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Wainger ’16: Athletes work harder than you do

Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, April 28, 2016

In my first semester at Brown, I got a C in MATH 0180: “Intermediate Calculus.” Not a just-missed-a-B C. Not a forgot-to-turn-in-four-homeworks C. Not even an I-don’t-care-about-this-class C. I tried as hard as I could all semester long, and it took a miracle on the final exam to earn my C.

You might read that paragraph and think that I just wasn’t good at math, that I partied too much or that I had a hard time adjusting to the rigor of a college-level class. But the real culprit behind my first (and only) C was simple: I was on the crew team.

Before college, I played on my high school’s soccer and baseball teams and even found time for a travel soccer team. Athletics never interfered with academics in high school, and I figured the same would hold in college. While the Brown men’s soccer team obviously had no interest in recruiting Poly Prep’s back-up varsity goalie, the crew team welcomed me with open arms as a walk-on despite my lack of experience.

It took a little over a month and a half for me to quit crew. Don’t get me wrong — I loved rowing. I loved being out on the water and being on a team again. But the physical and mental toll it took on me far outweighed the benefits.

For anyone who has never played a varsity sport in college, let me break down the practice schedule: cardio, weight training and rowing out on the river from around 3:30 p.m to 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Then there’s the gut-wrenchingly early practice from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Saturday morning. And if all that doesn’t make your stomach churn, try running up and down the Meeting Street hill 10 times at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. You know that light sweat you work up carrying your suitcase up the hill from Amtrak to your dorm? That turns into a drenched t-shirt by lap six.

But I’m not just trying to show off how much I exercised freshman year (though by mid-October, I was probably in the best shape of my life). What I’m trying to express is how hard it is to get back to your dorm after a three-hour workout, grab dinner in a to-go box from the V-Dub before it closes, eat alone at your desk because all of your friends already ate and somehow find the motivation to start a multivariable calculus problem set. Not to mention the number of times I dozed off in my 9 a.m. 20-person first-year seminar because, while the other 19 kids were fast asleep, I was on mile 26 of the Meeting Street Marathon.

The best part of crew was my first full semester away from it. After I quit at the end of October, I spent the rest of my freshman fall fighting to avoid academic probation. But freshman spring was a dream. No 7 a.m. runs. No three-hour practices. No Saturday morning lifting. I actually struggled to find things to do with all my free time. I earned straight A’s, stayed awake in all my classes and wasn’t perpetually grumpy for no reason.

And while I no longer check the “varsity athlete” box on The Herald’s poll, I understand some of what it takes to be one. I understand how many hours athletes put into their sports to compete at such a high level. And I know that if I had stuck with crew, I would not be a month away from graduating from Brown.

But it’s shocking how many people don’t seem to understand athletes. In CLPS 0010: “Elementary Psychology: An Introduction to Mind and Behavior” — which I took freshman spring — there is a section assignment about stereotypes. Everyone writes a paragraph about a stereotype in the Brown community and whether or not they think it’s true. Every single person in my section wrote about the same stereotype — the dumb jock. Some people argued for its existence; some argued against it. But the fact that the dumb jock was the first and most readily available stereotype is disappointing.

As a recent Herald article points out, Brown has the largest number of teams that meet the NCAA’s “academic progress rate” in the United States. We literally have the smartest athletes in the entire country, yet non-athletes still don’t think athletes deserve to be here.

So let me put it plainly so that everyone reading this will understand: Athletes work harder than you do. Trust me, I know.

Sophomore fall, I took CSCI 0170: “CS: An Integrated Introduction” and loved it so much that I became a computer science concentrator. Junior spring, I was in a software engineering class and regularly stayed up until six in the morning working on the final project with my group. Senior fall, I flew around the country doing job interviews, studied for the GRE and got into grad school, all while cramming in my last few CS requirements.

But crew was harder. When my CS problem sets start piling up, I take late days; I skip class to do work; I forgo a trip to the GCB in favor of the CIT. With crew, there were 50 guys knocking on my door when I slept through my alarm for a Tuesday morning run (literally, the entire team runs to your dorm and wakes you up when you’re late). There are no loopholes, no ways to get out of a workout. You’re held accountable for everything, even academics. The crew team’s average grade point average hovers around a 3.4. My freshman fall GPA would have dragged that average down.

I’m not trying to say non-athletes don’t work hard. But until you’ve had to wake up at the crack of dawn, run the Meeting Street hill, go to class, row for three hours, finish all your homework, apply for jobs, call your parents and have a social life before you pass out and do it all again tomorrow, don’t think for a second that athletes have it easy. And if you see an athlete napping on their books in the SciLi, please let them sleep. They need the rest.

Alex Wainger ’16 still has nightmares about running the Meeting Street hill. Send your best lullabies to

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  1. Kublai Khan says:

    “If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.”

