Seeing Double: Bridging Amherst's Athletic Divide

Any student who has lived at the college pre-Covid has experienced the immense divide between athletes and non-athletes. Every evening, varsity teams would fill the back room of Valentine Dining Hall, while non-athletes would instinctively avoid that back room. It isn’t often that the dividing line between two groups is so obvious that it could literally be drawn on the floor. 

The athletic divide at Amherst pervades nearly all aspects of campus life, from Val seating to parties to study groups and even housing and choice of major. Among non-athletes, the phrase “He’s on a varsity team” is synonymous with “You wouldn’t know him.” Similarly, athletes have learned that the chances of a non-athlete attending a sporting event to support an Amherst team are about equivalent to the odds of my co-columnist accepting an internship at Goldman Sachs (i.e. very low). 

The divide is deeply harmful to both types of students. Athletes, seen as less intelligent by many non-athletes, can lack academic confidence, which may partly explain why while 49 percent of non-athletes write senior theses, only 16 percent of varsity athletes do. Non-athletes, on the other hand, often feel crowded-out of any athletic activity. Varsity teams possess a stranglehold over reservations of the athletic facilities, as well as the gym, and the small student-run athletic clubs stagnate under the huge shadow of varsity athletics. These club sports are often reduced to asking their members to pay dues in order to fill out their club budgets, while varsity athletic programs receive millions annually. 

Finally, the divide causes the inevitable missed opportunities for friendship and shared enrichment that occur whenever two large populations within a community refuse to interact. Beyond the exchange of an occasional “Hello” on the way to classes (in pre-pandemic times), non-athletes might as well be living in a school with 1250, rather than 1900 students, and athletes find their social network largely limited to a mere 650 peers. I myself sometimes wonder how different my Amherst experience would be if I had kept in touch with the athletes I exchanged numbers with during first-year orientation. 

Inevitably, the divide has caused varsity teams to become insular. That insularity, however, has resulted in a troubling culture of frequent misogynistic and racist behavior. Part of the problem lies in the shocking lack of diversity on Amherst’s varsity teams. In 2017, 73.5 percent of varsity athletes were white, compared to only 35 percent of the non-athlete population. At the same time, only about 4 percent of athletes came from low-income backgrounds, compared to 31 percent of non-athletes. All in all, the oldest collegiate athletic program in the country is suffering against its toughest opponent yet: itself. 

Students and administrators have tried a variety of techniques to solve the problem, with little success. Orientation and first-year seminars are both designed, in part, to encourage athletes and non-athletes to mingle, but if the current state of the divide is any metric, these programs have had little effect. The same goes for a student-led effort to “decolonize Val” in 2017. The divide is deeply rooted in the history and culture of Amherst as an institution, and cannot be solved by anything as transient as a lunch buddy program. 

A clue to the solution lies in the unique organization of the Amherst College Rowing Association, or Crew Team. Before the late 1990s, Crew was a varsity team, but since then, it has evolved into a hybrid system somewhere between a varsity and club team. Crew gives its members the best of both worlds. As a club, Crew does not recruit through admissions, nor does it hold tryouts or reject players on the basis of ability. It does not dominate members’ lives in the same way as varsity sports. Participants join the club knowing that, while they will compete against other schools and have a regimented practice schedule, it is nothing more than a fun extracurricular which they are free to leave whenever they want.

Crew offers a far more rigorous and developed program than other Amherst clubs. Crew has a passionate alumni network which provides huge amounts of funding to the club, and the team has won numerous medals in past years. Crew demonstrates that an organized and institutionally-supported club team can be athletically competitive while offering a more inclusive admissions policy. 

Crew is not without its faults though. Despite its inclusive policies relative to varsity teams, it has struggled to attract a diverse group of students, in part because it practices a traditionally lily-white sport and inexcusably requires 200-dollar dues of its members. The key, then, is to incorporate the best aspects of crew into the campus athletics culture by turning club sports into something that all students feel comfortable joining, not just those students interested in one extremely niche sport. 

I propose turning all official athletics at the college into special athletic clubs, open to all students, regardless of experience. No more athletes would be recruited primarily to play on a specific team (although athletic ability could still help a student’s application). Instead, students would be allowed to join or create any athletic club they choose, and be trained on the job by their coaches and more experienced peers. 

Athletes might protest that this policy would deemphasize athletics at Amherst, but the opposite is true. A campus-wide collection of large, well-organized athletic clubs would turn athletics from a pursuit split between insular varsity teams and under-supported club teams into a campus-wide culture. In this version of Amherst, every student would be strongly encouraged to take part in some athletic club, as an integral part of the liberal arts experience. How much or how little time a student spends actually participating in sports would be up to them. All the money currently used to support varsity teams could be lavished on clubs, with the additional option to solicit donations from Amherst’s numerous and generous athletic alumni. With all of this funding, clubs could offer a varsity-level experience to students without the need for income barriers, recruitment or an insular culture. We might not win quite as many medals, but Amherst students would see athletics as a crucial part of the college community. This type of transition has worked well for colleges in the past. In 2012, Spelman College adopted a broadly similar system, and immediately noted an improvement in the health and happiness of its students. 

All Amherst students would benefit from the numerous advantages of playing sports in college. It’s no secret that loneliness is an epidemic at the college. Easier access to organized clubs would give more students access to inclusive and tight-knit social groups, and give them a chance to improve their physical and mental wellbeing. In fact, team sports consistently improve participants’ academic performance, by giving students a way to relax and socialize in a healthy environment. Amherst students, even those currently classified as “non-athletes” would likely jump at the chance to participate in institutionally-backed and welcoming groups. 

This solution gives everyone what they want. Athletes can continue to spend as much time as they want on their passion, without being excluded from campus life as a whole. The rest of the school would have the opportunity to freely participate in organized and well-funded athletics programs, regardless of background or skill level. The numerous advantages of athletics – social groups, exercise and relaxation– would be available to everyone equally. 

Unlike previously proposed solutions, this idea would get at the root of the problem by making the distinction between athlete and non-athlete meaningless. Instead of a binary, Amherst athletics would become a spectrum, where everyone is, to some degree, an athlete, but everyone is also first and foremost, a student. These changes might seem radical, but they aren’t. In 1860, this college invented collegiate athletics. It’s time for us to do it again. 

Many thanks to Camille Blum ’20, Jack Kiryk ’21 and William Friedrichs ’20, who worked with me to develop this plan and generously allowed me to turn our ideas into a column.