Liberal athletics


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.┬áThat 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.┬áBut 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.

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  1. I think Oberlin does a really good job of thinking about athletics in the larger context of wellness on campus. As you mention here, there has been, over the last 5 or so years, a real push towards wellness for the whole campus, not just focusing on organized sports.

    As a staff member I also have enjoyed access to the facilities but also to wellness classes as well as personal trainers and even fellow staff members volunteering to be wellness buddies (should need someone to keep you engaged and motivated).

    You are right…not enough people celebrate the accomplishments of the team sports, and that is too bad. The athletes on campus care deeply about what they do and the time commitment they make to their sport is nothing short of remarkable when you consider all the other things a college student is expected to do on a daily/weekly basis.

    Focussing on wellness in an inclusive manner is especially important at Oberlin, given its topographically challenged (read: flat) location and skies are often more gray than blue. Encouraging everyone to stay active in this part of the world is also an important way to keep everyone, even the flying (?) albino squirrels, mentally healthy too.

    • Absolutely, Barbara. Schools that are located in cities, or even larger towns like Fredericksburg, often provide multiple gyms, fitness centers, and other opportunities that students (and faculty or staff who live nearby) can choose to use instead of campus facilities. Because Oberlin is such a small town, though, the number of opportunities for students to remain active into the depths of winter is basically zero outside of what is directly provided / supported by campus. The nearby Splash Zone is affordable, but not within walking distance. It’s technically bikeable, but I wouldn’t attempt to do so in windy, snowy or icy conditions. Even for those students that DO have access to a car, the distances they often have to walk to find their parking spot, plus with the time it takes to get rid of the snow and ice accumulation, make it hard to do regularly.

      Keep an eye out for merchandise in the bookstore, please, and let me know when it arrives? I still have yet to go to a Richmond Flying Squirrels game, but I have been looking at the online team store for squirrel-related items

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