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Sporting chance Why Skidmore is raising the bar in athletics and wellness
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Sporting chance

Why Skidmore is raising the bar in atheletics and wellness

by Susan Rosenberg

Skidmore’s eclectic, creative student body hardly fits the pep-rally mold, and the college has never had a football team. Yet in its own way it has a strong sporting heritage and, by all indications, an even stronger sporting future.

Athletics of a sort figured prominently in founder Lucy Skidmore Scribner’s vision of basic education: her turn-of-the-century Young Women’s Industrial Club taught “physical culture” from dance to posture to vigorous sports. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s physical education was always one of Skidmore’s largest majors. In the 1980s, when the polo team was cut from the varsity program in a budget crunch, die-hard members carried it on as a club sport, which still endures. And in 2003 that same kind of zeal inspired a grass-roots movement of alumni and parents that saved Skidmore’s ice-hockey team from the budget ax. The group worked with college administrators to retain hockey and also support the wider athletics program by restarting the dormant Friends of Skidmore Athletics (FOSA).
The college’s 2005 strategic plan cites the role of sports in moving “beyond the concept of residential life to that of residential learning.” And the $200 million “Creative Thought, Bold Promise” campaign expressly includes a goal of nearly $10 million to improve athletics, fitness, and wellness. Why? And what does it mean for Skidmore as an academic community?

Humankind has always had loved sports—“It obviously scratches an itch,” says Dan Nathan, a sports historian on Skidmore’s American studies faculty. He has examined how that scratching can inflame violence and cheating in the bigtime sports world. These days the headlines are full of pro players’ crimes and misdemeanors, and some top-level college sports have drawn bad press too. But Skidmore athletics are in a different league—literally. Skidmore competes in NCAA’s Division III, the niche for small programs that offer no athletic scholarships. Unlike Division I, Division III rarely gets national TV coverage or fuels betting pools, and its players never seem more like pros than like students.

Pat Oles, Skidmore’s dean of student affairs, says, “Everyone at Skidmore is aware of the potentially corrupting influence of wanting to win at all costs.” In fact, Skidmore’s varsity players (nearly 400 of them each year) have been winning more and more lately; in 2006–07 eleven of the nineteen teams earned berths in postseason playoffs, and five went all the way to Division III nationals. But Skidmore teams don’t live or die by media rankings and revenues, so “our ultimate commitment isn’t to winning,” Oles says. “It’s to competing, to making sure our athletes have the chance to win every time they step on the field.” He cites “the D-III student-athlete” as “a very special identity” and, along with many others, credits Skidmore athletics for being healthy, wholesome, even profoundly edifying. Sports historian Nathan concurs, “I’m very comfortable with the role of athletics here. Division III suits our values.”

Hockey’s rescue and the revival of the FOSA group in 2003 were “precipitating events, but enhancements to athletics and wellness had already been rolling ahead,” according to Jeff Segrave, exercise-science professor, longtime women’s tennis coach, and onetime athletics director. What the phys-ed department’s former chair Bev Becker had built in the 1970s (when most intercollegiate leagues didn’t include women) formed a launching pad for Tim Brown, hired as the college’s first athletics director in 1980. With coeducation had come the desire to start a full varsity program, and Brown led the way. He enrolled Skidmore teams in Division III leagues and oversaw construction of the Sports and Recreation Center, opened in 1982. By 2000 athletics were stretched thin, competing valiantly in tougher leagues but hurting for space, staff, and equipment. An employee-fitness program fell by the wayside. Equity for women players and coaches—required by federal Title IX rules—wasn’t on track. So in 2001 Skidmore formed a comprehensive Athletics Review Committee.

ARC’s 2002 report stated, “We have reached a consensus that physical activity is absolutely essential to the success and well-being of liberally educated students.” It also concluded that Skidmore’s athletics and recreational resources, then at or near the bottom compared to those at the other schools in its league, weren’t providing experiences commensurate with the excellence of its academic program. The committee called for construction projects, new hires, and a budget boost. (It also broached the idea of eliminating a varsity sport if necessary to properly fund the remaining teams. Hence the 2003 decision to cut ice hockey, which triggered the philanthropy that resurrected FOSA.)

