The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

DEI Programming Highlights Cultural Issues in Cross Country Teams

Students on the UChicago Women’s Cross Country team are speaking up about the lack of support and inclusivity in the locker room. As both the men’s and women’s teams begin spearheading an increasing amount of DEI programming, they approach a pivotal crossroads.
David Rodnitzky
Students on the Women’s Cross Country team in 1994. Courtesy of the University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center.

The University of Chicago’s women’s cross country team has enjoyed a great deal of success in recent years. Coming into the 2023 season ranked second in the country, the Maroons started strong and held the No. 1 ranking for multiple weeks before ultimately placing third in the NCAA national championship. 

While the men’s cross country team didn’t have as obviously impressive of a season, finishing second-to-last in their national championships, they placed third in their UAA conference tournament, with graduate student Jack Begley winning the tournament altogether. They were also able to snatch up an invite to nationals to begin with, something only 30 other colleges across the country could say.

But a larger issue than a lack of gold looms over the team. Following the institution of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programming in team spaces last year, some members of the cross country teams have spoken out about pushback to the programming, inappropriate comments made by others, and a persistent and unsupportive locker-room culture.

Cross country running in the United States has historically never been a diverse sport. Data from the NCAA backs this up—the organization reported that in 2023, 73 percent of female and 71 percent of male cross country runners were white. This number has decreased only 3 percent and 5 percent since a decade ago respectively, showing the slow rate of change in the teams.

The UChicago team doesn’t exactly buck this trend. “My [high school] team in [the South] was more diverse,” a former member of the cross country team told The Maroon.

A comparison of racial demographics for men’s cross country athletes to the racial demographics of all men’s sports for the years of 2013, 2018, and 2023.
A comparison of racial demographics for women’s cross country athletes to the racial demographics of all women’s sports for the years of 2013, 2018, and 2023.

Of course, the team themselves has no control over its own demographics. UChicago’s status as a Division III school means it does not give out athletic scholarships; as such, the school can only recruit from the homogenous pool of high school cross country runners who either have a preexisting academic scholarship or can afford to attend a prestigious university. Such conditions lead to an exceedingly white team that does not look like changing anytime soon. 

Mónica Ruiz House, a fourth-year on the women’s team who helps spearhead DEI programming for the men’s and women’s teams, told The Maroon that students of color on both teams began hosting small spaces for themselves in 2021 to speak about their experiences on the team. Since then, she has seen a slow shift in the culture of cross country, as the teams look to become a more inclusive space.  

“It used to be, honestly, taboo,” Ruiz House said of discussing race. “Some of the upperclassmen who were minority folks would joke about it, that [there] was a constant racial blind spot.”

An anonymous source similarly spoke of a culture in the women’s locker room that could feel unwelcoming for people of color. “There has historically been a really high turnover from minority women on our team,” they said. “It’s not necessarily that there’s some horrible, racist atmosphere. I think it adds up in a way that’s almost like a death by a thousand paper cuts.” 

A different source said that they too often felt unsupported as a person of color on the women’s team. “I guess I never really thought it was a problem before coming to college. And then I just remember, there was this one time… me and some of my other POC teammates. We just had a little heart to heart. And we’re like, ‘Oh, my God, we all feel this way.’ And then were all just crying in the locker room,” she told The Maroon.

Because of such a history, the cross country team looked to prioritize conversations about race and class in 2023. While many members of the cross country team quickly embraced this new philosophy, there has also been pushback. During one DEI event, the cross country teams hosted a shoe drive for migrants who had recently crossed the Mexico-U.S. border in collaboration with the Arizonan advocacy group No More Deaths. Not all students were in favor of the initiative.

An anonymous source on the team stated that they were taken aback by snide comments from members of the team. “Comments like, ‘Why are you helping illegals?’ popped up in that space,” they told The Maroon. They stated that they have heard similarly offensive remarks before. “It happens in the locker room, or it happens in a team-adjacent social setting,” they said. 

Ruiz House expressed dissatisfaction with the team’s past chemistry and culture for similar reasons. “The general sentiment from minority students was like a feeling of… not discomfort, but the ways in which you can’t show up authentically as yourself the whole time you are in the space,” she said.

The former member of the team highlighted similar considerations. “They’re supportive and try to be understanding,” they said of white athletes on the team. “But I guess I never realized how much I needed community, and being away from white spaces, until I came to college and I was away from my family.”

Recently, the team tried another exercise, in which they listed types of people that they do not often see on the cross country track. “The point was about, I think, considering how our sport is very geared towards one type of person. Typically, you’re going to be really thin, you’re going to be whiter, you’re probably going to be from a higher socioeconomic status,” an anonymous source said. “And I remember one person wrote down ‘quitters.’” 

