As the cold of winter sets in and the Hill House heaters start clamoring, students are reminded we are that much closer to the semester’s end. However, for the fifteen members of the SLC Men’s Basketball Team, winter doesn’t signal an end, but a new beginning: time to lace up their sneakers and pivot their focus to what they hope will be to be their most successful season yet.
Once these players step off the court, however, it’s a much different story. A clear social divide between athletes and non-athletes persists on campus, resulting in what many athletes claim to be lopsided perceptions and subsequent unfair treatment.
Administration has tried to remedy this disparity with little success. In a move many dismissively call “the rebrand,” SLC has largely tried to embrace its athletics department. However, a majority of students still hold negative impressions of athletics, and the chasm between students and student-athletes persists.
These negative perceptions about athletes, and the basketball team in particular, are not baseless. There have been two reported cases of sexual assault against Men’s Basketball players in the last four years. Many women—primarily juniors and seniors—have less-than-flattering stories to tell about encounters they’ve had with members of the team over their years on campus. These actions, and their lingering ramifications, are something the team claims they are actively working to change.
Austin Jones, ‘19,is ready to start his fourth year on the SLC basketball team. A 6’2 guard, he’s a regular starter for the team and holds the school record for assists, with 213. However, Jones’ work off the court stems from his desire to mend the athletics department with the greater student body.
“We’re trying our best to show the Sarah Lawrence students here that we care about this school just as much as them,” says Jones. “We want the school to become more accepting; that’s what we all want. We just want to be accepted, we don’t want to feel like we’re the outsiders.”
This “outsider status” Jones describes can be interpreted both ways. Is it, as Jones describes, a blatant ostracization of athletes on campus? Or do athletes themselves form their own cliques, shutting themselves off from non-athletic culture at SLC? If we assume the latter is true, are these cliques a form of self-preservation, or a tactic of protection from an athletics-averse campus?
It’s no secret that Sarah Lawrence isn’t necessarily a sports school. The combination of size—the undergraduate population couldn’t fill two sections of Syracuse’s 49,000-capacity football stadium—and historic lack of athletic success delegate SLC as a run-of-the-mill D-III school, where student-athletes are just that: students first, athletes second. However, in its valuing of the arts, individualism, and strong sense of counterculture, SLC students do not embrace the athletics department. In turn, the basketball team has created its own subculture—unable to always find room for themselves at SLC, they make their own space.
“We always do everything together, we spend probably 90% of our time together,” says Jones. “Nine out of ten times, if you see a basketball player, there are two or three of them together.”
His third year on the team, center/forward BJ Sanders, ‘20, describes the team in a similar vein.
“There’s a really strong sense of brotherhood,” says Sanders.
The term “brotherhood” came up frequently in my interviews with both Sanders and Jones; it’s a core principle of the team’s culture. However, this sense of community is sometimes perceived as something entirely different—fraternity.
“We’re the closest thing to a fratty, hypermasculine vision [at Sarah Lawrence],” explains Sanders.
The depiction of masculinity Sanders describes separates the team—and many other members of the athletics department—from what would be considered cliques in any other division of SLC students. Paired with other signifiers of fraternity-esque culture, such as the Slonim Woods house the team occupied for many years, the comparison doesn’t feel too far off. While Sanders and Jones both reject the frat label, they also can see how outsiders looking in can draw those comparisons.
“I can totally see how people see [the team] to be a frat mentality,” says Jones. “We go out on the weekends, we’re always together [...] but we would love to expand. Sometimes we don’t want hang out with each other, we want to branch out, but the perception of us is that we’re frats and we have that kind of stigma.”
Allegations of sexual assault, reputations of masculine—and borderline aggressive—behavior, and self-induced isolation have all become pillars of the basketball team’s reputation on greater campus. However, Jones, Sanders, and the team’s leadership are actively working to dismantle these judgements.
“Arrogant, disrespectful [...] It’s everyone else’s perception of us,” says Sanders. “We’re not a frat. We don’t brand each other, we don't have crazy initiations, that’s not the culture as a whole. The attitudes on the team have changed, the coach has brought in more well-rounded, well-mannered young men.”
When these allegations—and their lasting impact—are brought up, both Sanders and Jones make it clear the team wants to move on. Neither seem eager to discuss it, but they are adamant about holding the team responsible, even when the result is not to their benefit.