At this time too, Segrave notes, “Phil Glotzbach came into the presidency with a personal and institutional commitment to college athletics and wellness.” Glotzbach says, “In addition to championing intellectual and aesthetic ideals, a college community celebrates other dimensions (the physical, the social, the spiritual, etc.) that contribute to human flourishing.” French professor (and Athletics Council member) Adrienne Zuerner agrees, “We educate whole people here, not just minds.” For dean Pat Oles, “Erudition and civil discourse are not the complete package; we should also encourage healthy living.” He continues, “Young people have very high risk profiles—drinking, unsafe sex, lack of sleep, fast food—so we should do our best to instill some good self-care habits while we can. Our moms were right: diet, sleep, and exercise are important.”

Few would deny the value of fitness and exercise for busy, stressed college students (or their busy, stressed professors). But why should the college go beyond free swims and weight rooms, or club and intramural sports? Because the competition and school spirit of varsity contests are unique incentives, asserts Gail Cummings-Danson, Skidmore’s athletics director and a national lacrosse hall-of-famer. “Whether it’s an intercollegiate debate tournament or sports match,” she says, the higher and more public stakes “push you to commit fully to do your best.” She also cites the honing of people skills, negotiating and cooperative strategies, loyalty, self-discipline, time management… all the virtues traditionally attributed to athletics. Although some popular books like The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values have sought to debunk many claims about athletics teaching “life skills,” Cummings-Danson affirms that job recruiters, particularly in business fields, “love to hear that a candidate is an athlete. They figure that student is well organized and competitive.” Oles confirms that Thoroughbreds compete “with passion and integrity, not just against their opponents, but also against the impulse to settle or to give less than their best.”

Chemistry professor Steve Frey saw that ethos firsthand when he was invited by one of his students to be a “guest coach” at a women’s basketball game. He and his seven-year-old son joined the team’s pregame and halftime meetings in the locker room and sat on the bench with players during the game. Frey says, “The coach’s dedication and passion went far beyond ‘Go out there and win.’ His exchanges with the players were thoughtful and analytical. He was all about getting them to play their best, no matter how strong or weak the opponents were.” The coach, Darren Bennett, says such faculty guests “gain a rich appreciation for the effort, time, and love that the students put into every play, every game.”

Tennis coach Segrave, an Olympics scholar, describes this full measure of devotion as “a journey into your soul.” All-in participation in a sport entails “exploring and mining your own personal resources—your power, your limits. Athletes sometimes talk like soldiers: challenged by physical duress in a situation of selflessness and belonging, they say they’ve never felt more alive.” Segrave admits that a military-style subjugation of the self is a potent theme in sports, and it can go too far. “I discuss that in my courses and warn athletes to be careful and aware. Still, done in a self-reflective way, giving yourself over to a team can be enlightening and gratifying. It reminds me of the E. M. Forster line ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.’” Achieving that balance of thought and instinct, Segrave says, “fulfills and celebrates us as human beings.”

No matter how transcendent the sports experience may be, Skidmore is “unambivalent about the supremacy of academic accomplishment,” declares Oles. Faculty receive a list of the athletes taking their classes, and Cummings-Danson says coaches direct all their players to talk with professors up front to work out any conflicts with practice and game schedules so that academics come first. It’s obviously working: Data consistently show that Thoroughbreds’ grade-point averages run just .04 to .16 lower than nonathletes’ GPAs—essentially a dead heat.

Nevertheless, an undercurrent of discomfort trickles around campus. At an open forum held last year by students in Dan Nathan’s “American Sport/American Culture” course, one varsity player confessed, “I don’t want my professors to know I’m an athlete, because they might look down on me.” The Athletics Review Committee described this prejudice by noting that when performing-arts majors have academic problems they’re often excused because of their demanding practice schedules, whereas athletes are likelier to be suspected of simply slacking off. “It can be tempting, when you hear of an athlete in academic or social trouble, to generalize about all athletes,” cautions Kate Berheide, professor of sociology. (The mother of two-sport star Sarah ’06, she is also an Athletics Council member and Skidmore’s NCAA faculty representative.) She and other faculty regularly witness plenty of athletes triumphing in classrooms and labs.

