Courtesy of Williams Sports Information and Andrée Heller '15
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. - On Saturday, April 11, approximately 60 student-athletes from 11 colleges in the northeast convened in historic Griffin Hall at Williams College to critically examine the role that athletics can and/or ought to play on college campuses. In response to growing concerns about collegiate athletics and their importance throughout the country, the conference aimed at opening lines of communication both within athletic departments and across other departments in order to bridge gaps and encourage collaboration. That is precisely what it did.
After brief opening statements by Andrée Heller, the organizer of the event and co-president of the Williams Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, professional speaker and veteran educator Dr. Michael Dunphy, engaged the delegates in a dynamic seminar. While imparting valuable tips on how to communicate most effectively, he also empowered participants to think positively, be less judgmental, and make a difference on a daily basis.
Later in the day, Dr. Dunphy led a breakout session in which larger campus problems – like combatting negative student-athlete stereotypes and enhancing communication between athletic and academic realms – were broken down into manageable smaller tasks, along with outlining the steps needed to complete those smaller tasks, that could be tackled when students returned to their campuses. Undergirding Dr. Dunphy's presentation was the mindset of constantly moving forward. Although moving forward is an oft-repeated phrase in society at large, he provided both a manageable framework delegates could use to achieve tangible results and an explanation of the mentality that would get them there.
The breakout session came directly after a sexual assault prevention workshop run by Williams' Director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, Meg Bossong. Bossong's presentation gave an overview of recent literature and research on sexual assault on college campuses, including outlining risk factors, discussing the role of alcohol in sexual violence, and dispelling some commonly held myths. Furthermore, she related the research to student-athletes directly. More specifically, by stressing the impact that team cultures have on members' behaviours, she made sexual assault prevention everyone's responsibility. This community-based approach is one that is emphasized throughout the Williams College administration, including President Adam Falk who was quoted in the "Standing Strong" article in the most recent Williams Magazine saying, "If we talk openly about this institutionally, then everyone understands that they have a role to play. It's up to everyone."
Psychotherapist Paul Gitterman further touched on cultivating a healthy team environment. He outlined the important interpersonal skills teammates should embody in order to facilitate difficult conversations with the ultimate goal of being able to confront issues of mental health. Gitterman also tied in discussions about how to constructively use anxiety to attain peak performance on and off the field. His suggestions dovetailed well with Dr. Dunphy's framework of how to maintain control of one's own emotions.
The question of how athletics plays a role in the social sphere of college campuses was only half of the day. The rest of the day focused on critically addressing the intersections and tensions between athletics and academics. While the majority of the conference was dedicated to mobilizing and empowering student-athletes to use their role on campus to affect positive change, there was also a necessity for a counter-argument to collegiate varsity athletics. Such a rebuke was delivered strongly by professor Alan White of Williams' philosophy department. Despite being an avid Ephs fan, White put forth a sobering critique of college athletics and their necessity on campuses across the United States. He questioned the time commitment, exclusivity, and "do anything to win" mentality, citing the concern that the development of a well-rounded college student was being put in jeopardy.
The concerns that professor White brought to the fore were an excellent reference point for the athletic director/faculty panel that followed his talk. Panelists included faculty athletics representatives Gage McWeeny from Williams and Dr. Timothy Jay from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts; head coach of the Vassar women's soccer team, Corey Holton; Assistant Director of Athletics at Tufts University, Branwen Smith-King, and the Acting Athletic Director at Williams, Bud Fisher.
Panelists were asked about both the positive contributions and the biggest concerns of athletics on campus. The discussion developed organically, taking questions from the audience as well, and touched on issues of socioeconomic division within sport as well as how athletics can function as a unifying force. The panel was successful in articulating concrete tensions and resolutions between athletics and academics at primarily NCAA Division III institutions.
The final speaker of the day was Karl Alexander, a Bates graduate and current volunteer at Grassroot Soccer. His talk brought the discussion of sport's transformative role onto the international field. Grassroot Soccer (GRS) is one of a handful of organizations that uses sport as a development tool. Karl explained how GRS uses soccer in communities throughout Africa to combat stigma and educate individuals about the dangers HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, for Division III student-athletes who are unlikely to have much direct involvement with sports after graduation, it enables them to continue doing something they love, while also making such a difference.
With the end of Karl's talk came the conclusion of the conference. Throughout the day the attendees had changed their perspective on athletics, focusing on it as a societal force both on college campuses and in the larger community. The participants came away with tangible ways to affect change at our schools, and the motivation to do so. Although there are conflicts that arise between athletics and other spheres of campus life, by opening lines of communication and being willing to engage with other groups, both athletics and the larger school community will be better off. As such, it was incredibly valuable to bring together student-athletes from so many different schools, which offered such diverse perspectives, and many left with new ideas to implement on their campuses. This conference was only a start, and as such, it is hoped that it was not the last of its kind. This symposium only began to ask important questions. There are many answers to be sought, and further inquiries to be made.