June 3, 2014

Past, present, and future of UChicago athletics

The opinions and concerns of UChicago athletes; a look at how the experience of being an athlete has improved.

It’s a typical day in Spanish 202. We’ve spent the requisite five to 10 minutes going around the painfully dull Cobb classroom telling everyone what our plans are for the weekend, and the next five minutes relaying the “noticias” we all frantically looked up on our phones right before class. People have made jokes that would be remarkably dull in English but are for some reason quite funny in Spanish, and we’ve read some passage about Latin American instruments. Somehow, in the midst of some typical Spanglish banter, UChicago athletics comes up in passing. It’s only touched on briefly, but in that time somebody says, “Nobody cares about our sports teams.” The speaker chuckles out loud. As a varsity tennis player, I feel a small surge of anger and frustration. I look around the classroom, and I see across from me a men’s varsity soccer player and to my right a women’s track team member, and I wonder what their thoughts are. But as I look around, I also notice something encouraging: No one else is laughing.

I’ve grappled with the tribulations of being a UChicago athlete before, with derision and division, once in this column and often with myself and my teammates. I’ve griped about lack of attendance at matches, lack of funding, lack of respect, and a general lacking. But it’s not something I’d ever talked about with athletes outside my team before. What do other teams feel, I wondered? What are their experiences? What does the average UChicago athlete feel about being a UChicago athlete?

In talking to athletes from most of our teams, I found that my experience hasn’t been anomalous, that my frustration over how athletics are viewed is shared nigh ubiquitously, and my frustration over how they’re funded is shared slightly less so. I’ve heard stories of athletes feeling uncomfortable wearing team apparel to class for fear of being assumed stupid, feeling annoyed that they pay as much as they do and still have to pay for gear, and feeling frustrated that they don’t get great attendance at games and meets.

Division I athletes not only have their uniforms supplied to them, but also are usually given a fresh batch of practice clothes to keep every year, as well as free tutors, scholarships, and preferential treatment of many types. Regardless of whether or not it’s justified, this heaping of goodies on DI athletes creates a sort of expectation and desire for free swag among athletes. That’s often viewed as part of the deal: Athletes devote a significant portion of their lives to working for and representing their university, and in exchange, they get free T-shirts, shoes, shorts, and sweats.

But that’s not really the case here at UChicago. Funding is more limited, and some players are frustrated by that. As fourth-year soccer player Sam Preston told me, “I feel it’s ridiculous for me to pay 55 grand a year and then pay for my own gear. We do get a discount of course, but at the same time it’s kind of a little bit obnoxious.” But other athletes don’t see funding as an issue. As third-year swimmer Robby Kunkel said, “I chose a DIII school for the academics, and I wasn’t expecting to have a huge amount of funding. This is exactly what I was expecting and it’s everything I could have hoped for, too. We have plenty of funding, we have this beautiful pool, I can’t complain about anything.” Part of this difference in opinion is generated by the reality that some sports have more recently seen tangible boosts in funding—we do have a relatively new and very nice swimming pool.

But a lot of this difference in opinion is just difference in opinion. On the one hand it is frustrating that we devote significant portions of our lives working hard for the University and are expected to represent them well wherever we go, yet we often receive little in return. But at the same time, I understand that we aren’t really owed anything, that the only reason we’re really playing these sports at all is because we love them, and that funding shouldn’t affect that. I saw this mix in feelings across sports, with the majority of those I interviewed probably leaning slightly toward Kunkel’s point of view. The fact is that almost all athletes here are playing for the game itself, not for gear. But that doesn’t mean better gear and more funding wouldn’t be nice.

