Behind Ugly Locker-Room Talk, Divisions of Class and Race
There’s a joke here about “the great Amherst chain of being.” The phrase evokes an invisible continuum, binding Amherst College students to their alma mater from graduation to grave. It is the strength of this chain that brings alumni back each year on the weekend after commencement, allowing them to soak in once again a view of the Holyoke Range, a stretch of mountains in the backyard of this elite, New England liberal-arts college.
For much of its existence, the Amherst chain of being has been populated mostly by wealthy white men. It wasn’t until 1975 that the college first admitted women, and only in the past 15 years did Amherst get particularly serious about diversifying its student body. Increasingly, the chain of being includes students who are black and brown, international and first-generation collegegoers. More than two out of five are ethnic or racial minorities, and more than one in five receive Pell Grants designated for low-income families, making Amherst more diverse than many of its peers.
But there are still pockets of the campus that look a lot more like the Amherst of 1950 than that of 2017, and nowhere, perhaps, is this more the case than on its athletic teams. Here you’ll find the student who attended an elite prep school: the one who honed his lacrosse or squash skills at an expensive summer camp and came to Amherst to bunk in a dorm with someone a lot like himself.
It was that old-money version of Amherst, the one that existed before the college opened its doors to a class of students underrepresented in higher education, that seemed to rear its ugly head just before winter break. An explosive article in The Indicator, a student newspaper, described a yearslong tradition on the men’s cross-country team, whose members traded misogynist and racist emails about women with freshman recruits.
One email, from 2015, refers to a woman as a “walking STD,” and describes another as a “meatslab.” Another email portrays two women alternately as “my main bitch” and “my side hoe.”
On a campus where 13 percent of students are Asian, one runner inquired whether “Asians really have horizontal vaginas,” and another lamented a team captain’s “fetish for the Orient.”
New recruits were specifically warned against falling prey to the college’s progressive sensibilities.
“Another note on getting by: the deconstruction-obsessed mutual-fellatio circle-jerk of liberalism that defines Amherst may make some of you ‘question your privilege’ that each and every one of you undoubtedly carries,” a runner wrote. “This experience is somewhat uncomfortable and best avoided entirely.”
The team’s behavior was swiftly condemned by Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, Amherst’s first female president, who called the emails appalling, vulgar, cruel, and hateful.
An independent investigation, led by a former judge on the state’s highest court, prompted administrators to place the team on athletics probation through the fall of 2018 and to suspend several members, at least one of whom will never run at Amherst again.
The president’s rhetoric was far-reaching in its condemnation, casting the team’s behavior as antithetical to the values of a college that preaches inclusivity, one where student activists rail against intolerance and perceptions of racial and economic privilege within their ranks.
Even before this incident, Amherst has been more aggressive in its examination of the role of athletics on the campus than many, if not most, other elite colleges. Amherst’s race and class divisions invite public scrutiny, precisely because the college has been willing to look at them.
Yet, the cross-country episode exacerbates an uneasy tension around Amherst athletics, which on the whole remains the province of the well-heeled.
“We’ve got a huge race and class divide. Is this who we want? Is this our admissions policy?”
Behind this ugly instance of locker-room talk lies a larger story of a college’s grand progressive vision persistently hamstrung by pernicious divisions of class and race. Amherst, along with a cohort of other elite liberal-arts colleges, has put more money, more programs, and more training into the promotion of equity, tolerance, and safety, only to find enclaves resistant to the transformation around them. Athletics has proved to be among the most stubbornly homogenous and tribal, complicating progress and exposing the limits of cultural change. Before Amherst came Harvard, Columbia, Princeton.
Reports of misogyny from men’s soccer, wrestling, and swimming-and-diving teams surfaced last year in quick succession. In November, Harvard University canceled its men’s soccer season, following revelations that players had for years created a sexually explicit “scouting report” that rated female soccer recruits on physical appearance. Days later, Columbia University temporarily suspended its wrestling team for exchanging lewd and bigoted text messages.
In December, Princeton University canceled the season of its men’s swimming-and-diving team for similar offenses.
