Varsity Athletes: Detriments of Team Bonding

There’s an obvious disconnect between athletes and the rest of the Amherst community. In my experience as a member of a varsity team, it seems to be cultivated by the exaggeration of the importance of team bonding. There are a lot of social expectations for varsity athletes. The typical varsity athlete is expected to not only train with their team for about two hours each day, but, also, to go to “team Val” (eating dinner with your teammates). Not only do athletes have to attend competitions on the weekends, which can last up to the entire day, but, oftentimes, they’re also recommended to attend a mixer afterwards (which is usually with another sports team) to celebrate either their win or just overall hard work and effort.  If there’s not a competition or tournament, sometimes captains will arrange an outing to do something else, such as to go apple picking or to go a local amusement park (which are both extremely fun). Sometimes athletes even choose to live together as well. And if you ask why? Well, for team bonding, of course.

Many believe that a team that spends copious amounts of time together wins together. And it makes sense. Teammates need to have a sturdy relationship with each other in order to perform well as a cohesive team. But I think the importance that is placed on team bonding is immensely exaggerated, and is really an excuse for people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds to not feel guilty for spending so much time with each other and not feel guilty for not breaking down cultural barriers instead. Our sports teams are not nearly as diverse as the student body as a whole. This is because, oftentimes, sports attract members of the same socioeconomic class. For example, sports that are very costly will attract athletes from households that are able to afford them. In short, sports have cultures and lack substantial diversity within the actual team. It seems to be true here that all the teams are dominated by athletes from upper income backgrounds (correct me if I’m wrong). Beyond this initial lack of diversity on the team, the huge emphasis on team togetherness stunts athletes from getting to know people different from them socioeconomically. I mean, think about it, after all of those “duties” of the varsity athlete, is there much time to associate with anyone else? Not really. This is a problem that is summed up in a quote from Biddy’s Convocation speech:

“Comfort is essential, but, in the end, it is not comfort if it limits the richness of your social connections or closes you off from their benefits.” – President Martin

I think, in order to broaden the horizons of athletes, there need to be ways that teams can bond not only with each other but also with other groups that aren’t similar to them. For example, perhaps a mixer with a group on campus that isn’t a sports team such as an a cappella group, the orchestra, SHEs, etc. A lot of these groups are more inclusive and representative because participation isn’t influenced as much by external factors such as financial ability to pay for equipment, etc.  This will allow for some sharing of personal experiences and breaking down of barriers.

Also, don’t get me wrong, I do realize that there are exceptions on the sports teams (ahem, me…racial minority from a low-income household). But there aren’t many, and for those of us who are exceptions, it’s kind of daunting being so different from the people that we are required to spend loads of time with. For example, I have found myself shying away from my sports team and not participating in all of our events. When confronted about my lack of participation, I started to feel guilty. Was there something wrong with me? How come I didn’t want to make a greater effort to be with my teammates? Everyone else did. Was I antisocial? After dwelling on it for a while, I realized that this wasn’t just an issue of needing alone time. I decided to talk with a person that my coach introduced me to earlier in the semester, Billy McBride, the Assistant Athletic Director and Director of Diversity and Inclusivity. I spoke candidly with Billy and I told him that I felt really subdued and how I had no desire to participate in social outings. I was surprised to hear that apparently many student-athletes had come into his office expressing the same exact feelings of disconnection and indifference. And our commonality? We were all either student-athletes of color, from low-income households, or of both. In addition to sports teams mixing up the guests of their mixers (see what I did there?), I sincerely think that there should be a program for athletes from lower socioeconomic classes that would aid us in interactions with our team members better. Perhaps a sort of program or talk for incoming athletes to just motivate us to express ourselves and appreciate where we come from. Because, in all honesty, everyone here is a teacher. Everyone here has something meaningful and insightful to share. If some members of our community, when in a situation in which they are the minority, feel subdued, well then Amherst can’t really pride itself on its diversity because it wouldn’t be achieving anything other than the appearance of inclusion.