As a small liberal arts school nestled in the crossroads of Yonkers and Bronxville, Sarah Lawrence is foreign to the bright lights and big stadiums of nationally-ranked athletic programs. While athletics have existed at the college for decades, they have only recently gained prominence in the school’s culture in the last five or so years. For athletes, this prominence signals a shift in SLC culture, one that is not always celebrated.
Austin Jones, ‘19, came into SLC as a basketball recruit. Coming from a liberal arts high school, the college seemed like a continuation of the academically-driven education he had, while also giving him the opportunity to make a name for himself in the basketball program.
"SLC athletics were new,” said Jones. “I thought, this could be my chance to be a pioneer of the program and get it off on the right foot.”
While SLC has fostered athletic teams for much of its existence, the college only joined the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) in 2012. As a Division III institution, a division assigned to the college based on its small size, emphasis is placed on conference and regional competition. While athletes from larger, Division I schools, such as Duke or Syracuse, may travel across the country to various tournaments and games, D-III athletes are often limited to their regional seasons and short playoff berths.
Because students at D-III schools are seen as scholars before athletes, much of the emphasis of SLC sports are based on intense play without compromising sportsmanship and academic success. However, for some athletes, the stigma of athletic culture can be hard to shake on campus.
“A lot of people were really standoffish to me [as a first year],” admits Jones. “I was an athlete, I wasn’t really received well at first and I had to break down a lot of walls.”
These walls, Jones claims, mainly focused on misconceptions about hyper masculine athlete culture.
“They all think we’re kind of like frat boys, but we’re not really like those kids,” said Jones. “I’m into the arts, I’m into all the stuff that you are too, the only difference is that I happen to play a sport.”
Because SLC is a Division III school, the college is unable to give out athletic scholarships. While high school athletes may participate in a recruitment process, they cannot be offered additional benefits based on athletic merits. While many high school athletes to carry on to participate in varsity programs at Division III schools, the vast majority — either those pursuing collegiate fame or in need of an athletic scholarship — are drawn to larger Division I institutions.
“We’re not playing a sport for money or fame,” said Shin Narita, ‘21. “We’re playing because we love it.”
Narita, a cross country runner, was not a high school athlete, instead opting to join cross country this past year. While he was nervous at first, Narita claimed he quickly found community within his teammates.
“I didn’t think I was really going to do it,” claimed Narita. “It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.”
While stigmatization of athletic programs at SLC is something athletes are actively fighting, it is not the only battle they must face during the season. For student athletes, it can be difficult balancing school work with practice, games, and other team events.
“[Playing a sport] really hones your time management skills,” said Narita. “It forces you to work with maximum efficiency.”
Narita’s typical day during the season consisted of a 5:30 AM wake up call, with practice from 6-9AM. For Jones however, the days go much later, often having practices in the late evening or nighttime.
“On an average day, we go practice from 8 to 10 [PM], but i have to get to practice 30 or 40 minutes before to get treatment, get iced, make sure my body’s ready,” explained Jones. "Sometimes on a game night, that’s four or five hours of our day. A regular student can use that for work, we have a game to play.”
For Jones, this practice and game schedule can often spill over into the next day.
“Sometimes you don’t get out of practice until 11[PM],” said Jones. “Then you’re hungry and you’re tired, but you still have conference projects to do, so you may be up until 2AM just doing work. The next morning, you have class at nine, and you’re tired but you just have to keep going. Everybody else may have had the time but you didn’t.”
This tight schedule can often leave athletes with copious amounts of exhaustion. Not only may sleep or work be compromised, but the added physical exhaustion of practices five or more days a week can be detrimental to a student’s body.
“It’s a lot of mental stress,” said Jones. “Coaches are expecting you to do this, and classes are requiring a lot out of you and sometimes it can mentally take a toll.”
However, the stress is well worth the reward.
“I feel closest to my teammates most of all because of how much we go through,” said Narita. “Going through a struggle together, having other people know what you’re going through […] it makes a bonding experience that will last the whole four years."
Similarly, Jones is grateful for the experiences he’s had at SLC.
“There was this kid my freshman year who came here to play basketball but he was a theater kid,” said Jones. “That showed kids that you can play a sport and still fit in here. It was big deal to us, he kind of bridged the gap for us and as of late, students are more accepting of us.”
Even as the culture around SLC athletics continues to shift in the right directions, both Narita and Jones recognize there is more work to be done.
“When I tell people I do cross country, some of the responses are negative,” said Narita. “Sports aren’t everybody’s thing, but I also think some people don’t give it a chance.”
For Jones, the work consists of counting his work his first and second years in order to break down stereotypes of college athletes.
“There’s a big misconception of athletes here, that we’re all macho and think we’re all that, but we’re not,” said Jones. “If you get to know us [...] you’d realize we aren’t the typical jocks.”
As the years pass, Jones is excited to see the gap between athletes and the rest of the student body shrink, something he feels honored to be a part of.
“The biggest reward is seeing the growth of the campus,” said Jones. “When you see more athletes coming to the campus and you see the freshman athletes getting to know the freshman class and being accepted, the work you did freshman and sophomore year is starting to pay off. [...] They don’t get the eyes you did freshman year because you broke down some of those walls.”
While SLC may not be the flagship for college athletics, even at the D-III level, athletes are pushing for a more accepting college culture, one goal, point, or run at a time.
“People think we’re the dumb athletes ruining Sarah Lawrence, but in our view, we’re just trying to enhance it,” explained Jones. “We’re trying to bring in a different perspective.”
Bella Rowland-Reid '21