As at Amherst, these crackdowns occurred against the backdrop of broader efforts to rein in sexual assault, harassment, prejudice, and class divisions — at times by uprooting social organizations that appear moored to anachronistic values or potentially generative of wayward behavior.
Amherst, for example, long ago abolished fraternities, which then went underground and operated with relative impunity.
Last spring, Harvard unveiled a controversial policy that would penalize future members of single-gender organizations, including those hidebound networks of the power elite, the Final Clubs.
As the nation’s most prestigious institutions seek to unwind vestiges of exclusivity, athletic teams stand out as members-only groups that enjoy tremendous social capital with the sanction and support of college administrators. But that support is being challenged, particularly at Amherst, where a new generation of diverse and socially conscious students regularly calls out organizations and individuals for failing to represent the broader demography and culture of the campus.
The large window at the back of Elizabeth J. Aries’s Amherst office once overlooked soccer fields and tennis courts, giving way to the misty mountain range in the distance. But that spectacle is now crowded out by the Greenway Residence Halls, a row of stately new dormitories that replaced four 1960s-era “social dorms.”
The destruction of the “socials,” as they were called, was a necessary modernization of residential living space. But it was more than that; it was the demolition of what some came to view as de facto segregated housing. Through Amherst’s “room draw” process, athletes secured suites and floors for themselves, creating social cells that served as the center of the college’s party scene. Everyone may have been invited, but the jocks ran it.
Ms. Aries, a psychology professor who was hired in 1975 and is now the college’s longest-serving female professor, has spent much of her career pondering Amherst’s racial and class divisions. Athletics, she has come to realize, plays a central role in perpetuating those silos.
“The athletics teams represent the student body that was, and not the student body that is,” said Ms. Aries, who has written two books, including Race and Class Matters at an Elite College, about the varied experiences of Amherst students of different races and family incomes.
Amherst College’s idyllic New England setting is visible behind Pratt Field. The Division III program emphasizes Olympic sports with little history of diversity, making recruitment of low-income and minority athletes a challenge.
When the teams aren’t traveling together or partying together, they are eating together, marking off a large section at the back of the dining hall. Cliques and affinity groups of this sort exist on every college campus, but the divisions at Amherst, a college of only 1,800 students, are troubling to the extent that they fortify clustering along racial and socioeconomic lines. Within the popular imagination, there is little concern that college sports are too wealthy or too white. Division I football and basketball programs, which dominate the television portrait of college sports, send an opposite and equally troubling message that, on some college campuses, ethnic and economic diversity is largely confined to athletics.
But at a place like Amherst, a Division III program in a studious athletics conference, rigorous admissions requirements and an emphasis on Olympic sports with little history of diversity make the recruitment of low-income students and minorities a challenge.
“There’s a cultural issue on that team, which is a problem. And we’re going to work as hard as we can to fix this.”
A recent report, produced by Amherst faculty members, graduates, and trustees, brings those challenges into stark relief. While more than half of Amherst’s nonathletes are minorities, the same is true for less than a quarter of athletes. Just 6 percent of male athletes and 2 percent of female athletes are from low-income backgrounds, compared with 31 percent of nonathletes. This sort of analysis is far from routine among colleges of Amherst’s ilk. The New England Small College Athletic Conference, which includes Amherst and 10 other highly regarded liberal-arts institutions, does not track information about the diversity of its athletes compared with their campuses. Nor do the conference’s member institutions, save Williams College, which has not visited the matter in 15 years.
When Ms. Aires first saw Amherst’s numbers she felt that professors had fallen asleep at the switch, allowing a problem they’d identified years ago to persist.
“Look what’s happened,” she said. “The teams have grown. We’ve got a huge race and class divide. Is this who we want? Is this our admissions policy? Did the faculty decide this? It’s crept up. If you’re not watching, things happen. We were not watching.”
Concerns about the treatment of women by Amherst’s cross-country team have percolated for years.
A woman who ran on the team in the mid-2000s says she was “dismayed but unsurprised by the men’s team’s sexist emails.”