“I will say the behavior is the past, for over the last four years, the basketball team has had two known cases of sexual assault,” Sanders concedes. “Already having a negative perception of us and that happening, it’s frustrating to hear. We talk about this all the time, we’re aware there’s a spotlight on us.”
Sanders makes his frustration clear. While basketball was held accountable—and rightfully so, Sanders says—he also feels the actions of years’ past are used to define the current team, which is not the case in other departments.
“There’s a blind eye turned towards [other departments],” explains Sanders. “It’s not who we are, I can’t speak for everyone and every little instance, but we talk about this all the time. We’re aware there’s a spotlight on us that isn’t on other [student groups].”
This spotlight, as Sanders puts it, takes an already negative perception and amplifies it, giving students reason to ostracize athletics. The negative public image translates into passive—and, in more than a few instances, not-so-passive—behavior towards athletes on campus. In recent years, leadership has focused on changing behavior within the team in order to change their reputation on campus.
“If you’re ignorant, and we already have that negative perception and spotlight, we need to [educate] more,” says Sanders. “It’s to promote and maintain a good perception not just for how we’re seen on campus, but for recruits coming in, for faculty, and staff. People are watching how you’re behaving, there’s an emphasis on that.”
Jones echoed Sanders’ statement, emphasizing the role of older players in creating a new legacy for the team, in hopes it translates to a widespread campus acceptance.
“It’s the culture from the top,” explains Jones. “The juniors and seniors now, coming from what we’ve learned and passing it down. We’ve learned our lessons from these past incidents, we’ve explained to them and the freshmen and sophomores we have now are very nice. We teach them the right way to act.”
“When you go out on a Friday or Saturday night you have responsibility. You're not only representing yourself but you’re representing the basketball team as a whole,” continues Jones. “That’s something I preach: respect, respect, respect.”
The lingering question still persists: how much of the basketball team’s isolation is chosen, and how much is the result of ostracization from the greater campus community?
Unsurprisingly, there’s no real answer, at least not one that’s puts the onus entirely on one group. Members of the team are involved in separate campus organizations—like clubs and on-campus jobs—yet, as Jones mentioned earlier, it’s rare to find a basketball player on campus without his teammates.
“We don’t just play basketball together, we work out together, we eat together, we hang out on weekends,” says Sanders. Sanders believes this comradery makes for better play; a sense of knowledge about teammates that would be unattainable without all the time spent together outside of practice.
In a sense, it’s an impossible situation. Either basketball players isolate their social circles to their teammates and come to terms with their negative perceptions, or reach out to the greater community. The second option comes at the possible expense of losing the flow Sanders describes, and the risk of vulnerability to a campus that may remain cold and unwelcoming.
Sanders is clear he doesn’t want to play victim. Neither does Jones, for that matter. Both are protective when talking about their team, but acknowledge the program’s faults. When I ask Sanders if he feels the ostracization is unique or more prevalent with the men’s basketball program, he vehemently denies it, telling me similar instances of aggressive behavior he’s heard from friends across the athletics department.
They are also eager to share stories about the team; how they spend weekends playing video games or working out together. Sanders stops mid-question to say hi to his coach across the lawn. Minutes later, he introduces me to one of his teammates, asks him how he’s feeling after a knee surgery that occurred the day prior. Both repeatedly apologize for not directly answering my questions, or rambling. They both understand how certain aspects of the team can provoke judgment, but reject the negative traits often associated with athletes.
“I don’t think we’re your typical jocks,” claims Jones. “A typical jock at Sarah Lawrence would have a rough time, most of the kids who are typical jocks don’t stay, they leave after a year. The guys who stick around after that year are usually the nerdy kind of guys.”
“We don't think we're better than you or that we are entitled or anything, we just want to be cordial and connect,” agrees Sanders. “We want to get and give love, in a way.”
Sanders’ sentiment does not go unnoticed. Players are involved in many different parts of campus life, including the Student-Athlete Advisory council and within different campus spaces, and the team attends campus events throughout the year. While this participation understandably declines during the season, Jones is quick to mention the overlap between programs that does occur.
“There’s a kid who does theater and basketball,” says Jones. “That makes the divide not as bad, and helps bridge the gap, like ‘I can play sports and be a theater kid.’”
What strikes me is the comparisons to theater. When providing examples of a “typical SLC student” both Jones and Sanders are quick to draw on the theater department. While these comparisons, both in type and quantity, seem unusual, they makes sense: with demanding schedules and a similar sense of comradery, theater is the closest parallel to the athletics department at SLC.
