I am a white woman who goes to Barnard and rows for Columbia. The things that were said by members of the wrestling team affect different members of our community in different ways; I can only respond from my experience and my identity. Therefore, I will deal mainly with those parts of my experience that relate to this incident, namely, my identity as a woman and an athlete.
After the scandal involving the Harvard men’s soccer team hit the news a few weeks ago, the behavior of Columbia wrestling team members perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. However, the racist and sexually explicit nature of their messages still sent a shockwave through the student-athlete community.
The level of ignorance and disrespect towards members of our community (women, people of color, LGBTQ students, and more) communicated in those messages disgusted and frightened me. How pervasive is this behavior within the athletics community? To what extent do other athletes participate in this type of communication? Have coaches been privy to any of this type of behavior? Do they brush it off as “locker-room talk?”
While anyone who talks in the manner of those wrestlers should be held responsible for doing so, I strongly believe that the University is also to blame for their language.
From the minute we arrive at Columbia, the University isolates us as student-athletes, for example, by housing us with teammates or other athletes and by including us in different orientation programs. From this point, we tend to self-isolate: Because practice schedule limits what classes we can take, we usually eat after practice together (think: football team front and center in Ferris)—this is not to mention all the hours we spend actually at practice or on the bus to and from practice. But for me, the real reason I feel isolated is that I spend more time rowing every week than I do anything else, and no one but my teammates understands why.
So why does this matter? If you come to Columbia holding a certain opinion shared by many of your teammates, it is not surprising that that opinion remains unchallenged. And while Athletics has training sessions and makes us sign policies agreeing not to publish racist or misogynistic views on social media, it clearly hasn’t fully educated every athlete in our community. And if you come to Columbia holding some of those views—and your teammates hold those views—how is it surprising that those views persist? Your teammates are the ones with whom you interact most of the time. But what about the time we spend out of practice? What about the time we spend in class? Which leads me back to the University: What is the point of education if not to change and develop ideas? Shouldn’t the University be embarrassed that those wrestlers have spent years at Columbia and still manage to hold such disgusting opinions? Columbia’s website touts, “At the core of our wide range of academic inquiry is the commitment to attract and engage the best minds in pursuit of greater human understanding, pioneering new discoveries and service to society.” These are the best minds the world has to offer? These men are engaged in the pursuit of greater human understanding?
Which leads me to the institution within the institution: Athletics. Let’s all be clear about one thing: Athletics is a male space, made by and for men.
My friend, who is writing her thesis on sports and masculinity, broadly painted the picture for me: She posits that American sports became popular after the Industrial Revolution because men needed something physical to do with their bodies. Sports went viral in the beginning of the 20th century. Why? Women’s suffrage, she argues. Men needed to reassert their physical dominance and importance.
Almost all the sports women play were invented for men because they specifically advantage the masculine physique. Because of biological disparities, there are some sports leagues in which women will likely never play in. For instance, the National Football League. There are also sports—such as American football and, in our case, wrestling—that have been shown to foster aggressive, misogynistic behavior. By nature of the sport itself, the wrestling team at Columbia is an isolated, male environment that fosters aggressive behavior. The environment—created by the sport, the team, and the men—has clearly been allowed to persist by Athletics and the University. I am not blaming Athletics or the University for intentionally cultivating this behavior. Perhaps before this incident, both Columbia and its athletic department were unaware that such behavior did exist here. But the messages revealed cannot suggest more strongly that there is a culture of misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and generally disrespectful behavior that permeates at least part of our athletic community.
To have athletes who play contact sports who do not engage in this kind of behavior is an anomaly. Columbia must be aggressive, rather than passive, in its expectations for student-athletes concerning this type of behavior. If Columbia wants to recruit athletes like these wrestlers, running the risk of bringing on athletes who perpetuate these types of behavior, it has to be ready to educate them.
This incident saddens me deeply as a woman athlete. My participation on the Columbia women’s rowing team has given me the foundation of my strength as a woman. It is probably the most important experience of my time at Columbia/Barnard, as I truly believe that athletics have the potential to make us the best versions of ourselves. Athletics engage the best minds in pursuit of greater human understanding. Athletes can lead us to an understanding of those principles that we read about in the epics: perseverance, trust, friendship, sacrifice, courage, discipline, respect. But what disgusts and depresses me is that the institution that encourages me to be the woman that I am is the same institution that allowed individuals to express misogynistic, racist, and homophobic opinions.
Senior rower Skyler Samuelson walked-on to the women’s rowing team in the fall of 2014.
From the Lion’s Mouth is a content series that provides Columbia’s coaches and student-athletes with a platform from which to share their experiences and connect with the Columbia community.