Column Stirs Controversy

There is a certain risk that comes with trying to stir up controversy at a place full of highly opinionated people. When Paul Vernon published a column arguing for cutting funding for athletics, de-emphasizing recruitment, and eliminating the physical education requirement, he experienced the repercussions of those hazards.“There are so many things wrong with this,” wrote one anonymous commenter. “You, sir, just attacked 40 percent of your school. That is unintelligent,” commented another. One particularly peeved person stated, “You are putting words in the mouths of every student-athlete on campus.”But as the outpouring of anger, plethora of debate, and seventy-plus comments show, Vernon’s column has sparked a tremendous amount of argument, both about athletics at Swarthmore, about the nature of the article, and what the appropriate response is when someone writes something that is not necessarily popular.

“He had several points that weren’t terrible, but that were very badly argued in terms of incendiary nature,” said David Hill ’13, who was one of the few commenters on Vernon’s column that opted not to be anonymous, and felt the piece unnecessarily targeted athletes. “It really casts dispersions upon athletes. A lot of them are my friends, brothers, or other associates, and they worked really hard to be here.”

Many students, like Hill, felt that the column was offensive. In particular, people were irked by the argument that explicitly recruiting athletes, but not students with other extracurricular talents, was problematic. Some felt that Vernon was insinuating that athletes are less worthy of being at Swarthmore. “The fact that he implied that admissions lowered their standards for me to get in really irked me,” said Billy Lennon ’16, who was recruited to play tennis. “I was recruited,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have been recruited if I didn’t have the grades.”

Jim Bock, the dean of admissions, made similar statements about the admission of athletes. “What all of our students share is a love of learning and a great interest in the life of the mind and the value of a superlative liberal arts educational both inside of and outside of the classroom.”

Bock said that while athletics was certainly considered, it was only one of a myriad of extracurricular activities that they explored. “Coaches focus on recruitment and finding talent and encouraging appropriate applications to the College, but admissions deans also forward names to appropriate coaches when we meet students on the road at college fairs, at high school visits, and during interviews at the College,” he said. “We do the same for music, engineering, classics, etc. There are no defined ‘quotas’ for each individual sport, but each year we do admit a percentage of students whose athletic talent may have tipped the scales in terms of admission as for any special talent or need.”

Bock did say that the athletics department and admissions office had a close relationship. “There is a very strong history and collaborative relationship between the admissions and athletics offices, and I communicate on a regular basis with Adam Hertz, Director of Athletics, and with coaches as needed,” he said.

Still, according to Bock, the aim is to construct a campus with a diverse array of interests he said, and athletics are just one example of that. “All students are admitted for a reason beyond her or his academic qualifications, and we know each brings a wealth of talent, potential, and intellectual depth to each class.”

In addition, people disagreed with his argument that because sports are competitive and cutthroat, they are hence perhaps out of sync with the rest of the atmosphere at Swarthmore. “I think that athletics, for those who choose to participate in them, fits very much into the Swarthmore experience,” said Victor Brady ’13, the co-president of student council and a student coach for three teams. Hill agreed, calling the notion that competition in athletics could cause athletes to develop values that were out of sync “frankly insane.”

“You don’t bond or work with people in a more close fashion than on a sports team,” said Hill. “You can’t play basketball, or soccer, or any other team sport without teammates. Even in individual sports, you still have people you train with.”

Not everyone was offended. Brady, for example, felt that the points Vernon brought up were important. “I think these are valuable concerns, and ones that are often expressed not just in this community,” he said. “I think it’s very valuable to have constructive dialogue.”

But while some agreed that the discussion was important, they found Vernon’s piece explicitly not productive. “His arguments were never going to be constructive,” Hill said.

Vernon, for his part, feels his points were somewhat misinterpreted, and emphasized that it was never his intention to offend people. “It seemed like my words had been misconstrued slightly,” said Vernon. “I didn’t anticipate that kind of reaction.”

Still, Vernon says he can understand why some people are angry, and that while he may not have anticipated the uproar, he is not shocked. “Given that I criticized something that people have strong feelings about, I’m not surprised by the reaction it caused,” he said. Vernon hopes the takeaway point, however, is not anger, but contemplation. “I hope it caused people, even those who reacted that way, to think further about it and realize that while athletics does have many positive elements to it, there may be a couple things that may be problematic,” he said.

Above all, Vernon is sticking to his points. While he does not believe that athletics “Make you less smart or different than the other people at Swarthmore,” or negatively influence one’s values, he felt aspects of it could. “It’s an activity that takes up a lot of your time. Many of the relationships that you form as an athlete are with other athletes. And the characteristics of athletics may foster slightly different values and attributes than Swarthmore says it’s mission is,” Vernon said.

While the college may, by and large, have expressed disagreement with Vernon, there has been a wide range in how that disagreement has been expressed. Hill says he has tried to be respectful. “I think if you disagree with someone you should be able to do so openly and constructively,” he said, noting that that is why he chose not to remain anonymous in his post. “I put my name on it because I wanted to put forth my opinion. But I didn’t want to hide behind the Internet to do petty nonsense,” he added.

But not everyone tried to stay civil. Some posters accused him of being on drugs, or trolling. And one went as far as to ask what cubby his toothbrush was in.

However, the reaction to such targeting has been, at least openly, negative. “Just because I or anyone else disagrees with the article and the point of view, doesn’t mean that we should take any issue or make personal comments towards the author,” said Brady.

Hill agreed. “If you believe they are being insulting or offensive, to sink to their level, or even below it, is absolutely egregious for Swarthmore,” he said.

Aaron Dockser ‘13, the Daily Gazette opinions editor who published the column, went further. “The vast majority of responses were emotionally misguided, assuming an argument which Paul never put forward in the article, an argument against the value of student athletes or questioning their worthiness to be Swarthmore students,” he said. “Never did Paul come close to making such claims.”

Vernon, for his part, seems unfazed by the criticism. “It doesn’t really bother me,” he said, noting that the fact it was online and anonymous meant he “didn’t try and take it too personally.” And Dockser pointed out that it was far from the first Daily Gazette column to inspire controversy.

Still, many have wondered what inspired Vernon to write such a column. Vernon says he got the idea when wondering about why the school has a P.E. requirement, and why it is the only extracurricular required. “So I decided to explore the issue further in the article,” he said. It was then after a discussion with his editors, in particular his opinions editor, that he decided to continue and discuss athletics as a whole, a decision that Hill thinks the editors should have taken more carefully, especially considering Vernon’s freshman status. “If anyone was offended, I don’t particularly blame him. I blame the editor,” he said. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have published it, but I’m saying that someone should have read that, and as a veteran of Swarthmore, realized ‘oh, this will offend people.’ If that wasn’t his intent, there should have been some sort of stopgap,” he added.

But Dockser said that controversy was considered, and embraced. “Did I anticipate the ‘controversy?’ Did I warn Paul? Of course,” he said, before rhetorically asking “Since when was the possibility of disagreement a disincentive to publish an opinion in the opinion’s section of a college newspaper?”

Regardless of one’s take, the column has certainly inspired controversy. And according to Dockser, that is not necessarily bad. “I thought many people would read the article and be intrigued or passionately affected,” he said. “These are certainly desired responses to an opinions piece.”

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