The State of Athletics

Long before the Indicator released a shocking report exposing, in great detail, misogynistic and racist remarks made by members of the Amherst cross country team, the faculty was up in arms about athletics at Amherst.

A new report on athletics commissioned by the College had just been released to the faculty. It was not originally scheduled to be discussed in any meeting but, after much protest, the matter came up for debate on December 6, when a number of faculty members lodged their complaints with the issues identified by the report, as well as with the report itself. By the end, according to Professor Dwaipayan Sen, the faculty had come to “a general, emerging consensus that something needs to be done.”

In January, in the midst of student protests over immigration issues, the administration released the report to the general public overnight. Perhaps they hoped it would be lost in the chaos of the moment, or perhaps this was just when they had planned to publish the report.

Now, two months later, as reports spread on social media of more disrespect from student-athletes in Valentine Dining Hall, Seligman Dormitory, and elsewhere on campus, AC Voice is releasing its critical analysis of “The Place of Athletics at Amherst College,” hereafter referred to as the Athletics Report.

When asked for general comment on the report, President Biddy Martin said, “Athletics has long been part of the fabric of Amherst and has contributed positively to our overall educational mission. As college athletics ramps up across divisions and institutions, it is important that our athletics programs remain consistent with our core mission and avoid the trend in other divisions and leagues to become a domain apart.”


The Athletics Report (which can be found here) is in fact a follow-up to another report on Amherst’s athletics colloquially known as the Diver Report (which can be found here), which surveyed the state of athletics from the late 1990s into the early 2000s and was released in 2002. When the committee that would write the new Athletics Report was announced, AC Voice ran a piece analyzing the old Diver Report which argued that “it might be one of the most important documents written about the College in the past fifteen years.”

Specifically, the study found that, on average, varsity athletes performed significantly worse academically in relation to their non-varsity peers. While GPAs only differed by a letter grade (e.g. B+ vs. B), class ranks differed by 13 to 16 percent, depending on whether the sport was “high profile” (football, basketball, and hockey) or not.

Additionally, varsity athletics teams were significantly less racially and socioeconomically diverse than the rest of the student body (in 1999 only 6 percent of athletes received significant amounts of financial aid, compared with 17 percent of non-athletes). There are also some strange stats—data showed that sophomore football players spent 78 percent of their free time with other football players—along with less exotic figures that more or less support the notion of a social divide between athletes and non-athletes.

Also worthy of your concern: According to the report, in 2002, the Admissions Office expressly set aside 66 “slots” for athletic recruits, meaning that those spots are reserved for applicants on the basis of athletic merit. Sources privy to this information tell me number remains the same today. When less than 15 percent of applicants ever receive offers of admission, that’s a pretty big deal. Moreover, the report suggests that recruits, on average, have significantly lower academic credentials too: For the class of 2005, the median verbal and math SAT scores for male athletes “highly rated in the high-profile [i.e. football, basketball, hockey] sports” were 90 and 40 points, respectively, below the median scores of their male non-athlete peers. The gap was smaller for women and male athletes on non-high-profile teams, but still present. Obviously SAT scores are highly imperfect indicators of academic aptitude and intelligence, but the message is clear: the College bends its standards for athletic recruits.

The Athletics Report was commissioned as a follow up to the Diver Report, to see whether its recommendations had been followed and whether some of the poor statistics noted in the report had improved in the intervening decade. In her email announcing the creation of the committee, President Martin wrote that “There is a report that was done in the early 2000’s that was supposed to be updated every five years, but has never been revisited.”

When asked whether the report would be revisited in the future, Martin said, “The role of athletics is important to the College and it is our intention to review it on a regular basis. We are currently considering recommendations from the recent report.”

It took two years from President Martin’s announcement of the report in October 2014 until the faculty received a draft. According to a number of faculty members that AC Voice spoke with, the report was not originally slated to be discussed by the faculty. In a faculty meeting on November 1, Professor Jessica Reyes insisted that the report be reviewed in a future meeting.

During that future meeting, the report was “discussed for an hour, at which point some kind of consensus did arise. A lot of people did speak and shared a number of concerns and questions about the report,” according to Professor Reyes.

AC Voice received conflicting information about whether the report was intended to be released. AAS senators who were briefed on the report claim they were told that it would “never see the light of day.” Some professors said they did not think it would be released, while others told AC Voice that once identifying information was edited out of the report it would be released. It is unclear whether the report that was made public was the exact same version as the one read by the faculty, or if certain changes or redactions had been made.

Asked after the release of the report, President Martin said that the report was always intended to be released “to the entire Amherst community.” She also added that “The report that the faculty received in late October was not changed at all on any points of substance.”

