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Defending Athletics

I take issue with several points made in Laura Goering’s thoughtful letter to the editor questioning the value of athletics. My experiences as an Oberlin athlete, and my efforts to interest high school athletes in Oberlin, may illuminate the discussion. For student-athletes to derive the greatest benefit from their sports, teams must be at least competitive within their leagues. It has been sad to see so many Oberlin student-athletes without an opportunity to match up with the best. Certainly, as Ms. Goering notes, athletics “does not top the list” of Oberlin’s wonderful qualities. Still, being an Oberlin swimmer in the late ’60s gave me experiences that few activities outside athletics could provide. I clearly recall the genuine, if only temporary, respite from studying and campus strife offered during swim meets with Denison or Kenyon, when student spectators arrived an hour early to find seats. I found it important and affirming to compete in such events. I also remember the occasional “big game” in basketball, lacrosse, ice hockey, and soccer. When the talented, but decidedly underdog Oberlin basketball team defeated Wittenberg to win the conference tournament in 1970, it seemed as if the whole student body found its way to Berea for the finals. Far from dividing the campus, the team’s success brought together diverse segments of the community as nothing else could have. Finally, I have been largely unsuccessful over the years in trying to interest academically qualified athletes in Oberlin. Whether it was by institutional policy, media creation, or a perception fostered by alumni with outlooks similar to Ms. Goering’s, Oberlin has been seen as an undesirable place for students interested in competitive athletics. I am pleased that College officials have apparently decided to change that per- ception. The benefits of a well-operated athletics program are abundant, and the chances that Oberlin will encounter problems similar to those at Ohio State are small enough to be considered negligible. Rest easy, Oberlin will not turn into a jock factory any time soon. But there’s nothing wrong—and a great deal very good—with a winning season and an occasional championship.

Cleveland Heights, Ohio

More on Defending Athletics

I am a current Oberlin student and the varsity lacrosse captain. I'd like to respond to Laura Goering's letter regarding the value of athletics at Oberlin (and other schools).

I was quite disheartened to hear of those who wish to continue the poor record of Oberlin athletics and consequently feel that it is good for the student body to keep athletics at their mediocre (at best) level. I am no more an advocate of lower admissions standards for recruited athletes than anyone else. To my knowledge (and I have played a large part in recruiting lacrosse players for the last two years), the admissions office hasn't shown much leeway to begin with, so I'm not sure this is an issue at OC. Oberlin attracts smart, liberal-minded athletes. Those who don't fit those two (albeit, general) criteria generally shy away from OC on their own.

Another issue is the "athletic divide" that apparently so many faculty at other schools speak of. For most sports at Oberlin, there is no such divide. I, along with seven other student athletes, lived in Keep Co-op last year, in the heart of Oberlin's stereotyped hippy-crunchy paradise. It was great. I never identified as the lacrosse player in the house, but always as another co-oper who had his own interests and commitments. This is how it was for a great number of my friends on the lacrosse team (as well as soccer and football teams), who hung out with a wide variety of Oberlin students, especially musicians.

Lastly, I'd like to address the statement "I urge college officials to take a hard look at how they define athletic 'success.' In the words of a Williams’ faculty member, 'We want to have an athletic program for the students rather than having students for the athletic program.'" I would like to have an athletic department for the students as well. But a department that allows teams to go 2-12, 0-12, 3-10 (as the lacrosse team did a few years ago), is a department for no one. Students don't have fun winning two or three games a season. Frankly, I am of the philosophy that no one deserves to be on the college playing field (or court); everyone must earn a spot. If that means that students of "moderate" athletic ability are at a disadvantage, so be it. When the admissions office looks at an applicant with a slightly low GPA and unimpressive boards they don't say, "well, they deserve a chance here at a place where they may struggle quite a bit.” They send out a rejection letter. With the help of an excellent recruiting coach, excellent coaching in general, and a greatly improving program, it becomes easier to attract and admit students not only of excellent athletic ability, but also excellent academic ability. This is what is happening, and for most of us on campus, it feels fantastic.

Will Jaffee
Class of 2006

Your summer issue contained a letter questioning Oberlin’s decision to revive varsity athletics and implying that alumni had not been kept informed. It warned that attracting more talented athletes to Oberlin will create an athletic divide on campus. Such divides, however, are not unique to athletes. They are a usual result of students with common interests, talents, or backgrounds preferring to socialize together. Such divides already exist on campus.

The letter spoke of athletes underperforming academically in relation to their SATs. The presumption is therefore, that athletes are less desirable students. If such underperformance does exist, it results from the long, tiring hours athletes spend on conditioning, learning plays, practice, travel and games—hours other students spend studying. Also, many athletes feel that total personal development, not just maximizing their grade point average, is important to a successful life.

It stated that the success of a team is primarily dependent on the talents of the athletes on the team, implying that reviving varsity athletics is bad, because Oberlin would have to attract talented athletes. The concept that the success of a program depends on the quality of students it can attract is not unique to athletics. It applies to all programs. The most obvious example at Oberlin is the Conservatory. Its success is dependent on the quality of musicians it can recruit. More broadly, the success of Oberlin as a whole depends on the quality of students it can attract. My experience as a parent and as a trustee of an independent K-12 school shows that all of the top colleges and universities actively recruit top high school graduates to maintain, or improve, the success of their schools.

The letter argues against reviving varsity athletics because varsity athletes are less likely to come from minority groups (excluding football and men’s basketball.) By this measure, football and men’s basketball are good, and other varsity sports are bad. The issue, though, is the varsity sports program as a whole. Given the high percentage of the total athlete population that is in the football and men’s basketball programs, plus the high probability that the composition of the women’s basketball team will be similar to the men’s, varsity athletes, as a whole, are more likely to come from minority groups. More broadly, because of their skills and personalities, athletes add to the overall diversity of the campus.

The final argument is that improved varsity athletics will exclude students with moderate athletic ability from varsity competition. This type of argument can be made against any program, and about Oberlin as a whole. The high standards set by the Conservatory exclude students with moderate musical ability. Students with moderate art, acting, math, or science abilities will not succeed in those programs at Oberlin. And the high level of academic talent required for admission to Oberlin excludes students with moderate academic ability. Varsity competition will not be a fun experience for students of moderate athletic ability on a team composed of their peers, unless they enjoy losing.

The Alumni Magazine and the Oberlin web site have kept me well informed about the revival of varsity athletics. I have been very pleased that Oberlin is seeking to become a well-rounded school that offers successful programs in all usual collegiate areas, including varsity athletics. This will increase the size and variety of its applicant pool and will give students an enriched college experience.

As the father of a Stanford alumnus, I was particularly pleased when Oberlin hired Vin Lananna from Stanford to head and lead the continuing revival of Oberlin athletics. He had done an outstanding job in building his part of Stanford’s athletic program, and he knows the Stanford process for combining excellent athletics with outstanding academics. Stanford’s academics have perpetually ranked among the top in the country, and Stanford’s athletic program has consistently received the Sears Cup for being the best overall program in its division.

Floyd L. Smith ’53
New York, N.Y.

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