As a four-year member of a varsity athletic team, it has been extraordinary to watch the growth and success of the athletics department since my first year. Teams such as baseball, women’s soccer, volleyball, men’s swimming, and men’s basketball have made themselves national forces and have achieved conference dominance. Other teams, such as men’s and women’s lacrosse, track and field, and men’s and women’s tennis have also grown to become strong contenders in the Centennial Conference, a much different scenario than the state of the athletic department in previous decades.
The recent success of the certain teams in the athletics program has illuminated the fact that certain varsity teams receive preferential treatment, both within the student-athlete body and the athletic department’s communications office. Student-athletes and the athletics communication department laud achievement by some teams, while similar or equivalent success by other teams is met with less enthusiasm, less press coverage, and less overall consideration. The nature of the sports that they play are seemingly deemed less important and are undervalued. This has to do with how certain sports are perceived in the United States, as well as the nature of collegiate athletics as an industry. Popular, lucrative sports such as basketball and baseball will always draw more attention and praise, and I can’t fault that fact. These are large, systemic relationships that are not unique to Swarthmore, and it is not the fault of one group at the college or another. However, it is imperative that we as a community have accurate and equitable treatment of sports, as well as an inclusive student-athlete body. Swarthmore needs to strive to give all athletes fair treatment, as this will lead to more positive student-athlete experiences and increase athletes’ desire to achieve athletic success.
From my perspective, Swarthmore’s varsity teams are split into two separate groups, based on the social influence of the students who play those sports, how those sports are or would be treated given conference or national success, and the popularity of the sport in our larger society. The two groups are as follows:
Group One: men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s basketball, and baseball
Group Two: men’s and women’s swimming, women’s basketball, men’s and women’s tennis, volleyball, field hockey, golf, men’s and women’s cross country/track and field, and softball
If you guessed that I’m a member of Group Two, you would be right. I’ve met my closest friends and have some great memories from my sport, but I have seen the differences with how these groups of athletes are treated within the athletic community.
The types of students that are in Group One are hard to miss around campus. They are largely very outgoing, dominate party spaces — due to the fraternities being largely composed of lacrosse and baseball players — and organize in a manner that if you see one of them, another one or multiple are not far behind. I acknowledge that Group Two students also congregate together and are active in social life, but four years have shown me it’s less evident. The members of Group One celebrate each other’s success and largely don’t celebrate their accomplishments of Group Two teams. Could you picture baseball or men’s lacrosse hosting parties for women’s tennis or women’s basketball if they won a conference championship as they did for women’s soccer in 2017 and 2018? Most likely not. Do you go out on a Thursday or Saturday night and see a Group One team comprising a large part of a fraternity or Olde Club party? Most likely yes. In my experience, if you ask a Group One student about upcoming games or recent results of a Group Two team, odds are they will not be able to answer. Ask a Group One student about another Group One team, and they are more likely to be aware.
This relationship between Group One and Group Two is also reflected in the social media presence of the athletic department. In recent weeks, the Twitter and Instagram feeds of Swat Athletics have been inundated with pictures and videos of men’s basketball run to the NCAA DIII Championship. Along with hundreds of other students and community members, I cheered them on the whole way. But I also know that if teams such as field hockey, softball, and men’s tennis made a similar run, Swat Athletics would likely not present the same coverage. Last year, was it possible to not know about baseball’s season given the countless articles, interviews, and pictures documenting their season? Many of their games were followed by a detailed article, interview with players/coaches, and highlight videos while other teams mostly just get a short recap. Was it also possible to ignore that women’s soccer made it to the Round of 32 or the Sweet Sixteen this year from the constant Instagram Live streams of all their games?
When volleyball made it to the Elite Eight in 2017, they received press from Swat Athletics, but not nearly to the extent of the Group One teams, despite achieving a comparable accomplishment. Volleyball had about eighteen Instagram posts relating to their NCAA run, men’s basketball had about 32, and the difference in the number of posts on Twitter was much larger. You could argue that the two fewer games that volleyball played warranted less attention, but it still is a lopsided difference. The same unequal coverage goes for men’s swimming and their success over the past four years —two conference championships and high NCAA finishes — again, not nearly the same amount of dedication to tracking their every move.
If you notice how results and articles are compiled and written, those of teams in Group One are compiled and posted very soon after the conclusion of their games. For results and articles of those in Group Two? In some cases, it can take hours and full days, and even then some stories and results can be missing. For example, men’s/women’s track and field had a meet from March 14-16, but the recap article was not published until March 20, while men’s/women’s lacrosse and men’s basketball also had games on March 16 and the recaps were all published about two to three hours after the games ended. The same goes for roster photos and information. Some Group Two teams have missing team and individual photos and bios, whereas Group One teams are not missing any information. Men’s and women’s cross country and track and field, men’s and women’s swimming, golf, and women’s tennis have missing or outdated bios and roster pictures at the time of publication. It’s a nuanced yet significant statement that follows the larger pattern in our society that Group Two sports are secondary.
If you pour hours of time and hard work into a sport and achieve success only for it to be pushed aside by fellow student-athletes and members of the athletics department, what’s the motivation to compete and win? I truly believe that every athlete appreciates having their work validated by their peers and their surrounding community (and if you don’t need validation, you’re a better person than me). That’s not the case at Swarthmore, or at most other colleges. If you play a Group Two sport, you should make sure you have your own support system and cheer team, because the nature of college athletics in our society will not provide those for you.