On May 28, 2020, the University announced the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative, a plan to transition 11 varsity teams to club status and two club sports to varsity. Five teams — men's indoor and outdoor track and field, men's cross country, women's equestrian and women's fencing — ultimately had their varsity status reinstated, leaving six transitioned club teams: men’s fencing, men’s and women’s golf, women’s skiing, men’s squash and women’s squash.
Just over two years after the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative was announced, The Herald talked to members of each demoted team about the lasting impacts of the initiative on their teams’ cultures, training and success. Players and coaches detailed struggling with attendance at practices, retaining access to the same facilities and maintaining their teams’ level of competitiveness.
In response to an inquiry regarding the challenges teams faced with the transition, Jake Silverman, deputy athletics director for administration, wrote in an email to The Herald that Brown is “committed to maximizing competitive opportunities aligning the aspirations and capabilities of each club to guide our support for them” and that he has “been pleased with our ability to pilot and provide key resources to the clubs, including access to athletic training services and strength and conditioning coaching.”
Shifts in team culture
For athletes who often turned to their teammates for community, demotion to varsity status brought a significant shift in team culture. While some demoted athletes felt their team’s culture and community strengthened following the initiative, others say they struggled to maintain cohesion.
Ford Bennett ’23, who is on the men’s club golf team, said he has noticed a positive culture shift since the team transitioned from varsity to club status.
Because the team is no longer varsity, players feel less of an obligation to remain on the squad, he said. As a result, everyone remaining on the team “just loves golf and competing.” When the team was designated as varsity, older players often had other commitments and priorities but remained on the team anyway, he added.
“There’s starting to be a bit of a culture shift to just wanting to win, and I think we’re starting to actually live that out,” Bennett said.
But Bennett noted that the team is also less cohesive. Before the transition, the players competed as a group. Now, the approximately 40 team members are divided into two tiers — a recreational team and a competitive team of six to eight golfers that regularly travels to competitions, he said.
Although Bennett said he misses the rigor of the varsity atmosphere at practice, the flexibility that comes with optional club practices has allowed him to pursue other opportunities at Brown.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise, having a bit more flexibility and being able to get involved in other things,” Bennett said. With more time in his schedule, he was able to add public health as a second concentration and became co-president of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program.
“One of the biggest things is being able to invest in relationships outside of the team,” Bennett said. “The best part about Brown is the people here.”
Golfer Gabrielle Shieh ’24 also noted positive effects of the transition on the team’s culture.
Though she wishes she had the opportunity to play varsity golf, Shieh explained that club status has brought together the men’s and women’s teams. Because the women’s team currently has only three women who compete regularly, the competition group of men and women practice, travel and compete together. They also share a coach, which wasn’t the case before the transition, she added.
“I’m really glad that it ended up this way that we got to all compete together,” Shieh said.
Squash player Kate Dowling ’23 and men’s and women’s squash coach Arthur Gaskin noted positive culture shifts as a silver lining to the squash team’s new designation.
The decision “has made everyone really passionate about proving Brown wrong and showing that they made a mistake,” Dowling said. “It definitely brought the team closer together and now it’s really just personal motivation to play squash and be part of the team.”
Gaskin said that non-mandatory practices have forced athletes to take responsibility for some of their own workouts.
“Let’s turn this into a positive,” Gaskin said. “The positive is how accountable everyone becomes for themselves and each other.”
Gaskin said he hopes to maintain a competitive team culture that will inspire new athletes in years to come, especially now that the team has no formal recruitment spots.
“The culture is very much ‘we want this, we want to be the best that we can be,’” Gaskin said. “The mindset is very different from the casual player.”
Access to facilities, resources
According to players and coaches on demoted teams, one of the most immediate impacts of the transition to club status was a lack of access to the same training facilities and resources as before.
When Gaskin was hired, squash had already transitioned to a club sport. But, he said, the team had “a varsity or as close to a varsity experience as you can imagine.”
“The Athletics Department worked hard to secure us a strength coach and an athletic trainer,” he said, which allows the team to use the athletic training room and Zucconi Strength and Conditioning Center, both of which are typically reserved for varsity athletes. “Our team is certainly really fortunate that we have access to both,” Gaskin said.
But Dowling noted that the transition hasn’t been without challenges. Although the team now has a once-weekly evening slot in the weight room, it was difficult to set up, according to Dowling. The team was only able to start lifting in the spring 2022 semester, she added.
Access to the athletic training room, which is often used by injured athletes during recovery, hasn’t been consistent. “I know a few people on our team have had injuries and that has been kind of tough,” Dowling said.
This semester, the golf team was able to secure Monday and Wednesday night slots to work out in the Zucchoni Center, Bennett said. He added that the team used to train in the Zucchoni Center three times per week, so “it feels pretty similar to my freshman year.”
Golfer Christian Labrador ’24 noted that the golf team has struggled with logistical difficulties regarding their use of the golf room in the OMAC, a space where the team can practice swings indoors.
