Leveling the playing field

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November 17, 2008

11:58 PM

A strong rift exists between athletes and non-athletes at the College of William and Mary. I have felt it since I first stepped on campus.

There I was, a bright-eyed, enthusiastic freshman, ready to begin her four years as an NCAA Division I tennis player on full scholarship. I told people I met that I was Barbara from Chicago, and that I was a new member of the varsity tennis team. Boy, was I naïve. After several heated debates with my new non-athlete classmates, I realized that maybe revealing my athletic status so quickly was not the brightest idea.
Informing people that I was an athlete on full scholarship was like opening Pandora’s box. Revealing my athletic status elicited one of two responses: That athletic scholarships were not fair, or that athletes who were slotted did not deserve to be at this competitive, prestigious school. In attempts to avoid arguments, I decided that I would not voluntarily reveal that I was a tennis player, saving that tidbit for those I knew would not resent my achievement.

With such strong bitterness toward athletes and their scholarships, it is not surprising that the athletic and non-athletic communities have grown into completely separate entities on campus. To be honest, I can understand why many non-athletes (or civilians, as athletes call them) are irritated. According to the College’s website, $629.50 of every student’s tuition is allocated toward the athletic program’s operating budget each semester — that’s $1,259 per year. This fee accounts for a large portion of the athletic department’s operating budget; for example, it provided about 45 percent of the budget for the 2008-09 school year.

Another source of contention concerns slots, which are positions reserved for academically qualified student-athletes in the admissions process. According to a recent study that the College conducted in the athletic department, the athletic program reserves 111 slots for incoming varsity athletes every year. These athletes have SAT scores that on average are lower than those of non-athletes (by an average of 199 points for men and 137 points for women).

Frankly, if I were not an athlete, I would be just as outraged as all of the classmates I have had debates with over the past three years. As a well-seasoned senior, however, I can provide some insight that will hopefully lessen some of the resentment non-athletes have for athletes. First of all, out of the 111 slots available for athletes, the athletic department typically only uses 90 to 95 each year. In addition, only 55 to 60 of these slotted athletes receive athletic aid, comprising less than 5 percent of the incoming freshman class.

Not only do these scholarship athletes make up a tiny portion of the student population but they also appear to be making the most of their opportunities. According to a recent press release from the athletic department, the College ranks among the national leaders in graduating student athletes. Between 1998 and 2001, 12 teams have had 100 percent graduation rates, with many of the other teams well above the national average for Division I programs. The College has had 36 academic All-Americans since 1992. That is impressive for a school with such high academic standards.

I would lastly like to emphasize to civilians that being a scholarship athlete on this campus is not easy. Trying to balance sports, maintain a high GPA, participate in extra-curricular activities and have some sort of social life is no walk in the park. There are days when I wake up at 6 a.m. and do not have a free moment until 6 p.m. Instead of resting, I have hours of homework to work through while my body aches, and I am absolutely exhausted. I have also come home in the middle of the night from competitions and have had papers and tests the following day. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg for what student athletes have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

I hope this insight can reduce the resentment that non-athletes have for athletes here. Scholarship athletes shouldn’t be criticized by their peers for taking advantage of a wonderful opportunity. They shouldn’t be blamed for participating in a system over which they have no control. If anything, they should receive recognition for their hard work and dedication.

Barbara Zidek is a senior at the College.

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