Reflections on the state of athletics at Swarthmore

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The athletics department has in the past few years seen increasing success as teams have competed in national tournaments and won Centennial Conference championships. But a myriad of problems still exist within the athletics department that prevent many teams from being successful. This article seeks to reflect on some of those issues that affect our athletes at Swarthmore.
Swarthmore College is home to hundreds of student-athletes, from lacrosse players to runners, swimmers to golfers. Each is unique part of the Swarthmore community. However, all of them share something in common, something that drove them to play Division III athletics at an elite academic institution like Swarthmore. Each one believes that athletics is an integral part of their lives, and that it makes them better students, better leaders, better people. And each one pours in countless hours to be the best athletes they can be, the best students they can be.
Alex Randall* (name changed at request of student) is an athlete on the Men’s Soccer Team.
“One of the biggest problems with athletics is that no one likes coming to the games, ever,” he says in a recent interview.
For someone that dedicates ~20 hours each week during the season to his sport, that’s a tough feeling, for him not to be appreciated by the rest of the student body. Indeed, it tends to be other athletes who come to cheer on the other teams here at Swarthmore. The sparsely filled stands of Tarble Pavilion at games of Swarthmore’s nationally ranked men’s basketball team are mostly populated by soccer or baseball and softball players, a far cry from other similar schools where students of all backgrounds turn out in force to support their teams. It’s obvious that there’s a culture here where athletics just aren’t viewed as being that important to the school.   
Jack Rubien ’20, a non-athlete, seemed to agree with that sentiment. “I’ve only been to one sporting event here and that was to support a friend. I don’t really feel like I have any reason to go to a sporting event. School spirit definitely isn’t a big thing here, and I’ve really only ever heard of people going to games when the basketball team was in the Centennial Conference and NCAA tournament,” Rubien said.
But Randall thinks that the culture of not supporting athletics goes even deeper than just not caring.
“There’s definitely a stigma around college athletes here and at higher level institutions. Non-athletes feel that people who got in with a sport got in unfairly and had help getting in,” said Randall.
But Randall points out that even if people did have help getting in, which he doesn’t think is true, it doesn’t matter as athletes get no special resources from the school.
“The teachers see us all as students; they don’t know we’re athletes,” Randall said, adding that one of his professors didn’t even realize he played soccer until the last game of the season.
Dan Boehmler ’20, a baseball player, added, “People don’t see what we do on a daily basis so they don’t think we have to put in as much work as they do. We’re spending one to five [hours] in the fieldhouse practicing, longer when we have games.”
And despite all of their time spent on their sports, the rosters of teams are populated by people who are doing honors majors, double majors, completing biomedical research or heading to medical school and law school.
“At the end of the day you have to be smart to succeed here,” Randall opined.
Issues on the Inside:
While there certainly are forces that act counter to the interests of athletes from the general student body, other athletes see issues within the administration of athletics that are an even bigger issue. Jarrick Deter* (name changed at request of the student) sees the disparity between successful and unsuccessful coaches as being one of the biggest issues facing athletics. Deter sees Landry Kosmalski and the men’s basketball team at one end of the spectrum.
“Kosmalski is a great coach, he knows how to recruit well, he develops talent well, he knows how to coach at a DIII level.”
Deter points to the development of Zack Yonda ’18 into an unguardable shooter, Robbie Walsh ’18 into a force in the paint, Jim Lammers ’18 into an impenetrable defender, and Cam Wiley ’19 into an All-American as some of the key accomplishments of Kosmalski’s system. And Kosmalski certainly is the poster child for revolutionizing a team in the doldrums, bringing the Garnet from a 7-18 finish in 2012-13 in his first year to this year’s NCAA tournament appearance, the first in program history.
But Deter contrasts this success with another team that over the same period has seen itself fall from grace, the men’s soccer team. Men’s soccer reached the Sweet Sixteen of the 2012 NCAA tournament and has since then seen itself get worse and worse each year, both in statistics and in terms of overall record. Deter points to this an example of a team that lacks the proper coaching to maintain any sort of success. One of the biggest things in that department is recruiting.
“The team recruits about 15 players every year and half get cut and some others quit. You’re left with four or five guys who aren’t able to instantly contribute and don’t receive the development they need to advance to the next level,” Deter says.
He feels that people who can make real contributions to the team simply aren’t given that opportunity or aren’t given the attention and resources necessary.
Deter, who is familiar with the team, says that many people on the team just don’t enjoy it anymore and thinks that’s primarily a result of coaching.
“Obviously, losing hurts mentally, but coaches being out of tune with the needs of their players hurts even more. Division III athletics are supposed to be about giving athletes a break from their academics, it’s meant to be an enjoyable experience and not something that’s mentally taxing, ” said Deter.
Overall, Deter just thinks there’s a lack of accountability to the administration. “The administration always likes to hop on the bandwagon of teams that are winning, but they don’t really care about teams that are losing,” Deter said.
And as a whole, the administration seemed to not give the support that the athletic department’s needs. Little things like teams taking school buses instead of charters can seem inconsequential but really can impact a team’s performance. Coaches and especially assistant coaches are fairly underpaid relative to the amount of work they dedicate to the programs. Obviously a Division III athletics program is not concerned with winning anywhere near as much as a Division I school would be, but that’s not to say that winning should be ignored as a goal of the program, especially when there is a demonstrable continuity of lack of success.
One of the factors that can affect teams the most is access to facilities or lack thereof. Drew Langan ’17, is the captain of the men’s golf team at Swarthmore.
I am very disappointed by the lack of commitment on the part of the college to the golf program here. We currently have a net set up in the Mullan Center, but this hardly helps us improve our skills, as the availability to use it is inconsistent and the quality of such a setup is third or fourth rate. It has been painful to watch the Mullan Center essentially sit dormant since the Matchbox has been installed while other schools in our conference have had first rate golf facilities installed on campus,” he said.
Langan also noted that the golf team is only able to practice about 36 holes of golf a week, the equivalent of two rounds of golf, and sometimes less because the courses where they play lack driving ranges or other practice facilities. On the other hand, other schools in the conference do indeed maintain or have access to better golf facilities, such as McDaniel College, which maintains its own 9-hole course on campus. According to the coach at Franklin and Marshall College, they give their team daily access to any of three nearby golf courses. Together, these two teams have accounted for more than two thirds of Centennial Conference Championships, indicating a fairly strong correlation between quality of facility and success in competition.
And it’s not just golf that suffers from lack of facilities. In any given season, about 5 teams need access to the turf field, and with only one, teams have resorted to 6 a.m. practices, late night practices, or practicing on Cunningham which Deter described as a “walking injury.”
In addition, team’s ability to practice in the offseason is severely inhibited by varsity teams not being allowed to reserve space on campus, especially in the fieldhouse, during the offseason. This has a big effect on teams like baseball and softball because they are unable to use their fields or their equipment outside during the winter and need a place to practice hitting and fielding. A team lives and dies on its ability to practice and perhaps the teams would be able to play more to their full potential if they had access to better practice facilities.
But even if the physical needs of athletes are met by the school, many athletes still feel that the mental health needs are not met. Recently softball had a couple players leave the team because they weren’t given the accommodations they needed to succeed as student-athletes while dealing with mental health issues. Jane York* (name changed at request of the student), a junior female varsity athlete, feels that coaches just don’t know how to deal with the issues.
“One of the big things has been that coaches just aren’t trained to deal with mental health issues. And captains or other upperclassmen on the teams, unless they have R.A. training or something like that, don’t know how to deal with those issues either,” York said.
She feels that there should be a mental health advocate for student athletes that can help the players and coaches through the process, such as ensuring that accommodations can be made. Even if a member of the CAPS team were to be assigned to be the point person for athletes, Jane thinks that would be an improvement over the current state of affairs.
“You should still be able to have a fulfilling student-athlete experience while dealing with a mental health issue,” she said.
Swarthmore is a school that dedicates itself to giving the best possible education to all people that walk through its doors. For many people here, that educational experience includes playing the sport that they love. Obviously it is not Swarthmore’s priority to have national championship caliber sports teams at the expense of its other  programs. But there are clear things that Swarthmore can work to resolve to give every student the best possible experience, with athletics or without.

