The media culture in America that we know and subscribe to is one of constant news cycles and day-to-day changes in who is famous. One solid fact we know is that there will be part of the news cycle devoted to sports. As evidence, one of the biggest media companies in the market is ESPN, a network devoted to 24-hour sports coverage. That being said, it seems that athletes have taken on an elevated image in our culture.
“I think they have a spotlight on them,” Ryan Keeth ’20 said, a non-varsity athlete at the University. “They have a lot of sway on public opinion, both positively in branding and bringing attention to issues, and negatively in that if an athlete does something wrong he or she will get more flak than the average person.”
Athletes are often asked questions about any and all issues in the world or country, even though their profession has nothing to do with these questions. Because of their status and the fact that they constantly appear on television, athletes’ opinion are generally more highly regarded than the opinions of others. One of the most recent examples of this is the number of athletes who have been kneeling during the national anthem at various sporting events. It started with Colin Kaepernick and has since filtered to various other professional athletes and lower levels of competition such as high school sports. This sort of diffusion points to the idea that these athletes represent a loud voice not only in their profession, but in popular culture as well.
At the most recent ESPYs, ESPN’s award show, four professional basketball players made a speech calling for a stop in the killings over police brutality. They asked both sides to put down their weapons and decried that violence was not the answer to this problem. The four players that spoke—Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade—are superstars in their profession. All are All-Stars and two have won multiple championships. However, in most other professions, just being good at your job doesn’t allow you a three-minute prime time media slot in which to declare your opinions.
Jenna Putala ’20, a rookie on the softball team, argued that professional athletes are awarded camera time to voice their leadership and hard work.
“A lot of athletes are natural born leaders and they have to work really hard to get to the level that they are at so it is easy for non-professional athletes to look up to them,” she said.
It is clear, due to various elements in our culture, that athletes get placed on a pedestal. Because they are constantly shown in the media and hundreds of thousands of people pay to see them play every game day, these athletes get a heightened position in our world.
Wesleyan, however, seems to treat its athletes differently than the rest of American society. As a small liberal arts university, sports often aren’t the first thing people think of when they hear “Wesleyan.” However, the school remains competitive in the NESCAC, known for its collection of selective liberal arts schools, often deemed “Little Ivies.” As a Division III school, Wesleyan recruits many students every year to become student-athletes. The label of “student-athlete” at Wes contrasts with connotations the term evokes at other schools, more specifically large Division I schools. Student-athletes at schools like University of Kentucky or Ole Miss are known for their taxing schedules, often being asked to commit to a full-time job’s worth of practice and games every week and many missed days of classes. For these student-athletes, athletics generally take precedence over schoolwork.
“Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS,” tweeted former Ohio State University quarterback Cardale Jones in 2012.
What, then, makes Wesleyan different? Athletes at Wesleyan surely can compare practice schedules to those of many other DI schools, but the University seems to have made it a mission to ensure that the term “student-athlete” sticks true to its real definition: student first, athlete second. According to Wesleyan’s website, “Wesleyan coaches encourage athletes to become fully engaged in the curriculum and develop a relationship with faculty members. As is the case with students dedicated to the arts, music, or theater (all of which require an enormous time commitment), the athletes do find ways to integrate into Wesleyan’s diverse community and take advantage of the expansive curriculum.”
While many new student-athletes often find their first friends through their teammates, it’s not uncommon for them to branch out, as the website suggests. Wesleyan does not separate athletes in the housing system; instead, student-athletes live next to students who don’t play varsity sports. By eliminating the athlete dorm separation that many larger Division I schools employ, student-athletes are able to mingle with non-athletes more easily. Makail Crawford ’20, a member of Wesleyan’s men’s crew team, has a roommate who is involved in Wesleyan’s theater scene and also performs a cappella. This diversity of interests, even in the same room, is something Crawford enjoys.
“I’m not classified just as an ‘athlete’ here,” he said. “I’m just a regular Wesleyan student with something extra to do. But everyone here has their something extra to do.”
Elijah Wilson ’20, a member of the men’s basketball team, agreed.
“So far, I’ve generally found that being an athlete here is well-received,” he said. “On the outside I may look ‘jocky’, but I love socializing with everyone here, not just the team.”
Thus student-athletes have become more “student” than “athlete” as they branch out from their sport to the rest of the Wesleyan community. Maybe it has something to do with Wesleyan’s goal to have athletes explore more of Wesleyan, or maybe just the culture of diversity of interest that’s alive on campus. While the school certainly supports these athletes in their respective sports, it does not stop there. Glorification of athletes may have taken root in our country at large, but this adulation doesn’t exactly translate to the Wesleyan campus. Here, the crowd at the soccer game is likely to be just as big as the one for a student play or dance show.