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EDITORIAL: Brown as a sports school? It’s more likely than you think

Brown’s sports teams have been having a stellar fall semester. The women’s soccer team, currently undefeated in league games, remains the “juggernaut of the Ivy League.” The volleyball team is a strong contender in the Ivy League. The football team, which has endured a years-long rough patch, scored a major victory over Princeton during Family Weekend and defeated a favored Penn team in a squeaker last week. Men’s water polo flaunts a 17-5 record overall. But many of these triumphs largely go unnoticed by the University community — and there is a culture of disengagement within the student body when it comes to our athletic programs. By ignoring school athletics, we are missing out on a crucial opportunity to strengthen  community on campus. Brown students should attend more games and support our teams, because there could be much more to college sports than what stereotypes suggest. 

If you’ve ever attended a game at Brown, you have likely noticed that bleachers are rarely full  — with some key exceptions, like Brown’s opening football game against Harvard. Sports at Brown have faced a number of recent challenges. In 2020, Brown attempted to cut 11 varsity teams from its program, though a few were retained. A lack of student engagement means that increasing resources dedicated to athletics is all the more unlikely. Vice President of Brown’s Division of Athletics and Recreation Grace Calhoun PhD ’92 P’26 P’26 released a revamped Strategic Plan that prioritizes “driving community engagement.” But initiatives by division leadership can only do so much if the community, fundamentally, isn’t willing to buy in. 

This lack of commitment makes sense. Our school’s identity is often centered on a (perhaps unearned) sense of deviation from the norm. Brown has a reputation for its strong political counterculture and artsier influences. Larger universities, such as the University of Michigan and University of Alabama have robust football programs, where massive turnout for games and tailgates are an integral part of campus life. But social life at Brown does not revolve around sporting events. Some students may simply be uninterested in sports. For others, their disinterest might be because traditional athletic culture is linked with a conservative locker room culture that many chafe against. These stereotypes are well-summarized by the film “Varsity Blues,” where a nerdy Texas high school student is forced to choose between his aspiration to attend Brown and the pressure he faces to succeed as a quarterback. It might be that students do not see themselves as included in these kinds of spaces — whether due to exclusion or a desire for diversions not so conventional. This phenomenon might be best exemplified by students’ participation in less intense athletic arenas: Think intramural sports — e.g. inner tube water polo — and queer soccer. This aversion to varsity athletics can make it easy to forget that we have a football team, track and field team or a women’s basketball team at all. However, even if they don’t play a massive role in our school culture, 900 of Brown’s 7,222 undergraduate students are student-athletes who participate in at least one varsity sport on campus. A significant number of our peers are involved in sports, and bring home wins even if we don’t realize it. 

There are benefits we could reap from embracing the label of a sports school more than we do. Sports are commonly recognized as a powerful site of community building. They are proven to contribute “to the empowerment of individuals” and help to promote the “development of inclusive communities.” At colleges and universities, sports are also tied to a bolstered sense of school identity and are an important way to keep alumni engaged after they graduate. Attending games can provide an outlet from the stress of academics and provide opportunities for socializing and finding community outside of normal activities and friends. The large turnout for Brown-Harvard every year indicates that we enjoy something about communal spectatorship — perhaps in part because that showing of school spirit on our campus is so rare. But what if it didn’t have to be? 

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Caring about athletics does not equate to caring only about one specific sport or mode of engagement. For example, while football has a reputation as the quintessential college sport, there are many other options to explore — whether that means watching our gymnastics team stick a landing or watching the swim and dive team nail a flip. There are far more possibilities than we, as a school, have given our athletics department credit for. Even if you go to just a single game this semester, you are helping to bring in new people to sporting events. The Ivy League Women’s Tournament this weekend is a great place to start. Grab a free ticket, bring a friend and keep an open mind. You might be glad you did.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board and aim to contribute informed opinions to campus debates while remaining mindful of the group’s past stances. The editorial page board and its views are separate from The Herald’s newsroom and the 133rd Editorial Board, which leads the paper. This editorial was written by the editorial page board’s editors Kate Waisel ’24 and Devan Paul ’24, as well as its members Paulie Malherbe ’26, Alissa Simon ’25, Rachel Thomas ’25 and Yael Wellisch ’25.

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