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Op-eds, Opinions

From the Brown Women’s Squash Team: President Paxson, Why Aren’t We Excellent?

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Op-Ed Contributors
Thursday, June 4, 2020

Who We Are

We are two of five rising juniors on the Brown Women’s Varsity Squash team. We spent upwards of 10 years training with hopes of playing squash at a collegiate level. We have dedicated 20 hours a week for 25 weeks a year to train, travel and compete. At the same time, we are dedicated students deeply engaged in research, volunteering and campus life.

On Thursday, May 28 at 12:05 p.m., all student athletes were notified by email of an imminent Zoom call in which Jack Hayes, Brown’s athletic director, announced the University’s decision to cut 11 varsity teams and transition them to club status. Shortly after, the entire study body received an email from President Christina Paxson P’19, which announced this change as a part of the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative. The day following their initial announcement, affected student athletes were invited to participate in a Zoom “discussion” in which the only topic discussed was how former varsity athletes could transfer. By treating student-athletes as easily transferable, Brown revealed to us that any student can be viewed as dispensable. President Paxson and the athletic department broke the hearts of 150 varsity athletes and their families, and they communicated their decision in a manner void of compassion, respect and decency.

One of the initiative’s goals is “to advance the ideal of scholar-athletes who embrace excellence in academics and in their sports.” The biting words in Paxson’s email insinuated that the 11 cut teams do not embody “excellence.” As members of the Women’s Squash Team, this statement was a slap in the face. We can attest that our team’s athletic and academic achievements do indeed meet the standard of excellence that the initiative claims to pursue.

Why we embody “excellence”

President Paxson listed six principles that guided the committee’s decision to support the “excellence” initiative. By exploring just three of these principles, we can explain how our team already embodies the excellence she purports to pursue.

1. Enhancing the quality of the student experience in athletics

The Brown women’s squash team is a tight-knit group of 15 women among whom only eight are recruited athletes. As a team, we exceed not only the Brown academic index (the GPA and SAT/ACT standards for the university) but also the average academic standards of the entire university. Our average academic index for the past nine years has approached an estimated 230 (for reference this is a 1530 SAT and a 4.0 unweighted GPA), while Brown University’s average SAT score was 1485 in 2018. Out of 15 women, we had six undergraduate TA’s this past year in Economics, Biology, Computer Science, Engineering and Public Health. All six of our upperclassmen won the College Squash Association scholar athlete award, with Brown receiving more awards than any other Ivy. The members of our team embody the ideals of a student-athlete that Brown should be pursuing. We perform on the court, excel in our classes and are nationally recognized for the integrity of our character.

While our team thrives because of our common academic and extracurricular goals, it is the captain’s practices, hill sprints, lifting regimes, recovery sessions, bus rides, matches and tournaments that bind us together. We are all academically motivated individuals who are passionate about things other than squash. However, the strength of our team lies in the intensity of our shared athletic goal: a varsity athletic goal. We train to play our sport at the highest level and beat some of the best teams in college squash.

The result of an outstanding group of women with a strong common goal is an incredibly high quality of the student experience in athletics. Brown squash recruits have such a positive experience in Brown athletics that they do not quit; no recruits have dropped the team in the last three years. Other teams which were not cut have lost as many as 13 recruits over the same time period, drawing the consistency of this new initiative into question. The Brown Women’s squash team enhances Brown by being leaders in our classes, the clubs that we participate in, the organizations we volunteer for and the research we conduct.

2. Sustaining reasonable support for the pursuit of excellence

The Brown Women’s squash team is close to being budget-neutral for the Athletic Department between its endowment and successful fundraisers, and the position of our head coach, Stuart LeGassick, is also specifically endowed. Both our men’s and women’s teams are ranked top 15 nationally out of over 50 programs. Our men’s and women’s teams receive four recruiting spots collectively each year while roughly 90 percent of schools in the College Squash Association receive six to 10 spots, but that has not stopped us from having extremely close, 5-4 matches with the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Columbia and Cornell. We have no international players, who tend to play at a professional level, and a fraction of the recruiting spots, yet we outperform most schools in the league and compete at a level comparable to five out of eight Ivies.

