Student-athletes and athletics administrators for the most part express satisfaction and pride regarding inclusiveness and diversity in varsity athletics. Between the Student Athletic Advisory Committee and the Athletics staff, students, coaches and administrators often work together to bring problems to light and foster more welcoming environments in varsity athletics.
At Swarthmore, said Assistant Athletics Director and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Nnenna Akotaobi, the athletic staff and coaches work closely with student-athletes to create an athletics program that supports diversity and inclusion. Akotaobi described ongoing focus groups with student-athletes from underrepresented backgrounds where they discuss issues of identity and inclusion on Swarthmore sports teams.
“[We] check in on their experiences,” she said. “‘How are you experiencing athletics? Are you guys having positive experiences? How can we better support your experiences as student-athletes?’ We get a lot of honest feedback from students in those sessions, and that drives how we support their experiences here.”
Programs that have come out of these conversations range from the “Queer Safe Space” magnets that adorn the doors of athletics staff offices to bringing hip-hop activist Jeff Sheng to campus for his exhibit about race and America last fall.
Akotaobi pointed to several student-involved efforts in place that help to address issues of diversity in Swarthmore athletics. Student-athlete representatives from every team make up SAAC, which oversees its own Diversity and Inclusion committee. In the fall of 2013, SAAC launched a diversity and inclusion campaign called RiseUp, which began at that year’s pep rally.
According to current SAAC President Emma Madarasz ’15, the RiseUp campaign was organized as a response to the events of the spring of 2013 and was designed to show that athletes support and are a part of diversity efforts and community work on campus.
Additionally, the Athletics Department and SAAC published a “You Can Play” video to their website, part of a campaign to promote inclusion of LGBTQ student-athletes in college. Pushing against a national sports culture that excludes queer lives and experiences, the “You Can Play” video campaign seeks to normalize the idea that “if you can play, you can play” — regardless of sexuality. More recently, Akotaobi and SAAC have also worked to begin a new Queer Athletes and Allies student group, which has its first meeting this week.
Christen Boas-Hayes ’16, a queer student and member of the softball team, said that she had attended a planning meeting for Queer Athletes and Allies and was excited for its future.
“It seems like a really awesome opportunity that should have been there in the first place,” she said.
Additionally, the athletics staff facilitate a confidential, but not anonymous, process for receiving and addressing student complaints about coaches and staff. At the end of each season, student-athletes can fill out a survey about their athletic experience, similar to a course evaluation. These surveys are used to bring up issues confidentially with coaches and staff, and to track progress from year to year.
Athletic Director Adam Hertz emphasized that while awareness among Swarthmore coaches and athletics staff regarding issues of diversity and inclusion is not perfect, the department works well towards honest and open communication and improvement.
“We give [coaches] a lot of credit for having these conversations, because sometimes these conversations aren’t easy ones to have,” he said. “[The conversations] are not comfortable. I give them a lot of credit for speaking openly and wanting to better understand and provide opportunity for the students.”
Akotaobi agreed with Hertz, describing the consistent effort she sees in Athletics staff frequently engaging with issues of diversity inclusivity at staff meetings. She thinks it’s especially important for coaches to have the opportunity to have honest conversations among themselves about their own struggles.
“I think our coaches do a really good job of actively engaging in issues of diversity and inclusive excellence … Though our head coaches aren’t representative in terms of ethnic diversity, these are issues they are very passionate about,” she said.
All of the varsity athletics coaches are white, and Akotaobi is the only person of color in the Athletics Department administration. Akotatobi mentioned, however, that it is more difficult for Division III programs to draw diversity in coaching and athletics staff than their Division I counterparts.
Boas-Hayes described a very positive experience she had with a coach when she was first coming out. One of Boas-Hayes’ assistant coaches shared with Boas-Hayes her own experience coming out when she was younger.
“She was just like, ‘It’s going to be fine. You know what, this is your first year out and yeah, it sucks, but it’s going to be fine.’ Having someone who you respect so much be so blunt and put it in such simple terms like, ‘Look at me, I’m great, you’re great. It’s going to be fine,’ was really nice,” she said.
Boas-Hayes described feeling comfortable and welcomed as a queer student with her head coach, as well.
“It’s been a joke that she [the head coach] didn’t know I was queer until my girlfriend joined the team,” said Boas-Hayes. “When my coach was saying we really needed players I asked, ‘Can we bring girlfriends onto the team?’ And she was like, ‘We’ve never had a policy on it before! Obviously there have been girlfriends on the team before!’ … It was very friendly and open. She didn’t even bat an eye when I told her. I was impressed. It was very cool of her and I’ve had nothing but respect from my coach about it.”
