With a bond that dates back to the 1870s, the marriage between athletics and academics at Swarthmore is one that many of us believe to be a legitimate and normal aspect of the educational experience. Though few would think of athletics as a priority at Swarthmore, sports undoubtedly play a substantial role here. Almost 15 percent of the freshman class is recruited, 40 percent of the student body is involved in competitive athletics, and every student has to fulfill a physical education requirement. But is this emphasis on athletics really justified? Why should Swarthmore, a highly intellectual liberal arts institution, be held responsible for maintaining a high standard of athletic excellence? Though the link between athletics and academics is often portrayed as harmonious, Swarthmore is in grave danger of devoting too much of its time and resources towards athletics.
It is important to note that this is not an article about the merits of athletics, but rather whether or not they should have an institutionalized place at Swarthmore. As an athlete myself, I’m well aware of the myriad of potential benefits that sports and physical education can bring. The lessons of integrity, teamwork, dedication, and courage that I absorbed on the soccer field and basketball court will undoubtedly be ones that I’ll retain and preserve for a long time. Indeed, I’m grateful for the athletic resources and opportunities I can take advantage of here at the College, but that doesn’t mean that I’m convinced that an education from Swarthmore requires an athletic component.
Though the rewards of athletics are numerous, sports are just one of the many ways in which these qualities can be fostered. There is nothing about athletics that makes it inherently superior to music, drama, or other fine arts in terms of cultivating and developing the student body. Why then, does Swarthmore insist on a universal P.E. requirement?
Though the requirement does attempt to accommodate non-athletes, P.E. is often viewed as more of a hurdle to jump through than anything else, especially for students who may not harbor any passion towards sports. Even for the students who see themselves as benefiting from P.E., the amount of activity mandated by the requirement is insufficient should these students truly wish to obtain the maximum benefit. For a student interested in badminton, for instance, the time spent training under the current P.E. system amounts to just two and a half hours week for two full semesters. Do we really think that this is enough practice for someone to truly develop the necessary skills the sport requires? Swarthmore should not oblige its student body to pursue an activity that they don’t care about under the premise that physical education is a universal good. If the rewards an activity brings can be achieved elsewhere (such as in art or music) then we shouldn’t make that activity a universal requirement.
The benefits of athletics, moreover, must be reconciled with their accompanying costs. Maintaining a fully functioning athletics department and top quality athletic facilities is expensive. Equipment, maintenance, travel, and a medical staff are just some of the expenditures that can accumulate over the course of a season. While it would be nice to have a state of the art field house in place of the current 80 year old model, we have to realize that supporting athletics is a costly endeavor. The economic argument that athletics provides financial relief is simply inaccurate. At Swarthmore, the total revenue generated by the athletics department was just $65,000 more than the total expenses in 2010-2011. If we were to add the cost of a full-scale renovation of our facilities to better meet the needs of our athletes, the Swarthmore Athletics Department would run at a deficit.
In addition to its substantial financial costs, all student-athletes are forced to make a substantial time commitment to their sport. Choosing to participate on a varsity team is not just an extracurricular, but a lifestyle choice that extends beyond practices and games. While the existence of an isolated athlete sub-culture is much more limited at Swarthmore than at other universities in the United States, a commitment to athletics can make Swarthmore’s high academic standard that much more difficult to maintain and limits one’s ability to take part in other extracurricular activities.
Yet what is perhaps most problematic about the intertwining of athletics and academics at Swarthmore is the differences in culture that each realm engenders. Sports are competitive. In the intensely cut-throat athletic environment, victory and success are always achieved at the expense of others. To win, you must do everything within the rules of the game to try and come out on top. There’s a reason why war imagery is so prevalent in sports writing. Contrast this black and white world with Swarthmore’s celebration of collaboration. Every freshman’s first semester is pass-fail. The recent cheating scandal at Harvard University, which implicated two pivotal members of the school’s basketball team, is one of many examples of the dangers in transferring the ‘win at all costs’ mindset to the academic environment.
When it comes to college admissions, this mindset is embodied in the emphasis Swarthmore places on recruiting athletes. Despite the lack of athletic scholarships at the College, having substantial athletic ability can be a major boost in the admissions process. Yes, these students’ talent can act as an indicator that a student possesses the characteristics necessary to achieve academic success, but with so many qualified applicants to choose from, it’s simply unfair to let athletic ability in a particular sport be the determining factor for acceptance. Why should a potential student’s talent in basketball supersede another student’s musical gifts, or another student’s journalistic writing skills? Maintaining the competitiveness of Swarthmore’s varsity teams should not be the responsibility of the Admissions Department.
Cutting down on funding and recruiting need not spell the demise of Swarthmore’s athletic teams. Twenty nine years ago, the small engineering school Cooper Union cuts its Athletics Department completely in order to focus its resources on academics. Yet despite its limited facilities and resources, Cooper Union’s maintained a stellar athletic tradition including a recent undefeated season by the men’s basketball team in 2005. They succeeded not because of funding, but because of something that I’m sure Swarthmore can appreciate, students following their passions.
Though athletics and physical education do have numerous positive attributes, it is unfortunately all too easy to let them negatively affect our educational environment. By eliminating the P.E requirement and de-emphasizing the recruitment of athletes, Swarthmore would go a long way towards maintaining an effective balance between athletics and academics. Athletics should not be a central component of a school’s educational mission. Swarthmore needs to wake up; we’re a small liberal arts college, not an athletic development school, and it’s time our policies reflect that.