Letter to the Editor: In Support of Amherst Athletics

Faculty Athletic Representative Leah Schmalzbauer and Faculty Liason to Men’s Soccer Christopher Durr defend the value of athletics and the work that the department has done to achieve diversity goals in a letter to the editor.

We write in response to the recent faculty meeting motion/vote and Amherst Student article about athletics at Amherst College.

Since we joined the Amherst College faculty in 2014 and 2018, respectively, we’ve had the great fortune of working with numerous colleagues who care deeply about teaching and mentoring an exceptionally diverse student body – both in and out of the classroom. It’s the reason we came to Amherst. We love that the college concerns itself with the whole person. Here, students are not automatons who attend class, write papers, take exams, and repeat. They are scholars, but they are also musicians, activists, artists, and yes — athletes. This is at the core of who we are as a college, the bedrock of the liberal arts.

Our student-athletes deserve to be at Amherst. All of our students deserve to be at Amherst. Period. No Supreme Court decision or faculty meeting debate can change that. You did not get here by mistake. You did not get here for one reason or resume line alone. You got here because you’re you — with all of your talents, dreams, life experiences, and flaws. So, if you’re a student who’s wondering if you belong in this community, you do.

Our colleagues in Athletics — coaches, training staff, and administrators — are dedicated to the mission of the college, which includes fostering a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community. They enact this commitment while performing incredibly difficult and dynamic jobs. Ultimately, faculty and coaches have the same fundamental goal: to teach and mentor our students so they can grow into their best selves. We may use different techniques in different settings, but the desired result is the same. We want what is best for our students as scholars, as athletes and, most importantly, as people.

In 2016, the Diver II report was published, telling Athletics in no uncertain terms that they had to do better in terms of diversifying their rosters and raising the academic bar for recruits. Our partners in Athletics responded in force because they care about the mission of the college. They have built an athletics program of which we are proud — one that epitomizes what it means to be a student-athlete, one that is competitive nationally, and one that has met the challenge that was set down.

Despite being limited by comparatively small recruiting budgets and rigid NESCAC recruiting guidelines, our coaches have created the most racially diverse teams that meet the highest academic standards in the NESCAC — by far. This achievement did not come easy, as a deeply rooted system of inequality frames sports in the United States. “Pay to play” is real — it structures the pipeline into athletics, privileging wealth and whiteness, just as it structures the pipeline into music, theater, private schooling, SAT prep, etc. Athletics is up against a structural behemoth. We all are. What makes it more complicated is that we’re all part of this system. As we see it, we have a choice. We can ignore our complicity in the system, pretending that we can selectively disengage from it, or we can use our position of privilege and lead within it. We support the latter.

There is great work underway in Athletics to push back on the system. If you want to be inspired, reach out to soccer coaches Jen Hughes or Justin Serpone and ask them about their relationship with the Dream Foundation. Talk to squash coach Busani Xaba about his longtime leadership within the Urban City Squash program and the Squash Education Alliance, or lacrosse coaches Sean Woods and Brooke O’Brien about their deepening relationship with the Springfield Ballers and Harlem Lacrosse. These organizations exist to support low-income youth with high academic and athletic aspirations.

There’s more. As we write, Athletics is working with the Center for Community Engagement to strengthen Athletics’ ties to the local community. Youth in Amherst public schools already look up to our athletes. The men’s hockey team, for example, has a strong and sustained relationship with the Boys and Girls Club in Amherst, spending time with them weekly. We encourage you to go to a women’s soccer game and watch the young girls cheering on the sidelines, aspiring to someday be like the powerful, skilled women on the field. Sports inspire. At their best, they also unite. If you attended the NCAA National Women’s Ice Hockey Championships that Amherst hosted last spring, you saw the power that sports has to bring our college and local community together. It was incredible. Sports resonate outside of elite spaces in important and unique ways. Athletics is contributing to a stronger and more equitable Amherst.

There is more work to be done. Our partners in Athletics know it, they are doing it, and, from what we can tell, they are doing it better than any other athletics department in the country. We are proud to be on their team.

Leah Schmalzbauer is the Karen and Brian Conway ’80, P’18 Presidential Teaching Professor of American Studies and Sociology, Faculty Athletics Representative, and Chair of American Studies. Christopher Durr is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and the Faculty Liaison to Men’s Soccer.