  2. This is a thoughtful, revealing, and humble column. Your anecdote is interesting:

    “Every single person in my [Psych 101] section wrote about the same stereotype — the dumb jock. Some people argued for its existence; some argued against it. But the fact that the dumb jock was the first and most readily available stereotype is disappointing.”

    With the DIAP and the launch of the Brown Together campaign, I wonder if a presentation about the lives of student athletes at Brown shouldn’t be added to the orientation program for each freshman unit. Why talk about race, class, gender, etc., and still end up with a very large group of students at Brown being misunderstood by their peers?

    • Charles Scruffy says:

      The dumb jock is stereotyped as a White male..To easy a target..

    • Is Alum ’97 trolling? Which “student athlete experience” should the hypothetical presentation discuss? The “student athlete experience” is certainly not monolithic; some athletes, such as rowers, train for 20+ hours a week both semesters. Other teams compete for three months and then have relaxed off-seasons, in which they functionally aren’t “student athletes” and pursue other academic and extracurricular pursuits. Secondly, being an athlete isn’t an immutable trait or a stand-alone indicator of an underprivileged background. Athletes at Brown constantly quit their sports to devote more time to school. No one can completely cast off their race or gender is a similar way. Speaking as a white, privileged student athlete, I think it’s much more important to continue to give space to actual marginalized groups. Athletes may be stereotyped, but subconscious stereotyping happens during every social interaction. Stereotyping =/= the systemic oppression that impacts the groups specifically addressed in the freshman orientation. The only way to work against those stereotypes is to succeed outside your sport, and to show that you’re a multi-faceted person like most other Brown students. Op-eds like this are also great. Kudos to the author.

      • Alum '97 says:

        With respect, your response is almost a cliche of the SJW brainwash.

        1) What in the world would suggest trolling on my part?

        2) You either inadvertently or willfully minimize the article’s insight that athletes are persistently being viewed by their peers as a stereotyped, monolithic group. That’s a campus life issue and appropriate for the school to address in formal ways.

        3) You jump right into the critical race theory labels and assume that the real world actually operates from the perspective that everything is viewed according to race categories.

        4) Try this transposition of your response on for size:

        “The ‘Black student experience’ is certainly not monolithic. Being Black is obviously an immutable trait, but it isn’t a stand-alone indicator of an
        underprivileged background.

        Black students at Brown constantly change majors, change groups of friends, or quit as MPCs to devote more time to school. Some don’t care about systems of oppression, because they’ve never experienced any such thing.

        Obviously, no one can completely cast off their race or gender, but some Black students prefer not to be categorized by Brown’s policies, the voices of activist peers, and the framework of TWTP as sociological categories first and multi-faceted individuals second.

        I think it’s much more important to continue to give space to actual marginalized groups – people in the developing world, people who are refugees of war, those raised in public housing or from families of origin on welfare, or war veterans with real PTSD symptoms or physical disabilities who face problems reintegrating into American society.

        Sometimes Black people may be stereotyped, but the only way to work against those stereotypes is to succeed outside of the role of hysterical protestor or always being the focus of freshman orientation programs, and to show that you’re a multi-faceted person like most other Brown students of all backgrounds.”

        • So our fundamental disagreement is that I think structural racism exists in the “real world”, and you don’t. If structural racism exists in “the real world,” then all black American students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, have been disadvantaged by racism to varying degrees. When you say that some black students have “never experienced such a thing,” you imply that structural racism doesn’t impact some black people at all. If structural racism exists, your comparison of student athletes to black students makes no sense (which I think is the case). However, since you don’t think it exists, then you’re “right” in your own thinking.

          Our other disagreement is over whether or not student athletes at Brown are oppressed. The reason I suggested you were “trolling” is because I was truly shocked by the implication that student athletes (as an entire group) should be lumped in with groups that have been widely acknowledged to face disadvantages. I would totally agree that war veterans, those with physical disabilities, those raised on welfare, etc. are systemically disadvantaged enough that their experiences should be spotlighted during a freshman orientation program. That wasn’t your first suggestion though; you suggested spotlighting student athletes’ experiences. I find it impossible to believe that student-athletes are “oppressed” on the basis of identifying as athletes. Stereotyping =/= oppression; we subconsciously stereotype and form assumptions during every social interaction. I’m not even saying that black students, disabled students, etc. are more oppressed than athletes, and therefore their experiences deserve more attention; I’m saying athletes aren’t oppressed at all.

          • Alum '97 says:

            I appreciate your response. So that we’re playing fair, you introduced the concept of oppression here, not me. Setting aside disagreements over what actually constitutes oppression, is oppression really a prerequisite for orientation activity workshops?

            I’m interested in fostering inclusion by increasing awareness and understanding of the community of student athletes. Orientation would be a convenient time for that.

            Adding that kind of workshop won’t impact other workshops. My position doesn’t advocate taking away resources from anyone else.

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