Because there are no required practices anymore, “a lot of us go over to the indoor golf room at the OMAC and practice on our own time,” he said. The golf room can only accommodate four people hitting at one time, and because the size of the team has swelled since the transition, it is more difficult to secure a spot.
Team members and coaches from men’s fencing and women’s skiing said they have experienced difficulties securing necessary funding for practice and competitions.
While fencer Benjamin Shih ’24 noted that the team can no longer access facilities reserved for varsity squads, the team has made “the best of a bad situation.” For example, the team trains in a gym in East Providence and the captains often drive fencers to practice.
“When there is a lack of funding, everyone has to come together and really show their teamsmanship in the situation,” Shih said.
According to Maggie Beardsley ’22, captain of women’s skiing, her team has also had financial difficulties. Women’s skiing used to have two coaches, but the club is now student-led. The athletes do not have access to physical therapy and could not use the varsity gym until February.
Additionally, the team’s budget has dwindled, “which makes it hard to train and race to the same degree that the team used to,” Beardsley said.
“All of our funding came from money that was fundraised in the past when we were a varsity team or fundraisers this year,” Beardsley added. “We didn't actually get anything through the Athletics Department other than things we already had before.”
The Athletics Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how demoted teams’ budgets were affected by the change.
The team was also supported by the Castleton University and Babson College ski teams, which helped them with training and registration for races, Beardsley said.
“The whole ski racing world felt a lot more like a community to me, because their teams really supported us and helped us with all the stuff that our coach used to do that we didn't know how to do,” Beardsley said. “I felt a lot more supported in the division and by other teams.”
For demoted teams, maintaining competitiveness remains a priority despite the challenges of club status.
Labrador was recruited as a Division I golfer just before the team transitioned to club status. The demotion “was obviously a big disappointment” because “what I signed up for was not what I was going to experience in terms of varsity athletics at Brown,” Labrador said.
Because of the demotion, “attendance has been affected a little bit,” Bennett said.
Because practices aren’t required, the team’s club designation means athletes must have their own “deep drive and desire” to “find ways to actually practice and put in the work,” Bennett said.
“Passion for the sport is still very high,” Labrador said.
The men’s golf team competed in four club events in fall 2021 and placed ninth out of 250 teams at the club national championships, according to Bennett. This semester, the team has been invited to compete at several Division I tournaments, he added.
Because the team no longer receives formal recruiting spots, Bennett and Labrador don’t know whether the team’s success will continue with club status. “Unfortunately, as we look at the future, I’m unsure what it looks like,” Bennett said.
Labrador hopes to have men’s golf’s varsity status reinstated, given the team’s recent successes.
“Our team is strong and … this upcoming season we’re pretty much going to be playing almost all Division I invites,” Labrador said. “Perhaps in the future we’ll be able to transition back to Division I if we show the University we’re a very competitive program.”
Women’s skiing also faces challenges in maintaining competitiveness.
According to Beardsley, who was recruited for women’s skiing when it was a NCAA Division III team, the women’s ski team raced against other Division III athletes prior to the initiative and had the opportunity every year to qualify for a regional race against Division I teams.
“I attended (the race) my freshman and sophomore year and I qualified again this year, but I wasn't allowed to register because I'm no longer an NCAA athlete, which was pretty frustrating,” Beardsley said.
Even with barriers to competition, Beardsley said that “the team really came together and supported each other.”
“It was really hard but we made it work, and in spite of all of it, I thought it was the most fun season I've had so far, which is something our team should be proud of,” Beardsley added.
Squash has maintained a strong sense of competition in the program despite the demotion.
Both the men and women had successful seasons last fall. Both teams attended the varsity Division I national championship, where the women placed 11th and the men 20th, Gaskin said, adding that men have placed between 13th and 20th in past years. The women are “usually between 12th and 15th,” according to Dowling.
“I think that’s one of the highest finishes we had,” Dowling said.
“The whole experience was as you would expect: We had a regular season,” Gaskin said. “We played a lot of great matches, played a lot of great teams, including Ivy programs and some of the best programs in the country.”
Men’s fencing also remains competitive, according to Shih, but unlike women’s fencing, which was reinstated as varsity, men’s fencing cannot compete at the highest level.
“The only real difference (between men’s and women’s fencing) is that we can't participate in some of the competitions that we used to be able to, like NCAA regional championships and the Ivy League Championship,” Shih said.
“I really wanted to fence at the Ivy Leagues because it's one of the most hyped up tournaments on the national circuit,” Shih added. “I was just really sad that I couldn't fence it.”
“We're fencing easier schools, so we’re winning,” said Ryan Scarpa ’23, a fencer on the men’s team.
Men’s fencing competed at the USACFC Club Championships April 10 and took first place in men’s saber and men’s foil, winning the overall competition.
Still, Scarpa said that “the end goal is to be reinstated to varsity.”
“If you fence for a decade plus, you want to have the challenges of fencing Harvard, or fencing the kid who's going to go to the Olympics someday,” Scarpa said.