Athletics Encourages Toxic Belief Systems

Editors’ Note: This article contains mention of unwilling ingestion of consciousness-altering drugs.

I am a former athlete who played lacrosse at Oberlin for three years. From my first to fifth years here, my identity, perspective, and culture — specifically in relation to my sport — have significantly shifted. I have seen the best and worst of what athletics can encompass and witnessed its polarizing effects. Like many former student-athletes, I have undergone a sharp transition away from sports-centric culture, rejecting the structures — like aggression is ability and pack mentality is power — that once governed my belief system. As a result of this awareness, I am a traitor to teams but an outsider to the rest; I am the middle man.

While my views may seem radical to some, they may be mild and even compromising to others. If we truly wish to understand the struggle between student-athletes and non-athletes in our community, we must listen to the voices that are not being heard — the voices of those who cannot honestly and holistically portray athletics in a positive light.

Occasionally, first-years are naïve enough to find natural friendships across athlete/non-athlete divides, but in my experience, those relationships often do not last. The reality of scheduling conflicts makes it nearly impossible to support each other. Daily practices consume athletes’ afternoons and evenings, preventing them from pursuing their interests through joining ExCos or extracurriculars and attending events, talks, or workshops. Even getting together regularly on weekends is implausible due to traveling and team activities.

In many cases, the protective shield of sports allows athletes to live out the entirety of their collegiate existence inside a bubble. I believe the housing and dining environment is largely to blame here. Teams have a way of taking over a space. North Campus hotspots like the Science Center atrium and Stevenson Dining Hall practically belong to sports squads, making it difficult for others to use those spaces. It doesn’t help that, in my experience, a significant number of athletes study either natural sciences or economics, often expressing indifference or disdain for the humanities and other creative pursuits. A little diversity in academics surely wouldn’t hurt their cause — after all, we are all Obies, right?

It is, of course, only natural for humans to gravitate toward groups in which they feel a sense of belonging. This process is made even easier at Oberlin, where the divide between North and South Campus concentrates groups that would already be inclined to spend time with each other. In my four years at Oberlin, common dorm spaces have come to be dominated by male athletes — spaces that first-years or sophomores with poor housing slots are more likely to be unwillingly placed into.

Living in community is part of the college experience, sure, but living in toxic environments can be disconcerting and dangerous. Within the very first month of my first year, I was drugged at a men’s lacrosse party. I became very sick, paid the hospital bill, was placed on academic probation, and was nearly kicked off my team. From this, I learned to not waste my time calling negative attention to myself when I had been told by the deans that nothing would be done without further witnesses.

The association of athletics with sexual assault, normative violence, and general intolerance are not simply stereotypes. Many others have been victimized in similar ways, and I hope that some of them might feel comfortable speaking out about their experiences. According to what I was told of the Title IX policy at the time, reports of violations would not be sent through the judicial process unless multiple witnesses attested to the truth. Too often, peer pressure and team toxicity discourage teammates from reporting incidents involving other teammates. Unfortunately, it seems there are more than just a few individuals ruining the reputations of all the rest.

Furthermore, hordes of jocks pack into dorms on Wednesdays and weekends, making a racket and littering the halls and building entryways with filth. The aftermath of these escapades often creates safety hazards and general disgust. If coaches have ever been made aware of these problems and cared enough to seriously acknowledge these concerns, it has not been amply reflected by players’ attitudes. The patriarchal sentiment that “boys will be boys” is far from extinct in our society, even in a “progressive” place such as Oberlin.

I want to believe in Athletics 101, the new program working to address these issues by breaking down the divide between athletes and the rest of the Oberlin community, but so far it sounds like more of the same. “Athletes are students, too;” “We work just as hard, if not harder!” and the worst — “Academics always come first” — is simply untrue. I can’t count the number of times I had to sacrifice my studies to attend a game I didn’t end up playing in. I had no choice about going, whether or not I was needed, or whether or not I would be provided with real meals.

But no one wants to hear athletes’ complaints. After all, we did sign up for this. The more that athletes claim their biased treatment is unfair, the more non-athletes will read their behavior as aggravating, selfish, and trivial. Until something new is introduced to the conversation, no one will listen.

Maybe if athletes showed more concern for other groups on campus, empathetic feelings would be returned. James Tanford, a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, has suggested that athletes become more involved in campus activism (“Athletics 101 Opens Athlete Divide Conversation,” The Oberlin Review, Sept. 29, 2017). However, singular displays of service won’t revolutionize an entire community, especially one as resolute as Oberlin’s.

People see what they want to see. Anti-athletic prejudices — however hateful, derogatory, or arbitrary they may seem — are credible and deserve validation. Oberlin students need more than uninspired persuasion to think and act a certain way. They need to believe in the worthiness of a cause. And right now, there’s not much to believe in.

Many exceptional individuals who play sports at Oberlin do have a positive impact on the community. Professor of English Yago Colás — Athletic 101’s visionary — and many others at Oberlin are truly impassioned and determined to bridge this divide. Nevertheless, the ugliness that hides behind parts of sports culture must be confronted; it cannot be ignored any longer.