Pomona’s Dynamic School Spirit Could Benefit from Greater Athletic Presence

The Sagehen: the meekest of wild fowl. Chirp! The meekest of cheers. Neither Pomona’s mascot nor its rallying cry regularly elicits more than a semi-embarrassed chuckle from Pomona students, let alone our SCIAC opponents.

The support for a college’s sports teams, though not the only measure of school spirit, is nevertheless a fairly good proxy for it. Needless to say, at Pomona, the visible manifestations of school spirit are few and far between. Except for the annual basketball and football showdowns with CMS, Sagehen pride is rarely on display en masse.

In some ways, Pomona’s size necessarily implies a relative lack of school spirit. Pomona is not UCLA or USC. Pomona-Pitzer football will never play in the Rose Bowl again. Yet smaller schools of Pomona’s caliber often attract high-quality student-athletes left and right. Rankings may be, as many claim, East Coast-biased, but nonetheless, the athletic programs of colleges in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) regularly outperform Pomona-Pitzer's. In 2009-10, NESCAC teams were 1st, 2nd and 4th in the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup, a competition run by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics that honors colleges that maintain well-rounded, successful athletic programs. Pomona-Pitzer took 65th.

If schools like Williams and Middlebury are able to maintain a high academic threshold and still admit quality athletes year after year, why can’t Pomona? While it’s impossible to pinpoint one specific explanation, there are a number of factors that have potentially contributed to the relative lack of school spirit.

First, the Pomona admissions process does not put as much weight on athletes as the admissions processes of the NESCAC colleges. At Pomona, there is no institutionalized practice for ensuring the quality of athletic programs. In many ways, this is appropriate and intentional: It’s a much more worthy goal to increase the diversity of the student body by placing extra importance on historically underprivileged groups than to give greater preference to jocks. Working in the Pomona Office of Admissions, I know that athletes do receive special attention, but somehow this hasn’t translated into greater athletic success.

Second, active athlete recruitment does not appear to be as strong as it at comparable East Coast schools. Weaker recruiting is at least partially explained by a couple of structural reasons. One, the population density of the East Coast naturally lends itself to greater concentrations of quality athletes and sports programs. Two, the concentration and history of the Ivies and Little Ivies on the East Coast gives their programs greater prestige. Still, the West Coast pool of student-athletes is not lacking. Add the Southern California weather to the picture and Pomona should be an athlete’s paradise. The minimal sway of the athletics department in the admissions process makes wooing student-athletes more difficult, but nonetheless our recruiting could be stronger for most sports.

Third, the Pomona administration places little financial priority on athletics. Pomona has recently improved its athletic facilities, but the future outlook for sports funding is less bright. While the renovations to the Pauley Tennis Complex, the resurfacing of Strehle Track and soon-to-be-completed lacrosse field are all great steps in the right direction, the $250 million Daring Minds campaign does not explicitly allocate any money to athletics. Athletes who play outdoor sports have benefited from the recent changes, but indoor sport athletes have not been as lucky. The Rains Center is a decrepit monolith in comparison to the pillared beauty of Carnegie or the modern elegance of Seaver West. Students touring at Pomona peer in at the weight room and whisper to their parents, “Our high school gym has better equipment.” Again, I don’t mean to imply that increasing affordability for deserving students and enhancing critical facilities should not be priorities, but rather that athletics deserves a slice of the pie, too.

The visible lack of school spirit has larger implications for the college and its future. According to the U.S. News and World Report, Pomona’s annual rate of alumni giving is significantly lower than that of the top NESCAC schools. Try as the Office of Alumni Relations might, Sagehens are not particularly compelled to give back to the Pomona community. While I don’t think it’s the only explanation, I do think that there is a direct correlation between the lack of visible school spirit and the comparatively low rate of alumni giving. Additionally, there is a cyclical relationship between low rates of alumni giving and college rankings. In a competition for the top spots on U.S. News and World Report’s rankings, Pomona’s low rate of alumni giving in comparison with Middlebury or Amherst knocks our score down a point or two —a significant margin in a closely ranked pack. In this way, the cycle from admissions to alumni giving is indirectly impacted by the role of athletics and consequently, school spirit on the Pomona community.

The irony is that school spirit at Pomona is not lacking. Pomona’s brand of school spirit is not visible in the bleachers or stands of our fields because it’s intangible. For each person, it means something different. For some, Pomona pride is primarily academic, based on the relationships with professors or the quality of the research facilities. For others, it’s more social, rooted in sponsor groups, lazy Fridays on Wig or Walker Beach and Snack breaks. For many, it’s tied to athletics: Whether it’s memories of taking down CMS or playing inner tube water polo, sports do play a large role in the lives of hundreds of Pomona students. For most, our pride as Pomona students is probably a combination of 47 or so different aspects of our college lives.

We are, I would hope, proud to be Pomona students and Sagehens. Whether school spirit is visible or not, it does exist. As important as I think increasing the presence of athletics at Pomona could be to the college, I don’t anticipate that any of Pomona’s athletic-related policies will change in the near future. Still, looking to the future, Pomona needs to find a way to help manifest school pride more visibly. The newly-completed Sontag dorm and the recent renovations to Seaver and Strehle are wonderful improvements to the campus, but translating Pomona’s changes into a deeper school pride requires an intangible change. I’m not sure that promoting athletics is the answer, but I do think it may be a step in the right direction.

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