This morning, my alma mater announced the addition of a new mascot to its official athletics department branding. Although it is only an unofficial representative of the college (the official mascots are the Yeoman and Yeowoman), the albino squirrel’s popularity among current students and young alumni have resulted in its frequent use in official campaigns by the administration, including fundraising, communications, sustainability, and admissions, as well as in student-generated posters, apparel designs, artwork, etc. It’s even included on a question in Oberlin’s supplement to the Common Application that many students use when applying to colleges.
I’m pretty excited about this announcement, and not just because I love the albino squirrel. Like many of my fellow alumni, I applied to Oberlin in part because of the lack of jock culture, and I can count on one hand the number of athletics events I attended as a student. For a long time, even after I graduated, I thought sports really had no place at a liberal arts college, and bristled at any attempts by Oberlin’s administration or alumni to fund athletic facilities and programs at (what I thought was) a disproportionately high rate. As I’ve gotten more involved in alumni leadership, though, I’ve had an opportunity to hear from others whom I admire and respect about the benefits they reaped from participating in athletics, and how important that participation was as a part of their Oberlin experience. Their stories have made a huge impact on my thinking about this issue.
I still believe strongly that jock culture is a corrosive element that has no place at Oberlin, or anywhere, but I’ve also learned to recognize that “jock culture” as we know it is not synonymous with sport. In our current context, that can be incredibly difficult to see because of the abysmal state of sports culture in this country. (Don’t even get me started on football, or our participation in the Sochi Olympics.) But that is something we did, nothing something inherent to sport itself. That culture does not have to be replicated on liberal arts campuses, and I would argue that campuses like Oberlin are in a position to lead the way in showing what a healthy, inclusive sports culture can look like. For example:
- ensuring all athletics facilities and programming are accessible to students with disabilities
- creating policies that allow trans* students to compete at all levels, including varsity, not just in club or intramural sports that allow for mixed-gender teams
- working with minority groups to address the unique health and wellness needs of LGBTQ communities, communities of color, etc
- promoting Health at Every Size initiatives
- making sure facilities staff are trained in and committed to creating and maintaining a respectful and inclusive environment
These are just a few examples of ways that a strong athletics department can benefit and be useful to all students, not just the ones who want to letter in Varsity Sportsball, and to its credit Oberlin is taking steps on a few of these (most notably, a trans*-inclusive athletics policy that is still problematic, but it’s a start). Like everything else, instituting this kind of programming takes (a lot of) cash money, which is a problem for basically every institution of higher education right now. But many liberal arts campuses face an additional problem. Even if they can find the money to upgrade facilities, expand programming, and train staff, they still need to make the case to those students who have been marginalized, excluded, or had other kinds of negative experiences with gyms, health and wellness initiatives, sports, etc that this is a place for them, too. They need to somehow say, hey, we want the whole campus to feel comfortable taking advantage of these facilities and programming.
That’s a very difficult message to get across, but knowing what I do about the steps Oberlin is taking, and the way the alumni leadership body talks about athletics, that is what I see when I look at the new Oberlin College Athletics logo. As I mentioned before, the albino squirrel is a symbol that has already been used in lots of different ways, by lots of different groups, throughout the Oberlin community. In the new logo, I see an attempt to begin communicating: this is for everyone, we want you to be here. I’m hopeful that, whether my fellow alumni love or hate the new logo, they’ll take the time to consider a broader view of what athletics can mean on a liberal arts campus, and who it can serve.