Though Swarthmore prides itself on its academic pedigree, the college isn’t all about churning out class after class of intellectually inquisitive scholars. The college catalogue explicitly states the promotion of a well-rounded, valuable societal asset is best supplemented by a varied program of “sports and other extracurricular activities.” In other words, well-balanced individuals are what a liberal arts education aims to produce and participating in our varsity sports teams are one way students can successfully achieve this ideal. So then, if sports are specifically stated by the college as a means for students to meet this well-rounded model of excellence, why do our varsity student-athletes quit?
“I think athletics is really bad for this campus, I really do,” said John Lim ’16, who, after spending his first three collegiate years as the catcher of the baseball team, ultimately decided to quit the team this fall. “I think there’s a paradigm in this world that Swarthmore wants you to be very critical of. It encourages us to read scholarly works and critique them and say what’s wrong with them. But the relationship on the field between the player and the coach is very much whatever the coach says, you do. You don’t question it and it’s not good for people intellectually.”
Before starting college, Lim’s life was baseball. After joining a team of five year olds at the age of four, Lim continued playing baseball well into his high school career where baseball served as his main extra-curricular commitment. Upon entering Swarthmore as a member of the baseball team, Lim immediately became involved in even more extracurricular activities and is now a member of multiple groups on campus like RnM or Sixteen Feet, works for admissions, and has been an RA for the past two years. Although Lim has been able to successfully juggle an assortment of activities and become an active member of the Swarthmore community, he felt that this was unappreciated and even discouraged by his coaches.
“The coaches had this idea that I wasn’t dedicated [to baseball] because of all of the other things I was doing and I think that really colored how they viewed me. I remember when I told them I had just started RnM, they were upset,” Lim explained. “Sports should support what you’re doing on campus and be something that supports your learning here in order for you to become the type of person Swarthmore wants you to become, and it wasn’t.”
Sammy Greenwall ’18, a former forward on the men’s basketball team, had views similar to Lim’s about how competing on a varsity team began to compromise his involvement with academics and other activities on campus. Specifically, Greenwall faced the inability to choose the courses he wanted to take due to pressure from coaches about not selecting times of courses that interfered with practice.
“I thought the whole idea of coming to Swarthmore was to expand your academics and intellectual intake, and I thought that was totally getting compromised,” he said. “Generally speaking for all athletes, I think this makes them gear toward the side of taking easier classes that fit into their schedule because they have this athletic mentality — they don’t have to stress about classes as much but they prioritize the sport at a DIII level more than academics.”
Luke McCartin ’17, a former guard on the men’s basketball team who also quit this past fall, echoed Greenwall’s sentiments.
“That’s why I specifically wanted to play at a DIII school, because I always thought that we were going to be working hard on the court but that classes always came first,” he said. “But it felt like everyone needed to make way in their schedule for the practices.”
Olivia Cheng ’17, a former member of the women’s tennis team, also cited the dichotomy between the coaches’ and athletes’ perspectives as one of the main reasons why she left the team.
“I think there was a conflict of incentive,” Cheng said. “I think the coaches have to realize that it’s a DIII sport and that they’re not coaching people who get recruited to DI schools. These players got recruited to Swarthmore which means that [sports aren’t] the most important thing coming in. The players who go to Swat don’t focus on [sports] they focus on academics and that was a conflict in itself.”
The discrepancy between what players and coaches wanted from one another was echoed throughout the ex-athlete community. However, while they were present, active members of the team, the athletes felt uncomfortable raising their voices and bringing up issues they had with how their coaches ran practices and those who did, often saw no change.
“I know some of the other girls brought up things with our coach but there was never really change,” Cheng said.
Oscar Leong ’16, a former pitcher on the baseball team, also found his experiences with the coaches problematic. Specifically, he thought that the coach’s views differed from his own and others’ on the team.
“My coaches believe in certain philosophies that very few people in the country believe in and when we tried to voice our opinions about it, they basically said ‘You should just listen to us,’” he said. “I felt like I was forced to do something I just really didn’t believe in and that made it so much harder to stay on the team and want to play.”
Clara Obstfeld ’16, former member of the softball team, also faced problems with her coach and the athletic department as a whole. Last season, she experienced one of the softball team’s worst seasons yet as they were forced to forfeit their last three conference games due to a lack of players. Since the start of school year, five players had quit for various reasons, drastically limiting the team’s numbers. Despite attempts by the team’s coach to recruit new players — including some who had never played softball before in their lives —, the team concluded their conference season 1-11.
Although they were able to recruit new yet inexperienced additions to the team mid-season, many of the returning players were still forced to play positions that they didn’t know how to play. While playing third base during one of their games, a position that was not her own, Obstfeld broke her hand but continued to play in subsequent games despite her injury.
“I feel like our situation was handled really irresponsibly by both the athletic department and the coaching staff. We had people who were working through chronic injuries who needed time off but weren’t afforded the space to say that they needed that,” she said.
Despite the fact that winning seemed like an impossibility, the team continued to push their limits and attempted to finish the season, leaving Obstfeld upset and confused as to why their coach had waited for so long to stop.
“I really disagreed with a lot of our coach’s styles and approaches to people,” Obstfeld continued. “She really couldn’t wrap her mind around the academic rigor that some people had, she wasn’t responsible with how she treated injured players, and I think she had a very single minded attitude.”
Lim commented on the softball team’s performance last season which led him to question why their head coach had not been replaced and why major changes to the team had not been made. “The thing I want the most is for coaches to be held up to the same standard that our professors are, and I think there are teams that follow this model, like the men’s tennis team. They’re been nationally ranked for years and they put academics first.”
“As a coach, I try and make reasonable training schedules,” head coach of the men’s tennis team, Mike Mullan, said. “I try to remain flexible and understanding when students have class and labs or other projects of personal value that temporarily take them away from the courts,” Mullan explained.
However, he declined to think his coaching methods were different from his colleagues’. “I don’t think my approach is that different from coaches on campus and we coaches struggle with the issue of retention of players on our varsity teams.”
Director of Athletics Adam Hertz also believed that striking the balance between academics and athletics is a difficult one to make but that the current athletic department has successfully found this balance.
“I think that the students and the coaches and the faculty all do a really good job of balancing the commitments of the students and the priorities and the passions that allow students to engage in any number of activities throughout the year and do so successfully,” he said.
Lim, on the other hand, completely disagreed.
“We’ve consistently been seeing that athletics are not meeting the needs of students,” he said. “People are quitting teams because of it. I think the whole system needs to be reworked and I think that starts with the coaches. And if we’re not getting new coaches because the athletic director isn’t going to hire new coaches, then we need a new athletic director.”
“I think Swarthmore athletics is sustainable as long as we have coaches that understand the culture of Swarthmore,” he said. “If you have a coach who’s purely focused on the success of the team and not necessarily the success of the students, then it’s not sustainable.”
Although there are definite problems problems in how athletes, students and coaches interact, these ex-athletes remain optimistic that greater communication between these parties will spark the change that will restore athletics to what the mission statement of Swarthmore aims for it to be.
“I’m hopeful that things can change,” Lim concluded. “People that naturally wonder why things work or why we have to do things are the types of people that come to Swarthmore. We’re one of the most progressive, forward thinking schools in the country and it’s not good enough for us to just have an average athletic department that isn’t good for our students.”