“During my time on the cross-country team, female runners were also subject to ridicule, harassment, and worse, problems that were never properly addressed at high levels,” said the alumna, who asked not to be identified to help preserve the anonymity of her teammates. “I’m hopeful that the administration will take these disgraceful revelations as an opportunity to improve the culture of athletics at Amherst, and I’m encouraged by their efforts so far.”
The former runner would not elaborate on what actions she and her teammates may have taken to alert administrators to their concerns, but it is clear that the college intervened. In the summer of 2011, Amherst divided what had been a coeducational team into single-sex units.
Suzanne R. Coffey, who was the college’s athletics director at the time and is now chief student-affairs officer at Amherst, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the team was split “as a result of some members of the women’s team expressing valid concerns about their treatment.” She didn’t elaborate on how they were treated, citing concerns about student privacy and the confidentiality of personnel matters.
“Any sexual aggression or mistreatment of students or others associated with this college is absolutely unacceptable. Period,” Ms. Coffey wrote.
Amherst’s current athletic director, Don Faulstick, says he was unaware of serious problems on the cross-country team before the emails came to light.
“Going back to it, should something else have happened over time?” he said. “Obviously we didn’t do good enough. We want to do more. We want to do better.”
The athletic director was visibly uncomfortable during a recent interview in his office, rapping his fingers on a table and often looking to a public-relations official for guidance. Like most administrators in the know the day of the interview, Mr. Faulstick was constrained by an evolving personnel matter, hesitant to speak about the head coach of the cross-country team, who would resign just a few hours later.
After a series of questions about whether Amherst administrators missed or ignored red flags about the team or its leadership, Mr. Faulstick, who took the helm of the department in 2014, offered this:
“Based on the investigation, and what we know about the team’s history, we do think that there’s a cultural issue on that team, which is a problem. And we’re going to work as hard as we can to fix this problem.”
As on many other college campuses, problems of race relations and sexual violence have been cropping up at Amherst for some time, and grappling with those challenges has become an overarching preoccupation. In the space of just a few years, the college has acknowledged and worked to deal with longstanding problems of sexual assault; undone a shadow Greek-life system; and dropped Lord Jeffery Amherst as its unofficial mascot, breaking ties with a colonial-era military commander who plotted to massacre American Indians with smallpox-infected blankets.
Changes of this sort are playing out nationally, as institutions with centuries-long histories look anew at traditions, symbols, and behaviors rendered unacceptable with time. This month, Yale University joined a host of institutions that have removed from buildings the names of pro-slavery sympathizers or white supremacists.
The new normal in higher education is a perpetual state of reckoning and re-evaluation, in which students often act as the emergent conscience of the institutions they attend. At Harvard, the most powerful rebuke of the men’s soccer team’s “scouting report” came from the targeted women, who called for men to either get with the times or risk being shunned.
“We need your help in preventing this,” the women wrote in The Harvard Crimson. “We cannot change the past, but we are asking you to help us now and in the future.”
The men’s team wrote a response in the Crimson, pledging to “do anything in our power to build a more respectful and harmonious athletic field, classroom, and Harvard community.”
Even as more women speak out, and even as more private acts of misogyny spill into public, student athletes remain reluctant to openly discuss these problems. The Chronicle, through email, social media, or both, contacted 30 current and former Amherst athletes across numerous sports, including more than a dozen men’s cross-country team members. Just four of those people spoke with The Chronicle, and none of them would agree to be named in this article, citing concerns that they would exacerbate campus tensions, betray the confidence of teammates, or be retaliated against.
One of the distinctive features of Amherst College is how it is at once transparent and opaque. The campus is arguably indulgent in self-criticism, prone to examine its shortcomings through faculty committees or student-newspaper columns. At the same time, there is a sense among some at Amherst that these debates are internal and almost familial, ill-served by broader public airing.
Despite the runners’ reluctance to speak publicly, not all members of the men’s cross-country team were on board with the crude communiqués filling their inboxes. One member wrote, “I know youre [sic] friends with most of these girls but you took it way past friendly messing around.” (The runner later transferred from Amherst, according to The Indicator.)
Soon, a team captain stepped in, assuring the new recruits that “We are not all misogynists.”
After the emails became public, the team wrote a collective apology, pledging that members were “looking at our individual roles in fostering a toxic culture.”