Athletics Intensification

One of the primary concerns of the original Diver Report was the way in which athletics had intensified in previous decades. These worries mostly focused on the growth of team sizes and the addition of new teams, as well as a greater emphasis on and dedication of resources to winning matches.

Indeed, Amherst’s teams have grown better in recent years, and the prospect of winning matches is seen as justification on its own for increased resources. Professor Reyes noted that “We didn’t always have winning teams, and alumni were still really happy to come to Homecoming even when the football team was losing.”

The Athletics Report uncovered that “the athletic experience has become more intense, and requires a great commitment of the athletes due to post-season play and out-of-season practices.” It also stressed, however, that Amherst’s membership in NESCAC “buffer[s] it from the worst practices within the larger NCAA universe.”

Furthermore, as Amherst’s student body grew about 10% between the publication of the Diver Report and the Athletics Report, the number of students on athletics teams swelled by 12%. Reyes says, “When we added new dorms and expanded the size of the student body, one possible opportunity that might have provided was to keep the number of athletes and reduce the percentage.  We’re fielding the same number of teams, why should we need more people? We didn’t do that.”

This means that an estimated 35-38% of the student body participates on varsity athletics teams, as compared to 27% when the Diver Report was published. In part due to this, the Athletics Report “recommends that there should be no further increase in the number of varsity athletes or varsity teams, even if the Amherst college student body increases in the future.”

The report also noted that according to the Department of Athletics, the reason some team sizes have swelled is “the frequency of injuries in these sports.” Furthermore, the increase of numbers of athletes was relatively gender-balanced, meaning the preexisting gender inequities from a decade ago were not redressed when the opportunity was provided.

Athletes’ Academics and Health

One of the key issues of the report is the effects of athletics on the athletes themselves. The Athletics Report devotes a large amount of space and resources to athletes’ academics and health.

In the academic sphere, the report concludes that “participation in athletics does not compromise the ability of athletes to excel academically at Amherst.” Athletes do tend to group in certain majors, being twice as likely as non-athletes to study economics. Students in men’s basketball, baseball, football, and lacrosse represent a third of economics majors, almost 40% of political science majors, and almost 30% of history majors.

Furthermore, athletes are much less likely to concentrate in scientific fields which require extra hours in labs and seminars. The report also notes that “one of the most striking academic differences between athletes and non-athletes” is that “athletic factor” athletes wrote a senior thesis only 16% of the time, as compared to 49% of the time for non-athletes. Nonetheless, the academic experience for athletes doesn’t seem to be significantly impaired by their participation in athletics.

However, there is a significant amount of information regarding the admissions of athletics that deserves further examination.

The report distinguishes between three groups of athletes – “athletic factor” athletes, “coded” athletes, and “walk-on” athletes. The former are prospective students identified by coaches as athletes who would significantly aid the “success of the teams.” NESCAC regulates the number of athletic factor athletes that members can admit – for Amherst, that number is currently 67.

Coded athletes are students who excel at academics but whose admission is aided by their athletic prowess. They “are admitted at a much higher rate than the general admission rate” for students with their academic scores.

Walk-on athletes are admitted without any recommendation from coaches and successfully try out for their teams, but generally drop the sport after their first year.

The report concludes that, for athletic factor athletes particularly, “the benefit at the time of admission […] is substantial.” Furthermore, it notes that the Athletics Department has an outsized impact on admissions, influencing the admissions of 27-33% of the students in the Classes of 2010-2016. Faculty members often told the report’s authors that they were concerned the “college pays an opportunity cost for having such a significant fraction of the student body engaged in a single extra-curricular activity.”

Aside from athlete academics and admissions, there is the key question of the health and safety of athletes. The report explores this issue in great detail, focusing particularly on the question of concussions.

The committee declined to voice an opinion on the Athletics Department’s head injury protocol due to a lack of expertise, and recommended that outside medical experts review the system instead. However, they also questioned “whether students who have received 3 concussions should ever be allowed to resume play” (emphasis in original). It is not clear how many times this event occurred.

Throughout the report, the authors stress that there is not yet a consensus or “comprehensive research on the nature and long-term consequences of concussions and sub-concussive injuries.” They recommend a panel of medical experts be convened to develop new practices. The three sports of greatest concern are football, lacrosse, and rugby – the latter being a club sport.

It struck many faculty members and other community members that an academic institution would sponsor sports with a high risk of concussions which, among other things, increase the likelihood of impairing mental faculties.

The Athlete/Non-Athlete Divide

Perhaps of greatest interest to the study body is the issue of the athlete/non-athlete divide, in terms of demographics, social status, and even politics. The report generally declines to admit the existence of this divide, instead preferring to refer to “perceptions” or “senses” of a divide. Nonetheless, there is substantial evidence presented to back up the notion that athletes and non-athletes tend to form two different communities on campus.

