Going the Distance on Athletics

Within the second recommendation of Swarthmore’s recently approved strategic plan, the College reaffirms its commitment to athletics as an enhancement of the campus community and alumni network.

“Competitive sports encourage students to learn to strategize, listen carefully, take instruction, provide leadership, cope with loss, and celebrate achievement.  Through athletics, the College should encourage the lessons of fair play, integrity, discipline, sportsmanship, and teamwork,” reads the plan, recognizing the competitive-athletic commitments of 40% of the Swarthmore student body and the importance of the athletic facilities to the community as a whole.

Among the critical recommendations for supporting the Athletic Department are an upgrade of the Lamb-Miller Field House and an adjustment in varsity team travel allowances.

Constructed in the 1930s as a then-state-of-the-art facility, the Lamb-Miller Field House was designed to meet the needs of Swarthmore’s eight athletic teams.  As the varsity, club, and intramural athletic offerings have diversified, the Field House has become outdated and inadequate for supporting the needs of the community.

“When the Field House was built, it was one of the largest of its kind on the eastern seaboard,” Swarthmore’s Marian Ware Director of Athletics Adam Hertz said.  “Now some 80 years later, it falls short in technology and meeting some of our needs…It can not do the job that it needs to do anymore.”

“You can look around the schools in the Centennial Conference, and just about every other school has had an upgrade to their facility in the last 10 years…We can’t run indoor track meets in our facility, locker space is lacking, office space is less than desirable, so we really need to address a lot of issues, Hertz added.”

Indeed, Swarthmore may need to look no farther than Haverford’s Alumni Field House as a basis for a future design.  Built in 1957, it was resurfaced in 2008 and contains four tennis courts, an Olympic-style four-lane track, two batting cages, and an indoor turf playing field.

For softball pitcher Kathryn Smayda ’13, the Field House is not only outdated but also hazardous.  “The indoor track is run-down with dangerous bumps scattered around it.  Also, the floor is noticeably uneven so during the off-season when softball is practicing inside, the pitchers have to be aware of where they are throwing in order to avoid a twisted ankle.”

Like Smayda, senior Michael Giannangeli of the men’s basketball team is awed by the quality of the athletic facilities – from field houses to expansive, well-lit, and in some cases stunning multi-tiered fitness centers – around the Centennial Conference.

“At many other colleges in the Conference, they have state of the art athletic facilities that, quite frankly, put ours to shame, Giannangeli said.  “It is embarrassing that I attend a college as prestigious as Swarthmore yet feel second-rate when visiting other colleges.  This is especially true at Haverford, where their field house is much better than ours.  I do not see how this can happen.  Prospective students will be drawn away from Swarthmore.”

While the facility upgrade addresses safety, accessibility, and competitiveness concerns, the second recommendation about varsity team allowances cuts to the very heart of the Swarthmore ethos.

The Centennial Conference requires that each sport plays a certain number of games when classes are not in session.  For weather-dependent (especially spring) sports, this requires an annual trip over Spring Break.

These trips are not currently funded by the Swarthmore Athletic Department and this puts tremendous fundraising pressure on coaches and student-athletes.  Though this model of not fully funding team trips is not uncommon in the Conference, “we looked at the philosophy of this institution that once you’ve paid your tuition and your fees, you shouldn’t have to pay any more to participate in the daily life of the College, and so philosophically, we are at a bit of a crossroads,” Hertz said.

“From a coach’s perspective, the time it takes to fundraise could be better spent with students, recruiting, and teaching phys-ed classes and for students. They could be doing many other things on campus, so this is certainly an issue we want to address,” Hertz added.

These and any other adjustments to upgrade and alter the Athletic Department are not imminent changes but part of a long-term implementation plan that will begin with the development of a campus-wide master plan.

But for Hertz, the central tenet of implementation will be prioritizing changes that benefit the campus as a whole.  “We are not looking to build intercollegiate-athletic-specific buildings or fields specifically for clubs and intramural sports.  What benefits the community as a whole will be our highest priority.  Athletics, intercollegiate, club, and intramurals can be an integral part of the educational process, and that’s what we will strive to [build upon].”


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    Wen Bolcott says:

    This article does a great job of articulating how our current facilities fail varsity athletes and how the college is committed to meeting their needs. Clearly, our facilities need to be updated.

    Still, athletic needs should not be conflated with many athletes’ understandable frustration that they “feel second-rate when visiting other colleges.”

    I want to have a varsity athletics program that doesn’t meet the standards of schools with different priorities. Athletes deserve respect from the entire community, but they don’t need to be first rate to have it. Furthermore, they don’t need the best facility in the conference to feel respected. I really respect student athletes, but how much money we devote to varsity athletics is not a question of respect.

    The real reason I’m writing is that I’m worried that our college is going through an ideological change. In many ways, Swarthmore is a leader among liberal arts colleges. We have numerous excellent programs, and I firmly believe that we’ve been able to lead in a variety of fields because we prioritize them. The college’s recently published “Strategic Directions” contradicts that sentiment when it says, “We should … generally support athletics in ways that match the excellence we expect in all areas of the College” (20).

    I didn’t apply to Swarthmore because it expects excellence in all areas of the college. I applied to Swarthmore because I thought that the college expected excellence in the areas that we prioritize. I agree that we need updated facilities, but the idea that our strategic plan puts athletics on the same level as academics goes against the purpose of our college. I mentioned how worried I was during the draft stages of strategic planning in a Dean’s Advisory Council meeting, but the sentence didn’t change, so the authors of “Directions” must disagree with me.

    Additionally, it is important to consider that funding a state-of-the-art facility would cost significantly more money than building an updated field house that provides for our athletes’ needs and the needs of every member of our community.

    Prioritizing a state of the art facility for varsity athletes might not even take care of the needs of the wider community. When the college starts to plan the new facilities, it will probably have a target budget and serious choices it has to make. For example, will the new buildings create exclusive spaces for varsity workouts or will it prioritize enlarging our fitness center? The Director of Athletics mentions that the “community as a whole” will be the highest priority.

    That sounds great, but how are you going to accomplish it? Will there be well-advertised open forums for the entire campus to discuss what it wants the new facilities to incorporate? What’s even more shocking is that he doesn’t drop the #1 buzzword in the administration right now: wellness. A new facility should benefit everyone, not just varsity, club, and IM athletes. I bet Satya Nelms, our Wellness Coordinator, could contribute a lot to this conversation.

    The wider community has been largely silent on the future of athletics at Swarthmore, and I hope my post will open that can of worms.

    I want to end by saying that I intentionally choose to identify myself because I want to talk about this.

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