1 Comment

  1. A lot to digest here, but it seems the general theme is this: the Swarthmore Athletics Department could be doing more to support the physical, emotional, and intellectual development of its student-athletes (and coaches?). Facilities aside– since we can’t immediately solve the problem of the field house being overbooked, the Mullens Center being underutilized, the Matchbox being too small– the Athletics administration could address some of the issues raised above through three relatively simple changes: 1) by scheduling Friday/Saturday night games and partnering with OSE/SAAC to make them bigger social events, like we saw when men’s basketball was in the playoffs, 2) by better supporting its student-athletes and coaches through leadership seminars, and 3) by encouraging coaches to attend each other’s events as a form of professional development.
    As someone who has friends competing and coaching at other colleges, I’ve always been somewhat surprised that Swarthmore doesn’t do more for our athletes and coaches. Why don’t we offer something similar to Amherst’s LEADS Program, which brings together coaches and student-athletes for seminars on leadership and what it means to be a student-athlete on campus? These could be an effective way to develop athletic culture on campus, but also to address mental health, work-life balance, and other issues that our athletes struggle with, while giving student-athletes the chance to talk about these things with their coaches. I’ve also wondered why our coaches don’t frequently attend each other’s games and, when they do, if they use that as an opportunity to talk about their coaching methods and practices. It seems like an easy way to get coaches to think about how and why they’re supporting Swattie athletes.
    Clearly Swarthmore cares about its sports enough to build the Matchbox, improve the baseball field and basketball/volleyball gym, and bring in several talented new coaches over the last few years. But there has to be more the college can do beyond just improving infrastructure to support our student-athletes and coaches…

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