“I know how much it takes to be an actor, I’ve heard their stories,” explains Jones. “Just like they understand how tough it is for us, getting up at six in the morning and running from two and a half hours everyday. It’s a toll on their bodies. I know acting takes a toll on their bodies, [and] mentally.”
It’s also likely these comparisons come from the sheer size and influence the theater department has at SLC. It’s a complete flip-flop from many D-I universities, where athletes are seen as vital—bringing in big donations and press—as the theater students are relegated to their corner of the auditorium. However, in what could be characterized as a Troy Bolton-like sense of justice, Jones—who, earlier in our interview, toyed with the idea of trying out for a theater production in the spring—says the gap between theater students and athletes is closing.
“It shouldn't matter if you’re an athlete or a theater kid no matter what you do [...] that you can all have a conversation with each other that you can all coexist and just have fun,” says Jones. “As a senior, I would love to extend an olive branch to the theater kids. We can go to each other’s events we can support each other. We can coexist.”
If there’s anything Jones wants to convey to me during our interview, it’s how the alliance of athletics and greater campus will result in a better SLC.
“You’re stronger together than you are going against each other,” says Jones. “The school is so much better when people show school spirit, when people hang out together and they interact with each other.”
Sanders agees, citing last year’s homecoming game against the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy as an example of what school spirit, and community, can do for their team. According to Sanders, USMMA outweighed the team in “virtually every way,” yet the Gryphons were able to escape with a tight win in the final minutes. A few weeks later, when SLC played them again at an away game, they lost by fourteen points.
“Going along with our appeal to campus, one thing I look forward to is that positive outlook, to get people coming to games, excited to come to our events,” says Sanders. “We don’t talk about it much, but we do like to go to plays and other sports events, getting on campus and getting involved.”
Jones agrees: school spirit not only means better games, but a better community. However, he also recognizes that the team has had some fault in creating this gap between athletes and the rest of SLC—something they’ve spent years trying to fix.
“In years past it’s kinda been us against them, but since my freshman year it’s been, ‘let's mend the gap,’” agrees Jones. “As it gets passed down, we keep saying ‘let’s be friends, let’s be friends’, and you get the freshmen and sophomores, they actually become friends. You see theater kids and basketball kids interacting. Let’s not be against each other, let’s work together. We can coexist, it doesn’t have to be us versus them.”
While not to be mistaken for a plea, it’s clear that Jones’ sentiment is personal. Both Jones and Sanders have seen some of the worst of the aggression directed towards athletes. While they acknowledge that things aren’t changing at the rate they would like, and that all sides of the conflict have work to do, they also are glad they were the ones to experience the ostracization, so incoming athletes can better connect with the student body.
“It’s so much better than it was freshman year,” says Sanders. “But for people that are still worried about us, that we’re too aggressive, or disrespectful or we bite in some sense, we don’t. [...] We want to connect.”
“We’re kinda isolated people because people have [negative] perceptions of us. If that wasn’t true, maybe we would hang out with other groups but we’re kind of isolated as is it so that’s why we naturally hang out with each other,” says Jones. “It’s not because we don't want to socialize, it’s because some people have this view of us and that’s what forces us to come together even more.”
At the end of my interview with Jones, I ask him a question I’m not quite sure if he can answer: as a senior, approaching his final season with the Gryphons, what does he want his legacy to be?
Obviously, we’re not talking school records or athletic legacies here, but the impact he wants to have on the social culture at SLC. He pauses, opening his mouth to speak before hesitating to think some more. He says he’s having trouble compressing all his thoughts into one statement. After our interview, he says he’s going to give the question more thoughts and might get back to me with a follow up. But what he leaves me with feels like a perfect encapsulation of our interview: the team has not been without their faults, or missteps, or inexcusable actions, but this team—the current team, not last year’s team, or the year before—is working to not only change their campus perceptions, but their culture from the inside out. They’re putting in the time, they’re changing the status quo, they’re stepping outside their comfort zone. Now, all that’s left is to do is make mend the broken perceptions held by the greater SLC community, or, as Jones puts it, “bridge the gap.”
“Once people start open their arms to us, I really believe it could change,” claims Jones. “If anybody had a conversation with a basketball player, it would change their perception.”
Bella Rowland-Reid ‘21