I used to be a believer in the project of “sports.” Sports bring people together, allowing people to see others as equals on the field, regardless of all the other markers that differentiate us in everyday life. In high school, sports were how I felt I could earn the respect of my classmates, how I found a place among my peers and how I learned how to fit in.
But high level sports teams in the way that they currently operate do not have a place at Brown. The Department of Athletics should be cut, or at the very least be forced to undergo massive reform, if it wants to see continued funding. Sports teams at Brown currently encourage all of the attitudes that the University stands against (or should stand against):
On a team, you lose your individuality. The more you stand out as different, and the less you cohere to the group, the less you are worth and the more you are stigmatized.
On a team, many people acting as a mechanical unit is appreciated far above diversity.
On a team, methods of dictatorship are appreciated far above those of democracy.
On a team, anyone who fails to obey the strictest of rules is punished.
On a team, anyone who doesn’t play for your team is an enemy.
If you learn nothing else from Brown, you should learn that plurality is something to be embraced. Elite athletics teach exactly the opposite. Divergence from the coach’s plan is abhorrent. “Alternate lifestyles” are all but denounced. In attitude and zeitgeist, sports teach disrespect on the basis of arbitrary difference.
Watch a football game, a field hockey game or a soccer match. Before the game you see the two sides gear up for “battle,” ready to “fight” with their teammates for their schools, ready to “beat” the other side into the ground. Pregame rituals are all about domination; coaches and captains may even talk about brutalizing or killing the other team.
Take a second to think about that terminology. It is all centered on warfare, from its metaphors to its goal of absolute victory over a perhaps somewhat unknown opponent. Isn’t this something our administration stands against in its refusal to allow ROTC on campus? We might talk about the differences between Brown and Harvard, Yale or the University of Pennsylvania, but are those differences really ones that merit the metaphor of war?
Talk to the varsity athletes who have left their teams for any reason. Some might tell you they were scared to leave because of what their teammates might say, or what their coaches might do. Some might tell you that they felt like they were “deserting” — or at least, that is how their teammates viewed their departure. Teams are as tight as units in the military, and they are just as narrow-minded.
Plenty of student-athletes at Brown have legitimate reasons for leaving their teams. Maybe it was a bigger commitment than they had expected, or as they approached senior year, job hunting and thesis writing took up too much time. They should be allowed to leave an activity without losing the respect of their teammates.
Here’s a little secret: Sports, especially at Brown, are not that big of a deal, nor are they anything to sacrifice a friendship over.
One comment I know I will receive is that left-behind teammates can feel abandoned, especially if a star athlete leaves and thereby diminishes the team’s chances of winning. Most view that decision as selfish. What is horrific is the pressure exerted by coaches to keep their athletes playing, no matter the academic sacrifices, because the coach and the athletics department want winning teams.
What is equally abhorrent is the lavish spending the athletics department dotes on teams, coaches and players alike. At a university facing budget cuts, I can only be grateful that athletics haven’t seen an increase in funding (though students, athletes or not, have seen an increase in tuition thanks to the new athletics fee). It is absurd that some teams spend $40 per student each day that they are on the road for food alone. As a student off meal plan, I can tell you that it is easy enough to live on that for days.
The American model is not the only one for student involvement in athletics. In Australia, universities do not have institutionalized athletic departments. Rather, extensive and accessible sports clubs exist for potential athletes of all skill levels. Isn’t this a more efficient and less divisive — and, perhaps, more egalitarian — way to provide high-level athletic opportunities?
Brown has its priorities in the wrong place when it comes to sports. No other extracurricular at Brown absorbs as much money as athletics does, and no other extracurricular is allowed to be as dictatorial and disparaging of all kinds of diversity. The department’s budget could easily be allocated to academic programs desperately in need of funds. Sports, with all their potential social benefits, belong at Brown — but not within the current context of the Department of Athletics.
Susannah Kroeber ’11 is a proud former Brown athlete who wants a lost Econ junior to pick up the thesis topic of long-term punitive remuneration versus short-term athletic participation in Ivy League schools.