Davidson: In Defense of Dartmouth Athletes

Why athletes add value to the campus community.

by Liam Davidson | 4/30/19 2:05am

I am a student-athlete, and I received one of the “likely letters” that Osman Khan took issue with in his article last Friday in The Dartmouth. I’m not ashamed of that fact, nor am I ashamed that I wasn’t the top student in my high school class. That’s because, despite the derision with which Khan treats student-athletes at Dartmouth, I believe that our college is enriched by a diversity of experiences and abilities. There is a real and meaningful conversation to be had about increasing opportunity for historically disadvantaged groups at institutions of higher education. Unfortunately, this guest column does little to contribute to it.

The crux of Khan’s argument revolves around three points: Dartmouth doesn’t produce many professional athletes; athletes aren’t a significant source of revenue for the College; and athletic admissions are systemically unfair. Let’s start with the first point. It’s true! Dartmouth hasn’t sent a player to the NFL or NBA in a long time. But we also have rosters full of talented female athletes — none of whom Khan seems to regard as worthy of mention — representing Dartmouth internationally in the Olympics and on professional sports teams. Beyond that, Khan’s assumption that the primary end of athletics is to participate in them professionally misses the point. The values of perseverance, hard work and commitment — in both victory and defeat — to a group larger than oneself are lifelong lessons that I’m grateful to have received.

To Khan’s point that athletes don’t provide a major source of revenue to the College — who, exactly, cares? At what point did Dartmouth decide, as a liberal arts institution, that something’s worth is dependent on its monetary value? Would Khan also advocate we do away with our music department on the grounds there isn’t much money to be made by playing the cello? That we do away with the O-Farm because there isn’t much cash in local agriculture? To suggest that the value of something depends on its ability to produce revenue assigns worth where it doesn’t belong. Dartmouth, like our broader society, benefits from a variety of talents and skills that will never break even.

To his final point, I understand Khan’s criticism, but believe he designates blame inaccurately. Here, he rightfully criticizes Dartmouth for failing to do enough to provide adequate opportunities to historically marginalized groups. The College is one of 38 institutions that has more students from the top one percent of the income distribution than the bottom 60 percent. That should rightfully make us angry. Additionally, minority underrepresentation on campus — from our student body to our faculty — is a reality that all of us must answer for. This is especially true for those, like me, who have benefited from generations of unjust race and class-based superiority.

There is a legitimate argument to be made that athletic access often and unfairly benefits the white and the well-off. But targeting athletic recruitment as the main cause of systemic inequality on our campus is misguided and detracts from the larger goal. On the occasion of our 250th anniversary, we should recognize that Dartmouth has the capacity to lead the world of higher education by making serious investments in institutional equity. Expanding financial aid packages for both domestic and international students is a good start. 

But the College should go even further, such as addressing food availability on campus and following Wesleyan’s lead in declaring the school’s campus to be a sanctuary community. These are the consequential and relevant steps the College should be taking to further its commitment to equal opportunity and fairness. 

Dartmouth, as a liberal arts institution, should seek to include a broad array of identities, abilities and experiences in its student body, since those things necessarily enrich and enliven our community. Dartmouth should be a leader in higher education when it comes to issues of equal representation. However, the notion that those who participate in athletics here at Dartmouth — from the champion women’s rugby team all the way down to our lesser-ranked sports — contribute less to our school is fundamentally misplaced.

Davidson is a member of the Class of 2020.

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