Athletes Should Reconsider Entitled Dialogue

Dear Pomona College,

You’re failing. You’ve been criticized so much lately for unionization politics and investment in fossil fuels that no one has noticed how incredibly entitled a number of your varsity athletes have become.  

Seriously, if last week’s Miller Time article—“The Under 1 percent”—was intended as satire, it was brilliantly done. After comparing the alleged lack of support for athletic endeavors to major ethical issues facing the college—because the future of people’s lives and livelihoods really do hang in the balance when it comes to the Pomona administration’s involvement with the Workers for Justice and Divestment movements (but that’s just my bleeding heart liberalism showing through)—in the first sentence of the piece, the author went on to enumerate the unfair sacrifices Pomona forces its athletes to make as students at a DIII school, lamenting the fact that “here, there are no reduced expectations for athletes, no special majors or guaranteed As.” As much as he “hates to admit that our neighbors to the north do anything better than” we do, he notes that Claremont-Mudd-Scripps spends five times as much on recruiting as Pomona-Pitzer, as if this were a good thing. (While I don’t have any data to back me up here, I get the distinct feeling that the bro culture [in which I personally have no desire to participate] many Sagehens reference in distinguishing themselves from these Northerners may have something to do with these recruiting efforts.)

“On some level,” he writes of the Pomona status quo, “that’s the choice athletes have to make.” Here’s a radical idea: On every level, that’s the choice athletes have to make. And nobody’d better come back at me with some argument about how some people might have to come to Pomona because of our typically excellent financial aid program, because the author’s point here was that athletes (those that can afford to) sometimes sacrifice athletic scholarships at other schools for a degree from the 5Cs. They know what they’re getting into.

And then there was the article called “Athletes Deserve Respect.” The author recounted a conversation in which another student replied to the fact that his upcoming game conflicted with a 5C party with “That sucks,” interpreting the remark as “implying that [he] was in the wrong for having a passion that required [him] to make sacrifices.” To this, I offer the suggestion that the acquaintance’s response was probably more of a sympathetic commentary on the nature of scheduling conflicts than anything else—in my own experience, I’ve heard “That sucks” in response to my announcements that my class overlaps with a visit from a speaker, or that I have to go out to dinner with grandparents on the night of a close friend’s birthday, yet I’ve never taken the speaker to be making a negative value judgment about my being enrolled in classes or having grandparents.

He writes that “every day, athletes are faced with […] situations that can distract them from achieving their best” and that “these distractions come in the form of academics, friends, and college nightlife activities.” His failure to expound on what should be done about this terrible problem leads me to assume that he believes these distractions should be done away with altogether. He calls for more advertisement for athletic events in the form of cards and flyers around campus, as if those designed to “increase awareness” of “speakers, events, and parties” fall from the sky like manna from heaven instead of being printed or written up by passionate students themselves. The only difference between these students and the author is that they are bothering to enact their desire for advertisement, and he is simply griping about it in the paper.

Perhaps most fallacious is his assertion that “playing sports builds character in a way that cannot be paralleled.” As someone whose sports career peaked in eighth grade when I actually made a shot during an actual basketball game, I can say that, thanks to the safety net of distractions like academics, the arts, activism, and plain old human interaction, my character got built all right. (And while we’re on the subject of “character,” I could bring up all the terrifying points The Nation reporter Dave Zirin made in his article “The Verdict: Steubenville Shows the Bond Between Jock Culture and Rape Culture”… but I won’t even go there.)

Last week’s paper was, however, somewhat informative regarding a few legitimate gripes about the status of our athletic programs. Quotes from the special report on the athletic atmosphere on campus—written by Emma Wolfarth PO ’14—seemed to reflect a particularly levelheaded approach: “Just as I think students with a passion for dance or art should be provided with sufficient support by the school, attention to the needs of student athletes should be an equal priority. Currently, the lack of proper attention translates into insufficient funding for hiring decisions, equipment, and upkeep of facilities.” The ironic thing about the Miller Time article was that the author hinted at these concrete structural inequities—referencing, for example, the facts that “the soccer nets are held together by duct tape” and “the weight room doesn’t have air conditioning”—but cloaked these potentially trenchant criticisms in discourse that made me less likely to support athletes on campus.  

Because—believe it or not—I don’t hate athletes. I really don’t. Some of my best friends are athletes! But I refuse to believe that athletes—even those here in Claremont—are an oppressed group. Maybe I’m living under a rock, but I fail to see how our community systematically “ridicules and mocks” athletes, as the author of “Athletes Deserve Respect” claimed. More likely, I think that many of our athletes grew up in a culture that valued their achievements to a precariously high degree, and that they expected this hero-worship to follow them when they came to play at the 5Cs. But we don’t do it that way. Here, we’ve decided that “grades and classes are more important than games and practices”—that’s not an implication of our status as a DIII school, as that author suggests. It’s a way of being, and personally, I’m proud of it. So, athletes: Make your reasonable requests for financial attention to desperately underfunded parts of your program, but don’t conflate a need for minor budgetary reform with some kind of systematic, vindictive assault on your particular passion. It’s just unbecoming.

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