A more serious example of a cultural issue in the cross country team arose last October, when second-year Nora Holmes dropped out of the Augusta Invitational and removed herself from the team for about two weeks following offensive remarks made in team group chats regarding Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7.

According to Holmes, some participants changed others’ display names in the chat to make light of the conflict. “Let’s Nuke the Middle East” and “Hamas” were two nicknames Holmes specifically cited seeing in group chats. “I called people out on it in the chat. And no one responded or said anything,” Holmes told The Maroon. “The captains didn’t say anything. I talked to the coach, and he didn’t say anything. And then I ended up just saying, ‘Until this gets addressed, I’m not running.’”

Holmes’s decision caused a stir within cross country. Following her statement, the teams’ captains quickly reached out to her, and the offending parties on the team sent long messages apologizing in the team’s group chat. After a few weeks, Holmes rejoined the team, although she only competed in one more race, a time trial, until the season concluded. The experience as a whole distressed Holmes and affected how she currently views the team. “I’ve kind of distanced myself from the team, in some instances, because I find the social aspect really hard to handle,” she said. However, Holmes also expressed that the team was largely supportive of her during and after the incident, and did well to remedy the situation.

Despite such internal controversy during the season, the cross country teams continue to host more DEI programming than ever. In addition to their shoe drive, the team recently received a $1,000 grant from the University Community Service Center to work on bettering their relationship with the South Side. 

Ruiz House said that it was essential the team become more aware of how they engaged with the often underprivileged and primarily Black neighborhoods that encompass the UChicago campus. She expressed a desire for the team to be “good stewards” of the surrounding areas rather than looking at them with a fearful or voyeuristic eye.  

Ruiz House pointed to the men’s team’s running to and around the Parkway Gardens Apartment Homes, better known as O-Block, as an example of a decision made without the community’s best intentions in mind. The site of the first Black-owned apartment cooperative in Chicago, O-Block became notorious for violent crime and gang activity in the early 2010s. While “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to run down South Shore, [and] there’s nothing wrong with wanting to run West Town,” as Ruiz House said, the team choosing O-Block as a running route felt like a tendentious form of tourism. “It’s almost like you want to go see a monument to violence and segregation,” she said. “It’s trivializing, I think, the pain and the history there. You have an all-white team… and they’re in their booty shorts, and they’re running to O-Block. It’s a ridiculous image.” The men’s team claims that these runs are not team-sanctioned and happen infrequently. Nevertheless, others on the women’s team agreed the runs are problematic. “I think fetishizing the crime of the South Side is not a good look,” Holmes said.

It was difficult to attain many different perspectives on the issue of DEI and team culture. Of the 19 people contacted for comment on the cross country team, only 4 agreed to be interviewed and quoted. It should be acknowledged that the perspectives given do not constitute the whole spectrum of opinions of the team.

The team’s DEI coordinators plan to use their grant to help the team better understand the history of the South Side. Various team activities have been scheduled to this effect. For Black History Month, the team has bought multiple copies of the book Running While Black by Alison Mariella Désir, a work which examines the ways in which race intersects with running, specifically the hardships Black runners face as they compete and train. Ruiz House also mentioned that the teams are planning a cleanup of Washington Park in conjunction with the Chicago Park Service. 

Ruiz House was generally positive about the effects of DEI programming on the team’s culture. “I’m optimistic because I think things in our culture have shifted a lot. I think the fact we’re even having conversations about race is something we’ve really never had before. It started, like, two years ago,” she said. Others on the team agreed, at least somewhat. “Some people might not take it seriously. Or they might do it just for show. But that’s still better than nothing,” an anonymous source said.

In addition to newer DEI initiatives, increasingly diverse recruiting classes have played a role in improving team culture. Ruiz House pointed out that recently, the team had “one of the most diverse men’s recruiting classes” they had ever seen. 

Holmes opined that it is an increase in diversity more than anything else which has helped improve the team’s culture. “I wouldn’t say that actually, pursuing DEI initiatives has been responsible for that change,” she said. “I think it’s more just people starting to graduate and new people coming on. I think it’s kind of a turnover thing.”

She expressed a general skepticism towards the DEI programming. “There’s a lot of microaggressions that are happening that need to stop happening, but I don’t think that reading Running While Black and having a team forum alone is enough to get us there,” she said. 

Like others, Holmes mentioned off-color jokes made in the locker rooms or in conversations between the men’s and women’s teams as examples of a problematic culture that occurs in the moment. The DEI initiatives, which are optional and operate externally from team practices and meets, can be seen as compartmentalizing the issue. “It’s like, ‘Okay, since we did the seminar, we can go on our run now,’” Holmes said.

The cultural problems the cross country team faces are similar, to an extent, to all insular collegiate communities. Whether it be sports teams, fraternities, sororities, RSOs, or other campus groups, a tight-knit community can become a haven for all kinds of exclusivity. But a homogenous roster has seemingly made the issue worse than normal in the cross country team. “There’s a certain kind of casual cruelty that gets thrown around,” Holmes said. “I remember last year, my grandfather died. And that same week, one of the seniors was like, ‘Let’s go on [a] cemetery run.’”