An issue I heard more prevalently, though, had to do with athletes’ interactions with students, not the athletic department. It seems that athletes often feel treated as lesser. “If I’m interacting with a non-athlete who isn’t my friend and they find out that I’m an athlete, they tend to gain an air of superiority over me, they seem to want to just take over,” I heard from second-year sprinter and hurdler Ryan Manzuk. “If we’re doing a group project, let’s say, they seem to want to just be like, ‘All right, I should probably just take over this, because, well, I’m working with an athlete.’ Being a science major, in labs I’m interacting with a lot of non-athletes, and if they find out I’m an athlete, that can tend to be a problem.” Again, this sentiment isn’t ubiquitous, but it is fairly widespread. A lot of athletes feel that when they walk into a classroom they’ll automatically be assumed to be less intelligent, less committed, or just generally less worthy. Indeed, some players go to lengths not to be recognized as athletes. As third-year women’s tennis captain Megan Tang told me, “I try not to wear tennis clothes to class because I just sense that when people see you wearing sports clothes, they kind of look down on you.”

It’s obviously frustrating to me that athletes feel they can’t take visible pride in what is for most of them a great passion. We ostensibly strive as a school to refrain from making anybody feel lesser simply because of their personal endeavors, but it seems that sometimes that intent falls short when it comes to athletes. And while perhaps simply blending in and not being recognized is not an ideal solution, it’s one that’s not even available to some athletes. As fourth-year cross country and track captain Dan Povitsky pointed out, “It’s easy to recognize a football player, and it’s easy to recognize a basketball player, so if one of them behaves in a certain way, it’s easy for people to be like, ‘Oh, they’re behaving that way because they’re an athlete,’ whereas if I did [the same thing], it would be very hard for them to know I was an athlete. I’m just a skinny guy who’s the normal stature of a normal student here.” I don’t think the majority of athletes feel viewed as less than exemplary to the point of hiding their passion, but it bothers me that any of them do. Maybe it’s just in our heads, but it’s more than frustrating to not be able to show pride for what you devote much of your life to.

But while concerns over funding and feeling treated as less intelligent are ones that I heard relatively intermittently, one that I heard throughout the athletic student body was that athletes just don’t feel that their time commitment and passion are understood, or taken for the serious commitment it really is. “The reason we do this isn’t necessarily for respect. This is DIII, we’re not getting paid for it, we’re dedicating 25–30 hours a week because we love the sport, not because we want glory and we want everyone to notice us,” said fourth-year track and cross country captain Michaela Whitelaw. “I think where it does annoy people is when other people don’t recognize that we even have athletics or that it’s something people dedicate their time to...I think the hardest part is when other people don’t recognize the amount of time and effort you put into your sport.” We do play these games only because we love them, but it is frustrating when people don’t understand just how important these games are to us. This is the concern I saw raised far more often than simple funding: that athletes don’t always feel that their passion is respected. The “We have a football team?” jokes are easy to make, but they directly disrespect the work and passion of an entire team, and are irksome to every other team on campus. “I get the whole, ‘Oh, we have a soccer team?’ or ‘We have a football team?’ all the time, and that kind of rubs me the wrong way,” said Preston. “I don’t make fun of your debate club or your RSO, everyone has different things. It took a lot of talent for us to get here, don’t put us down for that.”

Those are the gripes and the desires, at least the major ones. Some of us want more funding because we represent this school and feel we should be better compensated, some of us feel like people think we’re stupid just because we’re athletes, and almost all of us feel like our passion is regularly disrespected, not necessarily by the whole student body, but at least by portions of it. This is the part where I suppose I engage in some sort of grand call to action, imploring students across campus to rethink how they view athletes, to treat them as equals, and to recognize the commitment they give. And I suppose that’s something I’d like to do, and those are realities I’d like to see manifest. But I don’t necessarily think my saying that would change anything. Much of the student body probably already does those things, xand the haters are probably a select few that would be hard to persuade anyway. But fortunately, I don’t really have to say anything, because I think this problem is slowly solving itself. Because being a UChicago athlete obviously isn’t all bad, or none of us would do it.