Amherst’s investigation of the team focused narrowly on the culpability of individual members, not the longstanding cultural problems that are now coming into view. But late last month, college leaders began to hear from women, who, during their years at Amherst, had had troubling experiences with male runners.
Last month, over the course of a day bookended by interviews with The Chronicle, Amherst’s president managed the continuing fallout of the cross-country controversy. In the morning, Ms. Martin disclosed that Erik (Ned) Nedeau, the team’s head coach, had been placed on administrative leave. By late afternoon, another shoe had dropped. Seated on a couch in her office, Ms. Martin glanced down at her phone and matter-of-factly read a text message from her general counsel: “Ned has resigned for personal and family reasons.”
Ms. Martin wouldn’t say if the coach had been forced out, but acknowledged that the controversy had prompted a review of his leadership.
“We count on coaches to set an example and to be part of the college’s overall effort to create an environment in which all students are treated with respect,” Ms. Martin said. “We would naturally ask what role coaches play.”
Mr. Nedeau declined interview requests.
Many professors on campus hypothesize that the cross-country team’s bad behavior could have manifested in any group. But the specter of an unchecked cultural problem within athletics has serious implications at Amherst, where athletes exert an unusual degree of dominance over the social life of the campus. They set the tone, in part because their numbers are so great.
Ms. Martin says she takes seriously these concerns but finds perplexing any argument that Amherst, of all places, is overly influenced by sports. The president came to Amherst, in 2011, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she was chancellor. She is a die-hard Badgers fan, who got used to seeing her decisions at Wisconsin scrutinized in real time on ESPN. “At a place like Amherst,” Ms. Martin says, “we’re a far cry from Wisconsin or even Cornell,” where she was provost.
Fair point. At the same time, athletics touches the day-to-day lives of Amherst students in a way that would be foreign to most at a big-time Division I institution. About one-third of Amherst’s students play varsity sports, compared with only about 2 percent of students at Wisconsin.
Ms. Martin says she believes, as others at Amherst do, that the percentage of student athletes at the college ought not to grow. She makes no apology, however, about her affection for college sports, and the president bristles at the suggestion that she or her administration has tried to protect athletics from scrutiny or criticism — a charge one hears from some on campus.
There is a history of Amherst administrators’ defending athletes as an upstanding lot. Most recently, in October, Ms. Martin sent out an email to the campus and alumni praising a men’s soccer player, who had written a column for The Huffington Post that criticized Donald J. Trump’s infamous hot-mike video. The player excoriated Mr. Trump for defending his lewd and vulgar comments about women as mere “locker-room talk.”
“If Donald Trump wants to know what actually is said in real locker rooms,” the player wrote, “he is welcome to visit ours to understand how real men speak about and treat women.”
The column provoked a retort from another athlete, who said that its publication, and the administrative embrace of it, risked white-washing the real problems of sexual assault and misogyny at the college.
“It is about time we wake up and realize that it is irresponsible for anyone in our community, especially those in positions of power, to pretend like these issues aren’t present on our campus and in our locker rooms,” George Long, a baseball player, wrote in The Amherst Student.
The president says she has not sugarcoated problems in athletics, and hearing this critique sharpens her tone.
“It makes me mad,” Ms. Martin says, “for the following reason: I grew up between two guys. Nothing mattered where I grew up except football, basketball, and athletics. My older brother was a football coach at the biggest high school in Virginia. My other brother was a fireman and an assistant coach. I don’t have any illusions about what young men can be encouraged to do or get one another to do in groups.
“Might I have thought that things had changed somewhat over the course of my lifetime?” she continued. “Yes, they have changed somewhat over the course of my lifetime. But it would be foolish for anybody to assume that what Trump calls ‘locker-room talk’ no longer occurs anywhere, and not at Amherst either. That would just be foolish. I did not send that out as a way of saying our teams are perfect. The fact that people construed my action that way sort of floors me.”
It is perfectly reasonable, Ms. Martin says, for people at Amherst to worry about silos of athletes on the campus, just as it would be reasonable to be concerned with any affinity group that failed to participate in the wider college culture. It is for this reason that the college has, for example, limited the number of rooms that any group, including athletes, can reserve in dormitories. But policies of this kind represent a constant quandary for administrators, who want to promote a culture of inclusivity without ramming it down students’ throats.
