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The Athlete, Non-Athlete Relationship at Haverford College

When describing the relationships between athletes and non-athletes at Haverford College, classifying it as perfectly harmonious would be inaccurate. At the same time,  labeling it as a ‘divide’ would be equally ignorant. In terms of NCAA Division III Liberal Arts Colleges, Haverford is home to one of the largest varsity athlete percentages at 42%, according to Wendy Smith, Athletic Director of Haverford College. This is a source of pride and an aspect which brings liveliness and sense of unity to the college, as we see notable events such as ‘Senior Day’ where families of Varsity athletes are given the chance to engage in and celebrate their child (or sibling’s, etc.) athletic and even academic success.  Its downsides, however, have fueled constant discourse on campus. While some may think that the relationship between varsity athletes and non-athletes is perfectly amicable, other sentiments cannot be dismissed, notably since they have been shared primarily by non-varsity athletes who make up a majority of the College. I use this essay as an attempt to provide explanation (and hopefully clarification of misconceptions) regarding the nature of Varsity athletes and their community involvement. Ultimately, it aims to encourage the necessary discussion about the subject and prevent (rather than fuel) any hostility.

As a two-year varsity Basketball player and a current member of the Haverford’s Club Soccer team, I have nothing but respect for the various athletic teams on campus (both Varsity and non-Varsity). The time and dedication required to devote so many hours to a sport, while trying to balance an academic life at an institution as challenging as Haverford, cannot go unnoticed. This is especially true for varsity athletes who often dedicate tens of hours per week to their sport. I recognize this more than most, having dedicated two years of my collegiate life to it, but feeling the inability to finish my academic career in sync with my sporting life. The experience confirmed my expectations about the level of camaraderie that is built when in such an environment. Spending several hours a week with a specific group of individuals – be it in the gym, on the pitch, field, court, or wherever it may be – and experiencing success or turmoil together while cementing relationships over several years, makes that group a central part of one’s identity. Although these factors are positive on the surface, the outcomes are not always intended, and not always desirable.

Unfortunately, this dilemma seems to be overshadowed by other issues. Complaints about athlete camaraderie extend to a myriad of daily occurrences, including, but not limited to, the closed-community nature of teams, the (varying but noticeable) lack of interaction between varsity and non-varsity athletes, and even social settings as specific as seating at the Dining Center. An anonymous ‘Extracurricular Activities Survey’ taken on Haverford’s campus asked questions about campus culture and the implication of time commitments. A few students shared the sentiment that some athletes are fully engulfed in their sport and don’t really do much else in the Haverford community. While I disagree with this statement, with athletes getting involved in events such as Special Olympics clinics and fundraisers throughout the off-season, I believe that one rarely pauses to consider the reason that varsity athletes may seem to prioritize their team so much socially.

Aside from all the camaraderie and attachment to teammates that an athlete develops over time, the visibility of athletics teams is often overlooked, and it is a crucial factor to take into account when assessing the nature of varsity teams. There are a plethora of individuals who are involved in campus activities such as Customs, acapella groups, clubs and societies, etc. However, many of these groups are smaller, and meet in a private setting (often less regularly than varsity teams), making them less visible to the rest of the campus. Being a member of the Haverford Clerk, for example, I can confirm that we meet on a weekly basis in the Dining Center basement; a much more secluded environment than that of any varsity team. Varsity teams are seen practicing, in the gym, playing in games, and walking to and from these settings together. To add to the matter, more often than not, these individuals are sporting identical gear, which cannot help but make a group more noticeable. Take the Dining Center seating, for example. Many varsity athletes are involved in activities all over campus, but even these individuals are likely to eat meals together before or after team activities. Is it not normal – even expected – for a team to walk from practice to dinner together? One contributor to the ‘Extracurricular Activities Survey’ made an insightful remark, arguing that the concept of a division is silly because “sports teams spend so much time together that it’s natural to form strong friendships…same thing with Customs groups.” As Haverford students, we have all been through Customs at one point in our Haverford careers. Although it may not be a unilateral opinion, it is indisputable that the process involves spending a lot of time with our customs groups (going to meals together, undergoing activities together, etc.). In other words, we are all products of our environment and operate as such. If a considerable chunk of the day is spent with teammates doing sporting-related activities, it should be no surprise that this carries over to leisure hours. This should not be taken as a justification for varsity athletes not interacting with non-varsity athletes, but rather an explanation for the hours spent with teammates, both in and out of sporting hours.

Another complaint often circulated (briefly mentioned above) is the way in which the college ‘spoils’ the varsity athletes and overlooks other clubs or societies around campus. A source of this complaint is the idea that they are provided with free sporting gear. However, this is a misconception because every single item of varsity gear is subsidized by the team fees (paid entirely by varsity athletes, not the college). In addition, as a member of the Haverford Club Soccer team, I can attest to the visible efforts being made to accomodate to clubs through provision of personal trainers (with available office hours) and increased on campus recognition. These findings do not take away from the fact that there is still room for improvement with all types of teams, clubs, and societies around campus.  It is simply meant to dispel a common myth.

It is important to recognize that greater efforts can be made for the groups that attract less attention and are therefore less under the spotlight – primarily the non-varsity groups, who, as discussed above, obtain less of the ‘visibility’ factor. With the large number of acapella groups on campus, for example, despite the overwhelming support for them, it becomes harder to receive as much exposure and recognition as varsity teams. The efforts made to improve these factors can always be expanded, and should be, but this should not take away from the respected reputation which both Varsity and non-Varsity related commitments hold. While productive discourse about the matter is always encouraged, by highlighting varsity teams as purely harmful to the community, one is masking the true meaning of what it means to be a student-athlete; an individual who manages to balance their time between highly athletic commitments and the even more highly demanding academic aspect of Haverford College.

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