THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


NO "ME" IN TEAM: SCHOLAR-ATHLETES STRUGGLE FOR THE BALANCE BETWEEN DUAL IDENTITIES

by by Nick Greene

Lillie Cohn B'09 was a volleyball star in high school. She played outside hitter on the first team in her Seattle high school's history to go to the State Championship. A photograph of her flexing arm was Photoshopped into the logo on the team's website (www.GarfieldVolleyball.com). Playing volleyball, she bolstered the school's reputation and her fellow students' school pride. When it came time to apply to college, Brown University recruited her, and she played here for three years. So why, after a shining career, did she quit at the end of her junior year?

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As a Lady Duke at York High School in Elmhurst IL, Jenna Silver B'10 medaled at the State meet two years in a row in track. Both Harvard and Brown courted her for a spot on their track teams. But Silver turned down the prestige of Harvard for what she felt was the better fit, and made Brown her new home. The two years she spent on Brown's Division I team might seem a perfect opportunity for a sportswoman's growth. But Silver, too, left track after almost two years.
A javelin thrower at the Wheeler School, Sam Rubin B'09 trained with Brown's track team during his freshman year, despite undergoing surgery the previous summer, which kept him from competing that season. Mended and ready to go, he picked it up again his sophomore year. But while studying in Copenhagen in the fall of his junior year, he too decided not to return to the field in the spring. But why?
Now, there is no danger of Brown's athletic rosters dwindling to nothing, although that might please some on campus. According to the Brown Daily Herald, around 15 percent of the student body was recruited to play a sport, not to mention those who walk onto a team without being recruited out of high school. Having been relegated to the sidelines of two distinct worlds on Brown's campus, students who have left sports have an incisive perspective on the making of a Brown student's identity.
MY BIOLOGICAL CLOCK IS TICKING LIKE THIS
Being able to join extracurricular groups on a whim is an indulgence many students take for granted, but it is one that isn't available to athletes, whose evenings are spent on the field and at team dinners. Practices give life at Brown, which is ordinarily free flowing and self-determined, a stringent schedule that leaves no room for a cappella, dance or politics, the "grand opportunities" that Silver said she has enjoyed most since leaving track behind.
Although Rubin had been a javelin thrower since high school, while studying abroad in Copenhagen he realized he couldn't go back to the "entrenched routine" of daily practice and weekends spent competing away from Brown. After two years, he no longer believed that the rigid schedule that kept him in shape was worth his fleeting time at Brown. Though throwers are able to go abroad for the fall semester (their season is in the spring), Rubin found Denmark too appealing to leave behind. The freedom to explore a more relaxed perspective and way of life in Copenhagen convinced him not to return to the "extreme structure and intense hierarchy" that awaited him in the spring track season. He stayed abroad for the full year.
"It was like a weight had lifted," Silver said about severing herself from a lifestyle dictated by track. "Warm ups, cool downs, getting taped--it's a mental strain that's always there." Making up her mind to stop competing, she conceded, was "hands down, the hardest decision of my life." Leaving behind track meant leaving behind some of her first friends at Brown, some of whom she'd met during summer training even before most students had arrived at campus for orientation. Despite that, her good friends stuck by her. Her grades improved, and she felt more relaxed. "I'd been here for two and a half years, and hadn't been able to fully invest in either sports or academics." She called it "so liberating" to have the freedom to structure her own time.
Cohn portrayed the bonds sundered when she quit: "No other place have I found people I trust completely. You can't win the game by yourself. In order to win, you have to put your total trust in them. Even if they steal your boyfriend, you know they're there for you." As important as these bonds were, Cohn realized while studying abroad in London her junior year that those relationships would outlive the shared experience of running four 300 meter sprints a day. The pain of leaving the team she was so close with was worth the time gained to explore Brown. "College spent only as an athlete doesn't prepare you for a real life," she said.
LOOSELY BASED ON A TRUE STORY
Personal goals are not the only thing encumbering the path of a Brown Bear. For one thing, being an athlete at Brown can be a letdown. "Everyone who gets to play here was, I think, a star at their high schools," Cohn said. "They're in a much bigger pond at Brown." That means athletes who used to be record-setters or captains must not only relearn how to work together, but also how to deal with being outside the center of their school's attention.
For students like Silver and Cohn, who came from schools with excellent sports reputations, some facets of Brown Athletics are mediocre at best. "You learn to embrace the OMAC in all its decrepitness," Silver said, whose York High has one of the best track facilities in the nation. But then, what's so bad about about lackluster facilities?
It might seem that a Brown swimming team, for example, would be strengthened by the privation of training at the late Smith Swim Center, which was so riddled with structural flaws that it was demolished earlier this year at the ripe age of 34. Indeed, the more mawkish sports movies hinge the success of bands of brethren or sistren on overcoming meager beginnings. But an Angels in the Outfield aficionado would point out that such a team also needs cheering moms, dads or metaphysical enthusiasts to trounce the formidably staffed and financed rival team. Unfortunately, at Brown, athletes often find the support of their fellow students paltry, if it even exists at all.
