were still around, male athletes filled most of the suites, and this year, the first school year post-socials, that dynamic simply shifted to Jenkins and the triangle.  According to unconfirmed reports,Jenkins has already received tens of thousands of dollars in dorm damage this year, mostly because of the parties that happen there every weekend.  

The report cites the construction of the Greenways as being a significant step forward in eliminating these problems.  But they provide no data to back this up, and there is significant anecdotal evidence to suggest that athletes continue to segregate themselves.  Most gallingly, nowhere in the report is any mention of how members of the football team paid people to move out of Hitchcock so they could have the run of the dorm.  It would have been simple to provide data about housing: they could have looked at how many room groups were entirely or mostly comprised of athletes, or which dorms had large populations of athletes.  PhD.-wielding social scientists in our faculty could have done these kinds of analyses very quickly; the network analysis techniques needed to look into the extent of the problem have been around for a half century.  But the committee didn’t look into it, and in neglecting to do so, they ignored one of the biggest problems our college faces, the fact that we almost certainly still have de facto racial segregation in housing across our campus.  

At this point, the only way I see how Amherst could solve the problem of racial segregation, short of mandating that the demographics of each incoming class of athletes match the demographics of the incoming class as a whole (something that they really ought to do anyway), is to do what Vassar did a few years ago: limit the ability of athletes to live together.  We might set a cap on the proportion of athletes in any room group, or cap the number of athletes that could live in any one dorm.  We already cap the number of either men or women that can live in a dorm; why not extend these limitations to athletes?  It would prevent any one dorm from becoming dominated by tight-knit groups of white athletes who treat outsiders, particularly people of color, with hostility.  While restricting the rights of athletes to live together might seem, on its face, to be a particularly drastic solution to the problem, let’s not forget that the problem we’re trying to solve is horrifying in itself.  Racial segregation in housing gives the lie to Amherst’s pride in its diversity: the College welcomes students of color but, after everyone arrives, allows teams of white athletes to essentially force students of color to choose between facing hostility or avoiding certain dorms altogether.  

The problems caused by the dominance of athletics in the culture of Amherst have some of their deepest roots in the Admissions Department.  Consider the “Athletic Factor Admit.”  People admitted as athletic factor admits are, according to the report, students “for whom athletic prowess plays a significant role in the admission process.”  If this doesn’t sound like much, consider this from later in the report: “The benefit at the time of admission that athletic factor athletes receive is substantial.”  That is to say, they would almost certainly not have gotten in except for the fact that they’re good at their sports.  If they weren’t good at their sports, their academic achievement and other extracurricular interests (or lack thereof) would almost certainly have gotten them rejected.  67 athletes are admitted every year as athletic factor admits, comprising a full seventh of every class.  14 of these are for football alone.  This means that, assuming (perhaps unreasonably) that none of these players quit, 256 people at Amherst right now (14% of all students) were admitted as athletic factor admits, 56 of whom are on the football team. Not all athletes are athletic factor admits; some 60-90 athletes are admitted every year as “coded athletes.”  These are athletes who meet the academic qualifications that everyone else meets in order to get into Amherst.  But, because of their athletic abilities, they enjoy a significant advantage over non-athletes in the admissions process.  As we did with the back room of Val, let’s overlay what we know about the racial demographics of athletics on top of this analysis.  At Amherst, athletics constitutes affirmative action–but for white people.  

To many in the faculty, these priorities, as well as the massive role athletics plays in the lives of students, seem tremendously misguided. This isn’t to say that these professors are anti-athlete; every professor with whom I spoke for this article took pains to stress that, in fact, they wanted only the best for the athletes in their classes.  For every athlete they admit, the admissions department has to reject a non-athlete (and, of course, vice versa).  In one interview, a faculty member suggested that the large and growing time commitments athletes must make to their sports “hinders full engagement with the academic mission of the college.”  This much is evident when we see that athletes are much less likely to write theses: in 2015, the most recent year on which the report has data, 45% of non-athletes wrote theses, compared to 30% of athletes and only 13% of athletic factor admits.  Athletes are also much more likely to take the college’s largest classes where students can avoid being called on for most or all of the semester.  Twice as many athletic factor admits take classes larger than a hundred students, and coded athletes and walk-ons are each at least 50% more likely to take these classes.  

The politics of the issue have reached a head between the faculty and the administration.  The report itself did nothing to deal with the faculty’s concerns about athletics, given the paucity of qualitative and quantitative data throughout the document.  To one professor, the report indicated that the “administration and athletics are aligned in ways they shouldn’t be.”  Since Amherst delegates much more oversight authority to the faculty than many of our peer institutions, they have a unique ability to correct the course of the college when they see it’s gone astray.  This was a theme: many professors think the faculty has been “lax in their oversight of athletics,” as one put it.  

The faculty feels like their concerns leading up to the report were brushed aside. This has enraged and frustrated many, particularly those who were most outspoken in faculty meetings and who had their worries dismissed as “perception” and as a bias against athletes.  The suspicion is that the faculty is being steamrolled by an administration and an athletic department intent on keeping the status quo.  The athletic department “ignored repeated faculty requests for data” in making this report, according to faculty member.

All of this, to the faculty, seems like the priorities of the administration and the athletics department are horribly out of line.  Are we emphasizing winning at the cost of nurturing the best academic we can?  As one professor put it, “If winning wasn’t a priority, would we really choose one seventh of students primarily on athletic ability?”  Concerns about Suzanne Coffey’s ability to handle the situation have reached a head, as well.  Once the director of athletics, Coffey was heavily criticized for the editorial she wrote in 2013 attacking Professor Thomas Dumm’s editorial that suggested the college investigate whether misogynist team environments contributed to campus rape culture.  When Coffey was elevated to Chief Student Affairs Officer–a position created, some suspect, to circumvent requirements that the Dean of Students position be filled only by consent of the faculty–many in the faculty were outraged.  Many in the faculty have expressed their frustration with how much Biddy stresses winning, a goal they see as orthogonal–at best–to the college’s academic mission.  

Why is the administration so unwilling to take any meaningful steps to solve these problems and so eager to pretend like these problems don’t exist?  The weight of the evidence suggests that it is at least partially because the athletics program is a large source of alumni donations.  The report notes that, amongst the alumni classes of the 1960s, 76% who were athletes at Amherst gave to the college in 2015, compared to 56% who weren’t athletes.  The report notes, “Former athletes represent 48% of the alumni body, but they constitute 78% of Founders Society members (donors who have made cumulative gifts of $1 million or more).”  The faculty, according to one professor, is “afraid that changes to athletics will endanger the endowment that we need to remain need-blind.”  And while, in alumni surveys, majorities of alumni from the past two decades say that athletics plays too large a role at Amherst, the fact remains that the two largest donors in the college’s history, one of whom paid for the Powerhouse, were both athletes.

All of this has the faculty scared, but, on the bright side, they appear ready to do something about it.  Particularly at a place like Amherst, which affords its faculty broad authority in oversight and governance, professors can make a real difference in how the institution functions.  The faculty is ready to reclaim its oversight authority over admissions–one professor has proposed that the athletics department shouldn’t be allowed to speak to admissions without a faculty member present at all, and the number of athletic factor admits decreased to 40 over six years.  The amount of faculty concern is definitely heartening.  As one professor put it, “Lots of faculty think this moment in [the college’s] history is pivotal.”  Let’s hope they follow through.  

swohlforth17@amherst.edu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *