Column | Feb. 12
If I told you I’m on a varsity team, you could probably guess that I spend almost equal amounts of time in class and in practice or that I stress more over big races than big exams. You might assume that my closest friends are on my team, that we attack the dining hall as a herd, that I meet up with them to study, go out with them on the weekends, maybe, even, that I room with them. If I added I rowed, you might assume I am in Cloister Inn, that I spend far too much time in spandex and that when my special rower beacon hones in on another of my kind I quickly devolve into minutiae about boats, ergs and technique.
You would be right.
I am, in many ways, a stereotypical athlete. I didn’t plan to be. I didn’t even expect to be. Before I arrived, I had never picked up an oar, let alone considered the most efficient way to propel eight other people through the water with one. Not that I regret joining the team, far from it. Being a non-recruited athlete has, however, given me the opportunity to observe what it means to be an athlete at Princeton from a middle ground, with one eye towards the non-athletic life I might have led and one to the recruited life of so many of my closest friends.
A lot has already been said about the relative merits and detriments of recruiting athletes, in particular the potential effects on academics for non-athlete Princetonians. What interests me, instead, is the social effect that recruitment has on the athletes who become Tigers. Before walking on to the crew team, I had never considered that the opportunity of being recruited would be anything more than a relief in the crapshoot that is the admission process. I never considered how much it limits.
When a non-athlete decides which college to go to, the choice comes down to some mix of academics, extracurriculars, location, size and the ever-vague “campus feel.” When athletes are recruited, they buy into not only a college but also a community. They arrive on campus with a set of built-in friends and a place to go everyday to get away from the daily grind of schoolwork. It sounds great and, more often than not, teams do become close from spending so much time together.
I’m left wondering what happens when someone feels like they don’t fit into the team culture. While non-athletes can naturally self-select into friend groups over the course of freshman year, athletes run the risk of committing to four years spent with non-compatible personalities. It is not that athletes can’t, or don’t, make friends outside of their sport, but an athlete’s schedule makes it all too easy to restrict one’s circle to one’s team.
I’ve seen teammates end up in tears when it becomes too taxing to spend hours every day with the same few people, particularly if they may all be competing for the same spots on the top squad. I’ve seen teams turn on one particular member and heard athletes who spend most of their time bickering about each other.
I don’t pretend to know the dynamics of every or any team on campus, and I don’t deny that non-athlete groups of friends have their moments too. What I do know is that I’ve always told myself if I didn’t like the environment on my team, I would walk away. Many recruited athletes don’t feel they are free to make that decision.
I’ve had several athletes tell me, almost guiltily, that they wouldn’t have been accepted to Princeton if not for playing a sport. Others confess they don’t enjoy the sport anymore but feel as if they owe four years to the team. Being recruited comes with the understanding that although college is a time to try new things, practice comes first. Rare is it to find an athlete who does more than two or three extracurriculars.
What happens if athletes decide to quit? There is no part-time varsity athlete, no way to cut back hours or lighten the load. With the sport goes the community. It is rarely a function of meanness so much as fixed schedules. Out of sight, out of mind. Those who remain too easily forget that our team used to have more people.
I hope that I am wrong, that I am reading too much into a situation with which I am not personally familiar. For many recruited athletes, the built-in social group of a team creates some amazing friendships. I fear that some end up doubting, instead, their place on the team that once actively recruited them to join their community.
Rebecca Kreutter is a Wilson School major from Singapore, Singapore. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article inaccurately referred to crew as a sport that can be “played.” The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.