Key among this evidence is the racial and socioeconomic demographics that the report provides. While conventional knowledge would indicate that sports at colleges can be used to diversify the student population, the opposite occurs at Amherst. Where the student body as a whole is only 47% white, 73% of male athletes and 74% of female athletes are white. This means that only 35% of non-athletes are white – the establishment of different communities is apparent almost from the start.

Similarly, on men’s and women’s teams only 4% and 2% of athletes are first generation students, while 15% of the student body is. And only 6% and 2% are low income, as compared to 23% of the student body. There are also smaller but still significant gaps in terms of international students.

Excerpt from the Athletics Report.

The report notes that this lack of diversity is not uniform across all sports and genders. Tennis teams are more diverse than other teams, and the men’s soccer team “has a roster in which students of color and white students are equally represented.”

The report recommends that coaching staff adopt new strategies and be provided with extra incentives for recruiting a more diverse set of athletes. At the same time, however, it argues that “the coaching staff faces certain external challenges in recruiting diverse athletes” – namely, that athletics as an institution in the United States is inherently racially and socioeconomically homogenous. Athletics “‘advantage[s] the advantaged’, and make it harder for students from low income backgrounds to compete successfully for places on college rosters.”

Furthermore, the report goes on to note that the coaching staff also lacks diversity. This was a significant concern voiced by Professor Sen, who told AC Voice that “I think the coaching staff is something that doesn’t get as much attention as it might.”

Another issue worth considering, which intersects with the issue of demographics, is housing patterns. The report writes that “direct evidence for a separation between athletes and non-athletes can be found in the housing patterns of male athletes, who cluster in the ‘social dorms.’” In 2014, 85% and 80% of the residents in Pond and Stone dormitories were athletes.

Now that the socials are gone, however, the report appears to consider this issue roughly settled. “With room draw for 2016 just concluded, there is very encouraging evidence that students have indeed redistributed much more broadly throughout the campus.”

However, an AC Voice investigation found that there were numerous reports of students paying one another to switch rooms, particularly to conform to old housing patterns like those mentioned in the report. Two current football team members confirmed to AC Voice that both football players and non-athletes paid to switch rooms in and out of Hitchcock dormitory, where 28% of non-first year football players currently live.

When asked about this issue in December, Director of Residential Life Corry Colonna told AC Voice that “We recently learned of the alleged room swap situation and will investigate the allegations further. We were a little more permissive with regards to moves than in the past with the change in culture that would undoubtedly happen with the loss of Crossett, Coolidge, Pond, and Stone.  It is our intention that students select spaces during room draw and must stay in their selected spaces moving forward.”

Residential Life did not respond to a request for further comment by press time.

Give that sports teams, including the football team, tend to be largely racially homogenous, efforts to subvert the room draw system and group together could be seen as aping the patterns of housing segregation, wherein wealthy white athletes gather in some dorms while the rest of the student body lives elsewhere.

In order to address the “perceived” athlete/non-athlete divide, the Athletics Report issued a number of recommendations. It cautioned against further intensification of athletics and even noted the possibility of reducing the number of varsity athletes “by eliminating some sports.”

It also recommended that administrators and student leaders “ensure that student living environments […] provide for good and healthy mixing of students.” Increasing the diversity of teams and coaching staffs also ranked highly among their recommendations.

Nonetheless, the report’s refusal to acknowledge a social divide and recommend more forceful methods for addressing this divide is disappointing. The divide manifests itself in numerous ways, from microaggressions to more explicit and violent ways, such as the cross country team scandal.

Speaking about the athlete/non-athlete divide just after the Indicator story broke in December, Professor Sen said, “That’s incredibly disturbing to me. I shudder to imagine what the actual microtexture of interactions are, within the dormitories, within the classroom, in the library or social settings.”

The Elephant in the Room

In 2013, Professor Dumm wrote an article in the Amherst Student that soon went viral – at least in Amherst terms. The article was published in the midst of the College’s sexual assault scandal, and argued that there was an elephant in the room that the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct at Amherst was ignoring: the role of athletics in sexual assault.

There is far too much anecdotal evidence from Amherst students themselves that tells of an athletic culture that encourages misogny and homophobia and that discourages victims of sexual assault from reporting such acts for fear of ostracism by their peers. Why is it that, instead of being curious about this question, which is warranted not only by existing scholarly studies and by student anecdote alike, the committee instead criticized as “stereotyping” the very idea that one might be curious about this question?