There are positives, and plenty of them. The unbearable plight of the poor, underprivileged UChicago athlete is not without hope. For one, for the athletes to whom I talked, interactions with teachers were almost always positive. It seems that, given enough notice and treated with enough kindness, most all teachers at UChicago are more than willing to accommodate athletes who have to miss classes or tests for meets or games. But the most overwhelming and most encouraging sentiment I heard from athletes, especially fourth-years, was that things have improved significantly as of late. Fourth-year men’s basketball player Charlie Hughes, for example, says, “The amount of support I’ve personally felt has grown every year.” Whitelaw: “Over my four years, the changes in facilities and clothing and promotional events have really increased.” Fourth-year men’s tennis captain Krishna Ravella: “It’s definitely gotten better in terms of being seen on an equal plane academically with non-athletes. I think it’s gotten a lot better in my time here.” And from fourth-year former football player and student-coach Ian Lazarus: “I think [it’s] getting better every year, I’ve definitely seen a transition since my first year, and things are progressing.”

Indeed, it’s obvious that funding for athletics has increased in recent years. The construction of Ratner is an obvious manifestation of that, but there are smaller ones. Just in this past month, the indoor track and courts in Henry Crown have been resurfaced and the Ratner pool has been closed for a facelift. There are even murmurs of resurfacing of the Stagg tennis courts. Athletes have seen improvement in gear supply, as well as expansions of pre-season and travel rosters. There has also been an increase in advertisement and publicity of athletics. Events like homecoming, Neon Night, and Sausagefest have increased both support and awareness. And there is the sentiment I heard from virtually every athlete to whom I spoke: We love new Athletic Director Erin McDermott. The changes she’s made in the past year are remarkably encouraging. Many of the changes I just mentioned have occurred during her administration. That, combined with her simple increase in accessibility with her athletes—doing simple things like attending meets and games—makes me, and I’m pretty sure athletes all over campus, confident that the future of the UChicago athletic department is bright.

But what about athletes’ interaction with students? What about how they view us and we view them? What’s the future of that? It’s a slightly more complicated question, but hope still abounds.

I would be remiss to write an article about UChicago athletics and not mention Robert Hutchins’ disbanning of our football team in 1939. A man to whom the quote, “Football, fraternities, and fun have no place in the university. They were introduced only to entertain those who shouldn’t be in the university,” is often attributed to, Hutchins had the original Stagg Field demolished, a stadium named after a man who was one of the godfathers of American football. Hutchins dismantled the original monsters of the midway, and in place of their home put the Reg. A grander symbolic gesture has scarcely ever been made, and a clearer message never sent: This is a place where studiousness and intellect are more important than anything else. And this premium on intellect at the expense of all else has persisted for decades and has been a central component of our campus culture and philosophy.

But that has begun to change. As McDermott told me, “What in the past had always been talked about, or what was highlighted, was this was the intellectual destination, and that’s still messaged now, and that’s fine, it should be an intellectual destination, that’s something to be proud of...But from an undergraduate perspective, in what that education should look like, encouraging and giving an enriching environment that honors other parts of the person is really important, and I do think that’s been embraced.” This is a sentiment I’ve heard from not only our athletic director, but from athletes across sports, that our university is coming to value more than minds, but whole people. All these damn Common App kids who are corrupting our sanctuary of intellectual purity aren’t really doing anything of the sort. Rather, they’re cleansing waters that have long been contaminated with a far too narrow view of what’s important. Athletes and athletic faculty have probably seen it first, and that only makes sense. Those fully engaged in the life of the body would first notice a move away from pure emphasis on life of the mind. This is not to say that academic rigor should not be maintained, or that the philosophical or moral discussion we value so highly as a school should be abandoned. But rather that there is more to a person, more to a mind, and more to an education than intellect, and that wholeness of being is valued ever more highly here. Being well rounded is coming to be valued more than simply having a piercing intellect, whether that means being athletic, being a skilled musician, being an artist, or simply being funny and creative. That’s a change we should all embrace, and if that comes at the expense of the purity of the life of the mind, then so be it. Because there’s more to life than intellect.

Liam Leddy is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.