Moreover, both the men’s and women’s teams have won sportsmanship awards in the past 5 years, a testament to our team’s integrity. Based on our record of sportsmanship awards, we are nationally recognized as one of the most highly regarded teams in college squash. Overall, despite the fewer resources allotted to us, we embody the pursuit of excellence.

3. Building a stronger University community with a focus on affinity, pride and collegiate loyalty.

Our team supports the strongest of communities consisting of our tight knit alumni network and our supporters within the Brown student body. Brown squash produces alumni who in the past five years have gone on to work at Microsoft, NASA, Google, Facebook, AliBaba and many other prominent companies. Our recent alumni have studied at Brown graduate schools, Harvard Law School, Dartmouth Medical School, MIT graduate schools and have been named as Schwartzman Scholars. Our alumni have linked a large portion of their success to the lessons they learned playing on the varsity squash team. Isabel Pitaro ’16 and former captain of the Women’s Squash team said herself, “without my experience in Brown squash, I would not have been prepared to serve as Editor-in-Chief of Harvard Law School’s Business Law Review or for a career leading teams advocating for the rights of others.” Squash is a lifelong sport. Our alumni’s love of squash keeps them actively engaged in the Brown alumni network.

Our squash teams — along with other “smaller” sports — bridge the gap between student-athletes and students not associated with a sports team. Because we are such a small team, our friends are primarily non-athletes, and our friendships soften many students’ gut-disapproval of recruited athletes. Brown students know Brown squash players personally, and it only takes one home match, and one posting of standing-room-only bleachers in “Pack the Pizz” on social media, to see the strength and volume of our support. We, as squash team members, recognize and appreciate all parts of the Brown community, and we receive great support in return.

What we hope

The Men’s and Women’s Squash teams demand Brown recognize us as varsity athletes, as each of us is already “the bright and passionate student who embraces excellence both in academics and also in their sport” that President Paxson hopes the “excellence” initiative will cultivate. The decision-making by the Committee on Excellence in Athletic’s hired consultants not only failed to be comprehensive, but also was incredibly shallow — treating Brown Athletics like an economy of machines rather than an organization made of and sustained by student-athletes.

In addition to our call for Brown to recognize us as varsity athletes because of the excellence we embody, we also warn Brown that the ramifications of this decision extend beyond those we have outlined. Brown has sent a message that it does not value its student-athletes, coaches or athletic staff, and an institution that does not value the people in its athletic program will never be able to recruit deep athletic talent. Prospective student athletes will look upon Brown with a lingering suspicion that their sport may be eliminated next. We demand Brown University, in its own interest for the pursuit of excellence, reinstate Brown Squash as a varsity sport.

We encourage members of the other 10 cut varsity teams who were affected by Brown’s “excellence initiative” to also share their stories.

Abby Dichter 22 and Sara Syed 22 are members of the Brown Women’s Squash team. Abby can be reached at abigail_dichter@brown.edu, and Sara can be reached at sara_syed@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. A letter from the U.S. College Squash Association regarding the Brown Squash teams is here with this outtake:

    “The Brown Squash programs have been outstanding representatives for the University for many years, with pristine records in the classroom and on the court. If your ideal scholar-athlete is “the bright and passionate student who embraces excellence both in academics and also in their sport,” you do not have to look farther than the squash teams to meet that ideal. Earning the most CSA Scholar-Athlete Awards of any member institution last year – 11 total between both programs – and finishing ranked among the top 15 teams in the country for both genders certainly matches your quotation from the letter to the Brown community. Each program has also won the CSA team sportsmanship award in the last three years (and six times overall), an added testament to the quality of the undergraduates populating your squash teams. These accolades should be celebrated and promoted as the epitome of Ivy League Athletics, not buried as the teams’ varsity status is stripped away.” — US College Squash Association

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