Integration of Athletics, Academics Benefits Community

Lilah Drafts-Johnson, Contributing Writer

After seeing yet another Facebook comment thread feud between student-athletes and non-student-athletes this summer, I felt that it might be prudent for me to take the conversation to a more productive space. The dispute was the same as it always seems to be: student-athletes were frustrated by the stereotypes placed upon them, while non-student-athletes were frustrated by the space taken up by student-athletes at Oberlin and the adverse side-effects that sports culture often perpetuates.

As I enter my fourth year of collegiate track and field, I am well aware of the various issues with athletics on our campus. However, the apathetic and dismissive stances that many Obies take toward sport, both on our campus and in the world, worry me. I often encounter a pervasive misconception on campus that the practice of sport precludes the practice of activities held in high esteem at Oberlin, such as activism, academic excellence, and community building. For me, sport has always gone hand-in-hand with these ideals.

As a female athlete, the practice of sport is political, regardless of whether I want it to be or not. The decision to train my body in a way that enables speed and strength will always be interrogated, because muscularity subverts traditional feminine beauty standards. Running is my method of producing a counter-narrative to the classical conception of excellence in sport. I run to sever the connection between “strength” and “masculine,” to take up space in a male-dominated field, and to empower my teammates and other young women to do the same.

Practicing a sport has also taught me to embody Oberlin’s motto, “Learning and Labor,” as I balance my academic workload with my athletic competitions. Perhaps most importantly, I run because I love to run. I love my team, my coaches, and the freedom I’ve found in learning to trust my body and shut off my mind for a few hours each day. Division III athletes receive no special benefits or scholarships for their practice of a sport; our commitment and love for the game is “pure” in that regard.

Although the passion with which many athletes approach their sport is indistinguishable from the passion that musicians in the Conservatory approach their instruments, dedication to sport is often viewed as a meaningless pastime. Its intrinsic value — the lessons learned from a relentless pursuit of self-improvement — is often ignored.

I am not urging all Obies to become diehard Yeo-fans overnight. Rather, I am suggesting that instead of dismissively saying, “Athletic culture is toxic” or “Oberlin is not a sports school,” we attempt to widen the lens through which we look at sport on campus and in the world.

Denying the importance of athletics in our communities, let alone devaluing it, is unproductive to the ways that sport can shape communities for the better. Sport is a several billion dollar industry that captures the interest and attention of millions of people around the world. Instead of using sport as a campus-wide punching bag, we should be using sport as a tool to make positive changes within our community.

The creation of the Sport, Culture, and Society course cluster this year aims to empower students to do just that. Courses integrated into the cluster will direct students to challenge their preconceived ideas about sport and think critically about the different social inequalities present in sport. Additionally, students enrolled in the Sport and Community practicum will complete service projects that use sport to bridge the gap between the College and city of Oberlin communities.

I encourage the student body and faculty to attend not only the athletic competitions that will take place this year, but also the events that this cluster will sponsor. Their upcoming “Athletics 101” panel discussion series — which will be open to the public and will feature student athletes, athletic administrators, and community members — aims to facilitate discourse about the tensions between Oberlin and the athletic community. Insight from the students who do not participate in varsity athletics will be key to understanding the issues most important to our community.

Finally, to my fellow student-athletes: with the ongoing construction of the new wellness center, it is now more important than ever to reflect on the ways that we interact with and occupy our athletic spaces. In what ways can we can make these spaces more accessible to others? How can we change the negative aspects of our culture and ourselves to create a safer, more inviting athletic community?

We have been afforded an incredible opportunity at Oberlin to be guided and shaped by the sports we practice in tandem with our academic and social pursuits. It is nothing short of our duty, then, to share these opportunities with our wider campus community.