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Lehrer-Small '20: Funding for club sports is an equity issue

Every September, dozens of students flood the Brown athletic fields for ultimate frisbee try-outs wearing sports clothes and nervous smiles. Some are juniors or seniors, many are first-years looking for a community. On the sideline, new players rifle through a trash bag filled with spare cleats. Over the years, the ultimate program has collected these spare cleats so that new players have gear options accessible to them. But the supply is limited. During try-outs, some prospective players who come in tennis shoes are asked to purchase cleats themselves — a significant investment especially when they do not yet know if they will make the team.

Cleats at ultimate frisbee try-outs are just one example of how club sports can be financially inaccessible — despite the best efforts of the programs themselves. Similar situations arise in soccer, baseball, swimming and most other club sports. These costs should not bar students from participation. To help club sports programs become financially accessible to all students, Brown should increase its club sports funding to a level at which players are not responsible for the costs of essential gear or program activities.

Before I go too far, I want to be clear that I am not a low-income student. I play on the men’s ultimate frisbee team, and dues are not an overwhelming stressor for me. The feeling of financial exclusion from club sports at Brown is not a feeling I know first-hand. But as a player, I notice instances where financial stressors may emerge — and as a non-low-income student, undoubtedly there are many more instances that I don’t notice. Knowing how important my ultimate frisbee experience has been to my development at Brown, I believe that frisbee and similar activities should be an option open to all students.

Numerous studies document the positive benefits of playing team sports. On top of the physical health benefits, one study from the University of Kansas found that high school students who are engaged in athletics graduate at a higher rate and tend to have higher GPAs than their peers. Additionally, a meta-analysis of sport participation found that engaging in team sports can improve self-esteem and reduce depressive symptoms. These positive outcomes should not be reserved for the financially-privileged. By further investing in its club sports program, Brown would take a significant step toward supporting a happy and healthy student population. This investment will extend the opportunity to benefit from team sports to a wider audience.

Brown does already provide some funding for its club sports programs, but not enough. This funding rarely covers all program activities such as tournament fees and travel costs to competitions. Many club sports teams require players to pay dues to cover program costs. I can’t speak for all club sports, but in the frisbee program, captains emphasize that players can request financial assistance if player dues are an issue. But this step of asking for help can be stressful. And even if players receive assistance with dues, they still often have to juggle incidental costs such as food during tournament weekends. Brown should up its funding levels to club sports so that prospective players don’t have to decide between their passions and their pocketbooks.

Issues like food and housing security receive a lot of attention in discussions about post-secondary education accessibility — and rightly so. The national College and University Basic Needs Report reveals that 45 percent of undergraduates struggle with food insecurity and 56 percent navigate housing insecurity. But if we limit discussions of accessibility to students’ most basic needs, we miss the experiences that many would consider most essential to the college years. What does it say about universities’ commitments to their low-income students if they do not work to make the entire university experience accessible to all?

In an autobiographical essay on the challenges of attending an elite college as a low-income student, Harvard Professor Anthony Jack explains that among many difficulties he experienced, one central challenge was loneliness. He was trapped on campus while other students enjoyed vacations, and during the semesters, he worked four jobs at a time to earn money for “remittances” home. That didn’t leave much time for socializing. Club sports have the capacity to counteract isolation by providing students with a built-in community. Through practices and competitions, teammates often connect differently than they would through classes and hangouts alone. This experience benefits all students, but may be particularly powerful for students whose work commitments otherwise limit their ability to join new communities on campus.

Skeptics may counter that the commitment of club sports is incompatible with the commitments of work-study jobs. But who are they to judge? It should be students themselves who get to decide whether committing to a club sports team is right for them. The decision should not be made for them by the monetary costs of participation. Most club sports programs allow players to select their optimal commitment level, so even many heavily-committed students can join a team that works for them.

Team sports can be a powerful experience that can increase student health and feelings of belonging. If Brown is to offer club sports programs — which it should continue to do — those programs should be accessible to all students.

Asher Lehrer-Small ’20 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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