Given the prominent role that team sports plays at Amherst, for a select committee assigned to address sexual violence to ignore athletics is very disappointing. The stated fear of stereotyping, or unfairly identifying a particular group for responsibility for sexual violence is a red herring. (This claim, by the way, is an implicit criticism of anyone who would even raise the issue, for they are seen as being prejudiced. Nothing is more detrimental to open discussion.) It is to turn away from the obvious need to have a critical examination of one of the most important extracurricular forces at our College, one that does so much to shape the character of so many of our students.

Neither the Diver Report nor the Athletics Report ventured into this territory. In her introduction to the report, President Martin writes that “for reasons of time, the committee was not asked to do a Title IX gender equity review.”

Martin told AC Voice that “The gender equity review I mentioned in my letter is underway. […] This gender equity review will not focus on sexual assault, but any information that emerges about sexual assault will be brought forward.”

The Athletics Report does briefly note that “athletes are not more prone to be cited for […] sexual assault,” though it provides no evidence to back up this assertion.

Professor Reyes told AC Voice that “One of the things that was disappointing to some faculty members about the [Athletics Report] is that it didn’t even go there. It didn’t try to ask that question because it’s seen as offensive to even ask it. But I think we do have reasons to be concerned.”

Research elsewhere indicates that athletics intensification can correlate with increased sexual assaults. A 1995 study found that male intercollegiate athletes committed 19% of all sexual violence cases across 30 Division 1 schools while representing on 3% of the population. A 2016 study confirmed that “male athletes had more traditional views of gender roles and had a higher affinity for rape myth acceptance than non-athletes” and that “student athletes engage in higher rates of sexual coercion than non-athletes.”

Furthermore, the way that athletic teams monopolize party life on campus, and the correlation between that and sexual assault, lead one to believe that this is a topic worth probing. Nonetheless, so long as the administration works to cover for the excesses of the College’s athletics program, that seems highly unlikely.

What Is to Be Done?

Despite the Athletics Report’s largely positive conclusions, a number of subsequent events indicate there are many problems still to be tackled. Chief among these was the cross country team scandal, which is indicative of a larger culture of toxic masculinity and implicit approval of sexual assault amongst men’s sports teams.

Even more recently, on March 25, student-athletes celebrating match victories entered Val while inebriated and launched a new, albeit much smaller, controversy. Some students have argued that the disruption was minimal, while others argued the opposite. From a number of reports, it appears that there may have been two separate incidents, an earlier one involving a women’s team and a later and greater disturbance with a men’s team. Claire Carpenter ’17 told AC Voice that she “didn’t experience any disruption beyond noticing that people were being louder than usual.”

Another student who wished to remain anonymous told AC Voice that “What stressed me out the most/struck me as a display of toxic masculinity was when they began pounding on the tables with their fists, which happened a couple times. It was really loud and anxiety-inducing to be honest.” These events have led to a new movement to “Decolonize Val” and break down some of the barriers that make up the athlete/non-athlete divide.

When asked about the issue, President Martin told AC Voice that “Student affairs is currently following up on the reports of inappropriate conduct at Valentine that you described. From what I know now, it seems there was behavior that does not meet community standards of decency and respect.”

On Saturday, reports circulated on social media of racist actions and words from members of the men’s basketball team at a party in Seligman Dormitory. When Campus Police were called, they gave party-goers a 30-minute grace period to shut the event down. The College did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Evidently, from demographics to housing, from sexual violence to concussions, there are a number of outstanding issues that the College must address. The recommendations in the Athletics Report are a start, but more is needed, and the College won’t even commit to enforcing all of those recommendations.

Rather, President Martin told AC Voice, the school has begun implementing some, such as room-draw amendments and more concussion research, but “For some of the other recommendations, we continue to work through their implications and are waiting for an ad hoc faculty committee and faculty governance groups to develop their responses.”

Beyond the report’s recommendations, there are a number of actions that should be taken. Most importantly, Amherst must immediately undertake a thorough review of the connections between athletics and sexual misconduct on campus.

It must also seek to dismantle the culture of toxic masculinity that pervades athletics at Amherst. This can be done through implementing more seminars and opportunities for discourse on this topic, through taking a more active role in chasing down instances of sexual violence, and through breaking up segregated social groups with a variety of measures.

That athletics has such an outsized impact on campus life and on admissions is untenable. Amherst’s primary focus should be education and enlightenment. There should not be 67 places in each class reserved for athletes who are predominantly white and male.

More important than the solutions proposed here is the need for a campus-wide discussion on this issue. We encourage the AAS to hold a town hall on athletics, and for students to form and moderate their own discourse on this problem. We at AC Voice don’t hold all the answers, and the only way to arrive at a fair solution is to work with athletes and non-athletes, faculty and coaches, and staff of all stripes.