A response to “Should club athletes be athlete of the week?”

This piece is in response to an article published in the Phoenix last week regarding club and varsity sports and their eligibility for Athlete of the Week.

I’ll admit I’m biased. When I read the article last week about whether club sport athletes should be considered for athlete of the week, I immediately thought ‘of course they should, why would anyone think otherwise?’ Like the author of that piece, I am an athlete. Last year, as a freshman, I swam with the varsity swim team. But as soon as that season was over, I joined the club rugby team.

As discussed in that article, there are standards and policies set for club sports teams to ensure that they are performing appropriately and effectively. While they aren’t held to NCAA standards because they are not NCAA sports, they are held to numerous Swarthmore College rules, as well as rules set forth by their respective sports leagues (the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union and the Philadelphia Area Disc Alliance are just two of several to which college club sports belong).

But beyond the rules and regulations, what separates club and varsity sports? Why, as Tess Wei ’17 of the varsity cross country and track teams points out, are there connotations to club versus varsity sports? What prompts the stigma against different types of athletes? The number one argument I hear is commitment. People say that varsity sports require significantly more commitment than club sports. They practice more, have more rigorous attendance requirements, and overall require a larger input of time and effort than club sports. Speaking from experience, the swim team practiced a minimum of 16 hours per week, and many other sports hold similarly rigorous schedules. Wei reports that for varsity cross country and track, most athletes practice six days a week, and then there is an optional practice on the seventh day. She states that it is a different type of obligation than club sports, and the time commitment is huge. Sophie Basalone ’18 played on the varsity soccer team through their sophomore fall and then joined the club rugby team.

“it was very demanding of my time. It felt that it either had to be the only thing I do… or I drop soccer and I can participate in multiple other things. [It is a] very different demand with a club sport. That’s not to say they aren’t as serious, but I could listen to my body more. Whereas when I was on varsity soccer, it felt very much that the team comes first. I had to push my body to the limit,” they said.

Most club sports have three to four practices each week (three is required to maintain standing as an official club sport). While club athletes often hold unofficial practices on other days, their attendance at those practices is not scrutinized like the attendance of varsity athletes. Daniel Belkin ’19, who practiced with the club frisbee team for a week during the varsity track team’s offseason said, “different people have different levels of commitment.”  He noted that athletes on both teams have varying levels of attendance and commitment to their respective sports.

“It’s totally based on, as an individual, what you want from playing a sport in college, and what you can do, what you can give,” Basalone said. 

Several people I interviewed brought up the fact that some club sports have varsity counterparts, while others do not. Soccer is both a club sport and varsity sport. In this way, it may be easier to compare the two by practice requirements, preseason training, competition schedule, and other metrics.

“There is no varsity frisbee and no varsity rugby, so you don’t know” said Wei, who also played on the varsity soccer team during her freshman year. Joaquin Delmar Perez ’18 noted that it is hard to tell the difference among sports that have varsity and club versions in some respects.

“They both love the sport as much… club athletes will watch as many games as varsity athletes and scream about the same goal[s],” said Perez, who has played on both the varsity and club soccer teams.

Beyond the time commitment of practices, the alcohol policy for varsity sports is also more stringent. Varsity athletes have a 48 hour dry rule, and many athletes commit to being dry during significant portions of the season, especially in preparation for large events like conferences.

“Most varsity athletes can’t do Pub Night,” Wei noted, because it falls within the 48 hour rule for competitions. Club sports, although they often self-enforce a 24 hour rule, are not subject to such stringent standards.

Another argument I hear a lot is that varsity sports are more competitive than club sports. Delmar Perez agrees that many varsity sports have to travel significantly further than club sports. He cites an example of the softball team, who left for a game at 12:00pm and did not return until after midnight – and this was on a weekday, so they had to plan around missing classes, labs, and study sessions. Teams of both types have multi-day events. The fencing team regularly has two-day events in which competitors will have several events each day. Bilige Yang ’19 discussed their competitions around the country. The team has competed against teams from various locations in the U.S. and has traveled as far away as Illinois and Georgia. Yang especially noted the Swarthmore fencing team beating the University of Texas at Austin. In some competitions, the fencing team competes against varsity teams. In these situations, Yang describes a sense of pride in his team and in representing Swarthmore successfully.

Other club sports compete against varsity teams from other schools. As varsity badminton’s May Htet ’19 explained, the men’s club badminton team competes in the same tournaments as the women because they play mixed doubles. In fact, the ranking of the women’s team depends on the men’s success. “We need them to win their single and double games to win the tournament because [the final score] comes down to how many overall games are won by each school.” Speaking toward the differences between the two teams, she says,  “They train as hard as we do. All our practice schedules, training schedules, everything is the same. I don’t know why it’s a club sport.”

Last week’s article brought up the argument that what really sets club and varsity sports apart is the recruiting process. Yes, varsity athletes may be recruited, and club sports do not recruit. The reason for this is not because club sport athletes are not as proficient or committed to their sports. It is because the NCAA has procedures for recruiting, and the college adheres to certain procedures for these athletes. For club sports however, there is not one governing agency that maintains the recruiting process for every club sport. Because these sports are governed by other leagues, their procedures are not streamlined. Club sports could theoretically go out and scout players, but with the tight budgets under which most club sports operate, that process would quickly become cost-prohibitive.

Finally, not all varsity athletes are recruited. I was not recruited, but I swam in every meet of my freshman swim season. If the fact that club sports do not recruit invalidates them from considerations for Athlete of the Week, shouldn’t that mean that any varsity athlete that wasn’t recruited should also be excluded from consideration? That doesn’t seem fair.

A theme of all the interviews I conducted was the social aspect of each athlete’s sport. An athletic team is not only a group who competes in the same activity or has the same interests. If all varsity athletes, regardless of their practice attendance, commitment to their sport, recruitment status, or any number of other qualifiers or disqualifiers, are eligible to be Athlete of the Week, shouldn’t club athletes be eligible as well?

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