College Releases Report on State of Athletics Program
Issue   |   Wed, 02/08/2017 - 00:08

President Biddy Martin released a report on the status of athletics at the college in an email to the college community on Jan. 31. The special committee that assembled the report was co-chaired by college trustee and Princeton University president emerita Shirley Tilghman and Amherst biology professor Patrick Williamson and studied the place of athletics within the college’s social life, academic mission and admissions policies.

“The Place of Athletics at Amherst College,” commissioned in the fall of 2014 by Martin, is preceded by the 2002 Diver report, the college’s first in-depth study of athletics. The original report recommended that the college continue to review its athletic program every three to five years.

“[It] is important to step back periodically and take a careful look at our athletics programs to ensure their strength, integrity, and contribution to Amherst’s overall educational mission,” Martin wrote in the email. The report, she said, found the athletic program to be “strong, even exemplary” and that it “contributes positively to the life of the college.” However, she also said that the report found areas of concern within athletics and provides recommendations to the college to make changes in the future.

The committee was composed of Dean of Students Alex Vasquez, history professor Monica Ringer, mathematics and statistics professor Gregory Call, a trustee and former Amherst athlete, men’s soccer coach Justin Serpone and several students.

Diversity, Social Life and Housing

The committee found that though the college’s athletics program offers multiple positive benefits to the college and the students who participate in athletics, there were several areas of concern regarding the place of athletics in students’ social lives. The two main social issues addressed by the report are the perceived divide between athletes and non-athletes and the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity on varsity teams.

The committee expressed concern that the number of varsity athletes since 2002 has grown at a larger rate than that of the general student body. It cited the high percentage of varsity athletes within the student body — 35 to 38 percent — as an exacerbating factor on the divide between athletes and non-athletes. “Differences between groups of Amherst students, based on their participation in varsity sports, would have less impact on the student body as a whole if athletes were a smaller percentage of the student body,” the report stated.

Housing is another factor the committee cited as deepening the divide. The report found that athletes tend to live together, especially in the former social dorms, creating a general culture in which teams appear to dominate the college’s party scene. In the first semester of the 2014-15 school year, social dorms Pond and Stone consisted of 85 and 80 percent athletes, respectively. The committee did note that student housing patterns for the 2016-2017 school year showed a greater distribution of athletes across campus, likely due to the decommissioning of social dorms and the opening of the Greenway dorms.

The report also emphasized the notable difference in athlete and non-athlete demographics. Although the number of varsity athletes of color has nearly doubled since 2002, low-income and first-generation students are still “strikingly under-represented.” From 2011 to 2015, white students made up 73-74 percent of athletic teams, compared to 47 percent of all students.

“These striking overall disparities in the ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds of athletes and non-athletes, combined with the substantial fraction of students who are athletes, contribute in significant measure to the sense on campus that there is a ‘divide’ between the two student populations,” the report stated.

Athletics and Academics

In its analysis of athletics within academic study, the committee found that athletes are almost twice as likely to major in economics than non-athletes are — nearly 22 percent of athletes from the graduating classes of 2010 to 2014 were economics majors. Though this applies generally to all athletes, the report noted that the difference is most noticeable in men’s football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse. These four teams, jointly composing around 12 percent of the student body, make up around a third of economics, political science and history majors from 2011 to 2016.

The report also found that athletes are much less likely to write a senior thesis than are non-athletes. While 49 percent of non-athletes write a thesis, only 16 percent of athletes do.

Varsity athletes postgraduate outcomes look different than those of non-athlete alumni. From 1938 to 2008, a higher proportion of athletes pursued careers in business than did non-athletes. Athletes were half as likely as non-athletes to pursue art careers. Overall, however, the report found that “participation in athletics does not compromise the ability of athletes to excel academically at Amherst.”

Influence on Admissions

Every incoming class totals 125 to 150 athletes. Varsity athletes are classified in three different ways during the admissions process. “Athletic factor” athletes are identified as potentially providing “a significant impact on the success of the teams.” These applicants’ athletic status provides “substantial” benefit in the application process. Each year, 67 of the incoming class of approximately 450 students are “athletic factor” athletes. “Coded” athletes, academically high-achieving and skilled athletes, make up 60 to 90 students in every incoming class.

The remaining varsity athletes are classified as “priorities for admissions to the college for other reasons.” This includes first-generation, legacy and low socioeconomic background students, students of color and students with extremely high academic qualifications.

Safety and Well-Being of Athletes

The influence of the increased professionalization of college sports in the U.S. was one of the committee’s and Martin’s top concerns. The report said that the college is shielded from the most negative impacts of this trend because of NESCAC regulations which ban athletic scholarships and restrict recruitment activities and playing season lengths. It still noted certain potentially harmful practices that have increased since 2002.

The volume of post-season games, travel and game time and off-season practices have all increased since the original Diver report. Although the committee attributes much of this to athletic teams’ success in reaching NESCAC and NCAA championships, they caution that “[with] that success comes greater time commitment from students, and the possibility of more frequent conflicts with classes and other academic activities.”

Since the 2002 report, a “growing and alarming body of scientific evidence” has shown the damaging and potentially life-threatening effects of concussions on athletes, especially on young people such as college students.

Currently the college uses the head injury protocol guidelines that all other NESCAC schools follow, which allow athletes who have received three concussions to participate again once all symptoms have disappeared. The report, however, questioned if they should ever be allowed to play again. The committee also expressed concern about the rising number of concussions and sub-concussions in men’s and women’s club rugby, especially because club sports do not always have access to the same sports medicine staff and facilities as do varsity teams.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The report stressed that there was a clear “opportunity cost” to the college when a large proportion of the student body is participating in a single extracurricular. The committee strongly recommended no further increase in the number of varsity athletes in the future, even if the general student body continues to grow in size. It also recommended further research into roster sizes to see if any unnecessarily large teams can be reduced.

Another recommendation, which the committee acknowledged as controversial, is to reduce the number of student athletes by eliminating teams that are “chronically unsuccessful,” have a high rate of injuries or “contribute very little to engendering interest in or loyalty to the college.”

The report’s conclusion reemphasized the importance of student living spaces in creating a well-balanced mix of athletes and non-athletes. Increasing the diversity of athletes and coaching staff should be a priority of the athletics and admissions departments, stated the report.

A panel should be formed to evaluate concussions in athletics, the committee also recommended. In the meantime, club sports teams should have the same safety standards as those of varsity teams. Rugby, in particular, should receive more resources for head injuries or be discontinued.

Kiana Herold ’17 and Sophie Murguia ’17 contributed reporting for this article.