Silver explained the problem in unambiguous terms: "I don't want to say games are incestuous. But they are. Most people at games are athletes." The low turnout can be a cold welcome, colder than a swim center with no roof, especially if an athlete hails from a school where their name was known and students thronged their games. Here at Brown, the handful of fans at your match can be depressing.
An athlete's yearning for fans to cheer at games, though, is not mere self-importance. "I felt I wasn't benefitting anyone besides me and my teammates," Cohn told the Independent. "Wearing a jersey at Brown didn't matter as much. Nobody knew or cared." Keeping up with the difficult schedule of daily practices has diminishing returns when no one shows up to enjoy the show.
But more than just keeping up her spirits, Cohn began to question who she was after playing sports at Brown. "I struggled to find a non-volleyball identity. Volleyball meant the world to everyone at my high school. What I based my identity on, here nobody knows about." Most students imagine athletics as occult rituals performed in a distant gymnasium somewhere north of the CVS on Thayer Street. Devoting yourself to your team and to your sport pulls you further from the rest of the student body, socially and literally.
COMPETITION OFF THE FIELD
But certain Brown University students do pay attention to athletics and to their fellow students who play sports. Yet the type of attention is not necessarily what student-athletes were used to in high school--and much less is it what they deserve.
Brown students are lucky to have one of the less competitive campuses (for schools like ours). But although this lack of scholarly desperation keeps students from throwing themselves off the SciLi during an average finals period, that community spirit doesn't protect athletes from the suspicion--if not disdain--of others. Most Brown students are content to ignore the struggle for ascendancy, but with the caveat that everyone at Brown should meet the requirements for entrance to this exclusive resort for the nonchalant.
Thus there are some on campus who speak as though they suspect "student-athlete" is a contradiction in terms. Such people fashion themselves as having gotten into Brown by determination, preparation and perspiration--unlike their sports-playing peers, who, they imagine, have glided through the admissions process with the help of their coaches. Student-athletes, like minorities and people from the Dakotas and other obscure states, are thought to be the favorites of a sinister admissions office that besmirches Fair Brunonia's halls by following one of those lefty quota policies, or something.
Perhaps it is necessary to shed some light on this clandestine ritual called Recruitment. According to Silver, each coach is told there is a certain number of spots for which she can recommend students. The average academic index--a number that is part GPA, part class rank and part test scores--of those students must meet a certain threshold. The rife assumption that athletes are the least academically qualified people on campus, then, is ugly hearsay. Without delving into the math, even if the worst student-athlete is not as worthy as the worst student-painter, there are many athletes who are more so. At any rate, prospective student-athletes are brought to campus as recruits.
For Silver, the trip was a phenomenal success. In the fall of her senior year of high school, she got to know other prospective teammates, thus getting a feel for what her team would be like (and meeting many of her future friends). Recruits then receive a "likely letter" from the Admissions Department, which asks them to withdraw their other college applications.
A JOB WELL DONE
It may seem obvious that leaving athletics would free up a student's time. And as Cohn said, "I can go to lectures, problem sessions for physics, enjoy relaxing with friends." But commitment to your sport can erode control of your body too. Silver always felt a bit at odds with her training regimen while on track. It was designed for "getting huge," as she put it, in order to be able to hurl objects over long distances. By reclaiming her right to her time, Silver also repossessed her body. "I was thrilled with my ability to create my own workout" for her, long, restful jogs, instead of training for strength. "One of my happiest memories after quitting is just sitting on the Quiet Green with a book and a blanket on a weekday afternoon. It sounds so simple, and everyone takes it for granted. But it was one of the first times I wasn't thinking 'I don't want to go to practice; my stomach hurts; all I want to do is take a nap.'"
This fall, Silver's newly open schedule is filled with activism for the Obama-Biden campaign and the bi-weekly FemSex workshop. In the spring, she plans to leave Providence to take part in the Urban Education Semester, a combined policy internship and student teaching assignment in New York City schools. All of these things are new ways of expressing herself on campus. Likewise, Rubin is using his time to write a thesis in Religious Studies on the interplay of fundamentalism and nuclear proliferation in Iran. Cohn is capitalizing on evening study sessions, visiting speakers' lectures and taking an afternoon literature class. Contemplative and active, former student athletes have discovered life after sports.
Upon reaching the classrooms on College Hill, Cohn found that "everyone always made me feel I wasn't adequately prepared to be here." If you're an athlete on Brown's campus, many students treat you and your teammates like ghoulish Big Ten apparitions, who have invaded these pristine ivy-gated lawns like so many bloodthirsty Spartans (or Gophers, for that matter). If this anti-sportsman logic sounds familiar, that's because it is an easy path to follow. It is one that renews stereotypes and doesn't ask much of the critical faculties. But this cynical indifference punishes athletes for imagined crimes, and robs their dedication of its meaning. At Garfield High, Cohn said, a volleyball victory meant high-fives and smiling faces throughout the school the next day. For a campus that bemoans its slide down The Princeton Review's "Happiest Students" index (we're now third), our disdain for sports and the students who play them dams a potential wellspring of good feeling.
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Shut up Doris! There's no crying in NICK GREENE B'10!!!!!