On no other UChicago varsity team in recent memory has an athlete excused herself from an event because of offensive comments made in an internal space. At the same time, the cross country teams are clearly working hard to improve their own internal culture. Such a culture is changing for the better, according to those on the team, and that may be a step towards to further improvements in the athletic culture at UChicago. “I think the danger of appreciating sport just as sport is we forget the ways sport can almost be a bridge to outside communities,” Ruiz House said. “It can be a way, I think, to do really cool things.”

Editor’s note: Information has been changed in this article to further protect a student’s anonymity. Additionally, one sentence has added to a paragraph, and one paragraph has been added, at the request of a source to give further context on the situation.

View Comments (12)
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Finn Hartnett
Finn Hartnett, Head Sports Editor
Finn Hartnett is a fourth-year at the College from New York City. He was given the Sports Editor title in June 2021, and since then he has enjoyed the work greatly, whether that means interviewing people at local sports events or writing ballads to his favorite Chicago Cub. Occasionally, he contributes to the News and Grey City sections as well. In addition to The Maroon, Finn has contributed articles to the website CATALYST and the Long Island newspaper Dan’s Papers. He has also interned for the non-profit investigative newsroom New York Focus. In his free time, he enjoys petting his cat.
Michael Plunkett
Michael Plunkett, Founding Lead Developer
Michael Plunkett is an MSCAPP graduate student of the class of 2024 who moved to Chicago from Austin, Texas to pursue the intersection of technology and government oversight. He works as the Founder and Lead Developer of the Data Department at The Maroon. He started working at The Maroon because of his love for investigative journalism and his desire to contribute to the part of the city he now calls home. When he can tear himself away from schoolwork, you can often find him running on the Lakefront Trail or snoopin' around local bookshops.
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Comments (12)

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  • M

    Maroon Reader / Feb 22, 2024 at 1:02 pm

    This is a strange article that feels personal. It traffics in smears about culture problems without giving any compelling evidence that problems exist. (A thousand paper cuts? Really?? Running near a building near campus??) You do not have the right to feel comfortable all the time or to have your political beliefs validated by everyone all the time. I expect better from the Maroon.

  • J

    James Lee / Feb 17, 2024 at 8:20 pm

    The author of this article has an apparent personal relationship with an interviewee that calls into question his objectivity and compromises the article’s integrity. Failing to disclose any author’s and interviewee’s relationship may be seen as deceptive. I’d hoped the Maroon would have been more thorough in the review of this prior to publishing

  • S

    Student / Feb 17, 2024 at 8:20 pm

    Great and honest piece!

  • E

    Erin / Feb 16, 2024 at 2:13 pm

    ‘Why are you helping illegals?’
    That comment is offensive but compelling teammates to participate in helping illegals is not??
    Looks like the demand for racism outstrips supply.

  • J

    Jacob Myrene / Feb 16, 2024 at 11:32 am

    DEI is not a requisite for inclusivity; one can condemn sexism without invoking politics. To that end, the interviewees discredit themselves by advocating DEI; doing so betrays a political motive, which distracts from their allegations of discrimination. It also casts doubt on the validity of their claims. For instance, “crying in the locker room” over mild and *perceived* discrimination seems excessive. I advise the sources to stop dwelling on their identity and being hypersensitive.

  • J

    Janis Froehlig / Feb 16, 2024 at 10:34 am

    This is the only article that has, in a month of daily use, crashed the “College News” Android app on my Pixel phone. I was able to load the article via browser using a search for the title. I’m glad the writer is pursuing software development. Of course the glitch may be entirely random, but it brings to light that the bugs we choose to squash matter.

    “Fetishizing crime” is a phrase I’ll carry with me.

  • N

    Nora Holmes / Feb 16, 2024 at 8:03 am

    Article does not bring up any of the positive aspects of how the team handled the situation which I discussed in the interview.

  • K

    Kamala Harris / Feb 15, 2024 at 7:27 pm

    Dumb woke trash

    • J

      Jacob Myrene / Feb 16, 2024 at 11:20 am

      That’s not nice.

    • M

      Matt / Feb 16, 2024 at 3:09 pm

      There are so many vagaries and assumptions about privilege and power. All I can say is that POC cross country runners at U of C will have every opportunity afforded to them in life. At what point do we see our common humanity and drop the victimization?

    • A

      Albert / Feb 17, 2024 at 10:26 am

      Yes as a former Cross Country runner no one who wanted to run was ever rejected. There are many sports and so few athletes, most of them going to the potentially paying sports.

    • B

      bingus / Feb 18, 2024 at 11:24 am