If length of Bwog and Spec comment sections is any indication of an issue’s relevance on campus, then athlete privilege, and more generally the place of athletes in our community, is among the most contentious issues of the day.
Who are these people, what do they do, and why are they treated differently? Tait Rutherford’s column, "Treat me like a person—not an athlete," (Nov. 25) took a unique perspective by identifying sources of institutional difference between athletes and the general population. Tait’s conclusion, as I take it, is that much of the anti-athletic bias and ostracism on campus is a direct result of Athletic Department policy (a rare example of Columbia doing too much for its students).
If we are a divided community—and this I admit—then might the actions and beliefs of the community have something to do with it? There is plenty of room for criticism about the policies promulgated and resources made available by the University, but they are, at best, minor contributors to the unease we’re trying to examine.
It’s valuable to examine the relationship between free academic resources and resentment by non-recipients directed at recipients. That resentment is real, but I don’t believe it operates simply according to the “haves versus have-nots” model. General population students, I suspect, wouldn’t begrudge paying for extra help for peers who dedicate a sizable chunk of time to the pursuit of an extracurricular endeavor. What they resent, I suspect, is the subsidy for only those who choose to play a sport with that extra time—and, in some notable instances, do so poorly.
How is this unequal distribution of academic resources justified? Do athletes possess some unique quality that student leaders do not? At an Ivy League school, why is it that we don’t give preferential treatment to those who spend countless hours managing publications or wrangling with administrators over policy? I don’t believe that many people resent coddled athletes—no such thing. I, for one, feel coddled not having to attend morning practice or having to watch film. The resentment is a result of an explicit preference given to athletes over other (more relevant? useful?) student occupations.
But that resentment can’t account for much of the community’s divide, and it’s wrong to look for external sources in the first place. Instead, we should look inward and consider the very nature of our community and the typical experiences we find within it.
First, and to state the obvious, we are a primarily academic community. We don’t have a balance of interests like might be found at other schools or in the public at large. In a place where you’re more likely to find someone reading The New Yorker than ESPN, why is it surprising to find a group of people socializing in the same, small social circle based on a shared interest? The Admissions Office brochure’s myth of social groups containing diverse students with diverse interests is a facile illusion created for marketing purposes.
Second, we are all confined to the limit of our own experience, and we tend to remember the bad more than the good. When my Contemporary Civilization seminar was soured by sweatpants-wearing, chaw-spitting, never-did-the-reading types, it left an impression. Anecdotes in the same vein are common in familiar company. Generalizations based on anecdotes aren’t fair to the individuals who are subject to criticism based on the actions of others, but in this case they are slightly more acceptable, because...
Third, athletes invite a relatively higher degree of generalization by the very nature of athletics. The bonds that tie a sports team are tight for good reason. A team on the field is a team off the field, and a dude who manages to fall asleep during a 45-minute section invites criticism not only of his own character, but also of all those affiliated with the logo on the front of his sweatshirt. We are all representative members of our own communities, and it’s simply a contingent fact that the athletic community is the most visible subcommunity on campus.
I won’t defend these ideas as fair, and again, generalizations are bad and we should all strive for a higher level of intellectual integrity, but let’s not mix up what should be the case with what is. I, for one, am thankful that we have a robust athletics presence on campus, but the strained relationship between athletes and the general student population is neither complex nor something we can correct.