“We don’t want to social-engineer the ways they interact with one another or the ways they live,” Ms. Martin says. “But we want to help them avoid a tendency that exists everywhere, to live and interact only with people who are familiar and comfortable.”
When Siraj A. Sindhu arrived at Amherst, he thought he’d stumbled upon “a wonderland.” The child of Pakistani immigrants found in the college something he’d been missing in his upstate New York hometown, a rural, mostly white, often boring place. At Amherst, where Robert Frost once taught poetry, were students from Turkey, Iran, and Korea mixing with prep-school kids from New Jersey.
On a recent hazy afternoon, Mr. Sindhu strolled into a campus lounge looking every bit the part of an elite liberal-arts college student. He was dressed impeccably in a gray sports coat adorned with a white pocket square, a camel-colored sweater, blue slacks, and brown lace-up boots. Occasionally, he drank water from a large Mason jar.
Mr. Sindhu, who studies literature and law, noticed early on that the idyllic Amherst campus, with all of its multicultural majesty, was a place of deep divisions and contradictions. Yes, it was a place for everyone, but everyone knew his or her place. Mr. Sindhu saw in the housing system, where athletes of similar backgrounds clustered, a sort of institutionally sponsored “safe space,” where students could be free of the diversity that Amherst so proudly celebrated.
“This, too, is a sort of coddling — a coddling of the body from exposure to difference,” he wrote in The Amherst Student. “This is the sort of coddling that the college ought not to facilitate.”
On a campus where activism is on the rise, Mr. Sindhu could be characterized as a pragmatist. He sees in the cross-country scandal a manifestation of the most odious forms of division at Amherst, where group identity is forged through the belittlement of “the other.”
But he also sees in these student-athletes, some of whom are well off, an imperfect system intrinsic to higher education in this country. It is only through the tuition dollars of these students and the donations of prosperous alumni — all of those links in the great Amherst chain of being — that the college can achieve its noble goals.
“A lot of people would say that liberal-arts colleges want to create a raceless, classless, egalitarian society, but they wouldn’t be able to operate without the money of the wealthy, white elite,” Mr. Sindhu says. “You could view that and say these colleges don’t make any sense. They are contradictory. They are hypocritical; they are fighting for something that they don’t themselves believe in.
“But I hear that, and I think these colleges like Amherst are only possible within the current economic reality. It’s not that we are hypocritical; it’s that we’re trying to mediate a contradiction in society.”
When student frustration rises at Amherst, as it has in recent years, athletics becomes an easy proxy for a campus aristocracy. Such are the ingredients of class wars.
Students of limited financial means are increasingly calling out their more-affluent counterparts for boorish behavior. In September, an Asian student from a low-income background wrote on Facebook about a wealthy classmate who told her that his family had paid handsomely for him to have a diverse collegiate experience. “You should be thankful you’re here,” he said. The post drew reactions, mostly angry or sad emojis, from 860 people.
Amid this climate of tension, C. Rhonda Cobham-Sander, a professor of English and black studies, asked her students to provide her with photographs of spaces on campus where they felt the most uncomfortable. Students brought back pictures of athletics facilities and the dining hall, which is routinely described as a space where the athlete-nonathlete divide is most visible.
Ms. Cobham-Sander, who grew up in the Caribbean, came to Amherst 30 years ago, when the college was making a more intentional effort to hire women and minority professors. The progress is undeniable, she says, but it has also blinded some people on campus to the difficult work ahead.
Amherst is a place so liberally minded, so self-assured in the rightness of its intentions, that people tend to doubt the coarsest testimonies of women and minorities who say they have experienced discrimination or harassment, the professor says. The cross-country team’s emails make those stories plain, visceral, and impossible to deny.
“Maybe the reason it’s coming to a head right now is because we’ve reached a tipping point,” Ms. Cobham-Sander says. “The old established groups have begun to see their unquestioned position eroded. What we are seeing is the realignment of those groups. You could say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter jack.stripling