Hertz stressed the importance of work by the NCAA as a resource for issues of diversity and inclusion on campus, pointing to the millions of dollars in funding that the organization distributes to colleges to promote diversity. He noted that Akaotobi’s position itself is partially paid for by an NCAA grant.
Outside of the student-coach relationship, issues of diversity and inclusion also play an important role in sustaining healthy and productive relationships among teammates. A’Dorian Murray-Thomas ‘16 described her experience as a Black member of the women’s lacrosse team as a very positive one overall. Though race consciousness was never absent from her experience, she felt welcomed nonetheless.
“You are constantly aware of your race, and your blackness. But it’s never to a point where you feel isolated or ostracized,” she said. “I think when you’re surrounded by a group of people who don’t think that you don’t deserve to be there because of who you are, it balances that out.”
Murray-Thomas thinks race did inform her self-perceived social role on the team at first, which affected her experience getting used to the team as a freshman. “At least when I first came to Swat, I felt like it mattered a little more that I was Black on the team because I felt like I had to find some sort of niche. I had to fit some bubble or some category,” she explained. “For me initially it was like, ‘All right, you’ve got to be the funny one.’ So for the first year or two, I was trying to be the funny one.”
By now, Murray-Thomas feels that she has moved away from what she described as putting as a mask, but has had to reflect on what behavior was related to race, and what was based in her personality.
“I’m at a point where I feel more comfortable in my skin and I don’t feel like I have to do that,” she said. “But I also recognize that part of my contribution to the team is being a person of good spirits and being a good team sport. I’m able to bring out a lot of good energy. That’s not necessarily me trying to compensate, that’s also part of my personality.”
Murray-Thomas noted that feeling this pressure to play a particular, race-related “role” was something she experienced on her team more than other white spaces because athletics have particularly intense requirements in terms of participation.
“Your main white space on campus, for me, is class. Typically, you’re the only Black person in the room, but you’re there for a couple of hours and then you’re out and you can do what you want. You can go sit at the ‘Black table’ or you can go to the BCC and return to your enclave,” said Murray-Thomas. “So I felt less pressure to put on some sort of mask or compensate in any way in other white spaces. If you do feel like you have to compensate, it’s intensified when you play a sport.” Though being an athlete has been a rewarding experience for Murray-Thomas, the close-knit environment can magnify self-awareness of race.
Christopher Bourne ‘17, a Black student and member of the men’s basketball team, expressed a similarly positive experience. For Bourne, the men’s basketball team is a place where he feels as comfortable, and often more comfortable, about race than elsewhere on campus.
“My teammates know me and I know them. I don’t have to worry about how they would think of me because of how I look,” he said. “Even on campus, people can think things about you because of the way you look, and they can be positive and negative. I don’t think it is very negative on campus, but I think it is very sensitive on campus. On the basketball team we don’t need to worry about it because we know each other and we’re comfortable.”
But Bourne has also experienced negative attention from the fans at other schools during games. “When we go to away games, fans [of the other team] have said things about me being the only Black person on the team,” reported Bourne. “But we’ll make jokes about that because we’re not very touchy-feely at all.”
Boas-Hayes has also witnessed harassment at away games. Though she hasn’t personally experienced it, she has seen her teammates receive homophobic insults from fans at away games. The way issues of race and identity handled within teams varies significantly between sports. Boas-Hayes described feeling comfortable on the softball team in particular not just because her teammates are supportive but specifically because the team has many queer-identifying members.
“We have a little queer cohort on the softball team,” she said. “[In terms of] going out to Pub Nite and stuff it’s really nice to go out with people who know how to chat with you about queer things.”
Boas-Hayes recognized, though, that the attitude on the women’s softball team was not representative of every sport, and said she knew of queer students on other sports teams who may feel more isolated. Boas-Hayes thinks that by virtue of talking to current student-athletes, the experiences of students that have faced discrimination and left their teams could be neglected.
Boas-Hayes also noted that, especially on other teams, a lot of queer student-athletes desired more active support in place of passive acceptance.
“Mostly it’s just people wish they had more open support on other teams, is what I’ve heard,” she said. “[People should be] actively addressing it instead of leaving it as something on the side.”
Blake Oetting ’18, a white student on the men’s tennis team, described the way he sees the culture of his team being informed by its makeup.
“Tennis specifically is dominated by large white and Asian populations, which produces team narratives limited by a relatively narrow perspective,” he said. “I definitely think Swarthmore could be more involved in making athletics a more racially diverse experience.”
Hertz spoke to the importance and challenges of incorporating diversity initiatives into recruiting efforts.
“We talk about inclusion and balance at the forefront of our philosophy of recruiting.” he said. “We work pretty regularly with admissions on strategizing on how to best identify and matriculate students of color to provide that balance. But there are inherent challenges, some of the geographic, and some socioeconomic.”