Behind the Board: Athletic Recruitment Has Got to Go

It’s time to ditch athletic recruiting as we know it. 

I’m not writing to encourage the end of Amherst College sports or varsity athletics but rather to advocate for a reform of the way that teams are built. 

Two weeks ago, The Student’s Editorial Board resurfaced a similar call to end athletic recruiting that ran as an op-ed in The Williams Record in November 2019, provoking a discussion on the question of recruitment. Over the course of this discussion, we realized that, as an editorial board, we disagreed on this issue more than we found common ground. 

Our conversation about athletic recruitment soon dovetailed into one about the college’s admissions process, in general. On that topic, we found that we did agree on the need for sweeping change in admissions and that coronavirus presents a profound opportunity to recalibrate that system. We stumbled into one of the most productive editorial board meetings we’ve ever had with this team of editors and gave way to a new series — Behind the Board — where we’ll take a look into Amherst’s admissions processes and propose ways to reform them. This week and next, you’ll hear the perspectives of individual editors on the role of athletic recruiting, including all of the fruitful disagreements we encountered at our editorial meeting. 

Reaching the level of play where colleges and recruiters start paying attention requires a massive investment of cash that most students don’t have access to. The New York Times reported that the cost of playing youth sports averages anywhere between $3,000 and $20,000. Even the lowest end of that vast scale is a substantial sum that few can afford. 

I applaud Amherst’s efforts to broaden its athletic recruitment beyond the top teams and most elite (read: expensive) clubs. It’s had a measurable impact on making our teams less overwhelmingly white, but the college still struggles to build teams that are socioeconomically diverse. 

There are so many injustices in the world, so many advantages that I’ve had because my parents are wealthy and white and Amherst alumni, which opened doors for me to get into this college. We will never be able to root out every mechanism of privilege advantage that wealthy students have. But with athletic recruiting, there’s one staring us in the face that we can easily remove without fundamentally rupturing the college. Why don’t we? 

I’m all for building a student body whose interests are wide-ranging and diverse; I wouldn’t want to go to a college where everyone’s noses were always buried in books and their intellectual curiosities stopped and started at the classroom walls. But recruiting athletes is not the only way to support that diversity of interests; Amherst admissions has proven its savvy in accepting students with well-rounded, unusual interests and backgrounds that lead them here. Sports excellence should be treated the way admissions treat a proficiency in violin, a passion for political activism or preeminence at Model U.N. conferences. I believe that reserving admissions spots for athletes is the college’s way of saying it values having a full soccer team more than a full orchestra or a thriving political scene, and that simply should not be the case. 

We’ve seen that treating student’s passions as only a part of their applications works. Ending athletic recruiting will not suddenly produce a student body who only cares about its syllabi. 

Take my roommate, for example; she is an extremely talented dancer in Dance and Step at Amherst College (DASAC). The hours she clocks on rehearsals, choreographing and preserving the social bond of the group are comparable to that of an athlete. Plus, DASAC has no staff support the way that teams have coaches, assistant coaches, program directors, LEADS coordinators, department assistants (and the list goes on) to build out all the logistics of practicing and payment for them. But, going to the DASAC show every semester is a highlight, one that enhances my Amherst experience, forces me to turn away from the computer and celebrate people I don’t know (with the exception of my friend) for a skill that I will never have. It’s an experience comparable to going to the homecoming football game every fall, but, unlike football, it’s an event and excellence preserved wholly out of student efforts, with no boost from a recruitment structure. 

I love going to the DASAC show; I love taking a Friday evening to sit in LeFrak and watch my other friend play volleyball on the varsity team; and I even love going down to the fields to cheer on my friends who play on the club rugby team. Amherst would not be Amherst to me without any of these experiences. 

What is even more meaningful to me, though, is the way that each of these friendships has opened a window into a world that I would never have accessed otherwise. Because of my friends’ non-academic interests, I’ve been exposed to communities of people I otherwise wouldn’t know and intellectual understandings shaped by the way that an athlete sees a field or a dancer hears a rhythm in music. Recruiting doesn’t make that happen, holistic admissions does. 

Even in my own life, I have seen the value of this. I’d like to think that a campus newspaper similarly enriches a campus community and binds it beyond the classroom in a way analogous to the way sports do. We don’t recruit high school seniors from the nation’s top scholastic newspapers or comb through articles to find the pluckiest writers. The admissions team reads experience on a student paper as just another facet that makes a student worthy of acceptance. Without a full staff of editors and writers, though, the newspaper would crumble, much like an incomplete sports team would, and thus cut off students, faculty, staff and alumni from an essential service. 

But, the fact that we don’t recruit is our virtue, not our vice. It means that we can build out our staff of writers and editors with a range of perspectives, experiences and ideas that is not artificially controlled for. That’s what I believe makes a truly thriving community, whether on the small scale, as within our small newspaper team, or on the large, as within the entire college. We owe it to ourselves to let athletics grow organically in the same way that the rest of the college’s cultural markers have. We will all be better for it. 

The Behind the Board series spotlights the perspectives of individual members of the Editorial Board. As such, this article does not represent the entire Editorial Board.