One concern for Oles is that varsity athletes often don’t study abroad, take part in clubs, or make friends outside their teams. Research in 2003 by Keith Ganzenmuller ’03, an athlete and a student of Berheide’s, found that the less they sampled campus culture outside their sport, the more negative the athletes felt about other students’ attitudes toward them. A comment at last year’s forum reflected that isolation: “Our friends are all teammates because we know other students don’t care about what we do.” Other reports indicate that the mutual misgivings are rapidly waning. To shrink them more, Cummings-Danson last year started the Thoroughbred Society, which publicly recognizes varsity players with GPAs of 3.67 or better. She says fifty-three were honored last fall and seventy last spring. “It’s a way to remind everyone—athletes, other students, professors—that the ‘dumb jock’ notion does not apply.”

Indeed Cummings-Danson wants sports to serve as “a rallying point for everyone on some level—if not varsity, intramurals, physical-activity classes, or self-directed recreation, then opportunities to join a crowd and cheer.” Segrave agrees that spectating builds community spirit, much like attending a Skidmore orchestra or Bandersnatchers concert. As enthusiastic sports crowds continue to grow, he also acknowledges the potential for fandom to get out of hand. Posting a campus-safety officer in the stands at home games “makes it clear that we’re serious about civil behavior.”

Not that incivility is common at Skidmore. But when it does crop up, athletes are quite right in feeling an unequal burden. As one student at the open forum remarked, “An athlete who gets in trouble is kicked off the team, but a theater major in trouble isn’t kicked out of the play.” Whereupon ice-hockey coach Neil Sinclair shot back, “It’s a special privilege to be a varsity athlete. That does put onus on the athletes to be good citizens and ambassadors.” Berheide agrees. While Skidmore’s a cappella singers or other traveling groups are ambassadors too, she says, “the Thoroughbreds are even more visible; they literally wear ‘Skidmore’ on their chests.” (By the way, Oles explains, since varsity play is not credit-bearing, suspending an athlete is a reasonable judicial sanction, unlike barring a theater major from completing a stage project that’s part of the academic program.)

The best-behavior pressure on players and fans also serves an ulterior motive. As the Glotzbach-led strategic plan maintains, in order for students to progress toward responsible and independent adulthood, they need to realize that means “not the absence of regulation but rather increasingly sophisticated forms of self-regulation.” In the spirit of encouraging responsible decision-making and healthy choices, exercise-science professor Pat Fehling applauds Cummings-Danson’s vision for making the Sports Center “not just the athletics department building, but a community building”—helping define games or exercising as just another good option in the wider cocurricular scene.

Alert to the consensus found, and perhaps furthered, by the Athletic Review Committee’s 2002 report, Skidmore’s administrators got busy acting on it. In the past five years, with help from FOSA and other donors, the college built a regulation softball diamond, created a new field-hockey venue, and resurfaced the newly dedicated Wachenheim Field in the stadium. New or remodeled indoor facilities include a weight room and cardio-fitness room. “And just look at the Sports Center entrance,” enthuses Berheide. “We’ve got the new Hall of Fame and a great-looking space that really makes a statement of welcome.” Other upgrades range from defibrillators to a skate sharpener.

In the same period, staff additions included a third trainer and an NCAA-grant-funded assistant athletics director. Skidmore also brought in four new coaches and reached its goal of making each head coach a full-time employee and the leader of just one team. Coaches also take on physical-activity classes and other tasks, and they work with the admissions office in recruiting new students. With Skidmore’s NCAA faculty rep Berheide (and Zuerner, as a sub last year) sitting on search committees, only candidates with holistic, education-oriented philosophies got the nod. That’s seen as crucial, because coaches can be such influential mentors. Liza Mills ‘08 calls them “a great resource. The coaching staff was one of the main reasons I chose to play soccer here.” Dan Nathan adds, “As faculty we’d be wise to listen to coaches. They know students differently, sometimes better, than we do.”

The advances so far have already shown results. For example, the softball team won its first eight games on its new home diamond, and last year’s ice-hockey squad (whose seniors were rookies when the sport was nearly axed) astonished the entire Northeast with an upset over national champion Middlebury. Mini-reunions have reconnected old teammates and joined alumni with student players. FOSA has raised $2.5 million, its volunteers’ energy and numbers keep rising, and its annual Hall of Fame benefit and golf and tennis tournaments draw hundreds of alumni and parents to campus.

Tops on the college’s to-do list now are tennis, crew, and riding facilities. Skidmore’s tennis teams have used YMCA courts in bad weather, but those are now so overbooked that “they have to practice at 10 and 11 p.m.,” Cummings-Danson says. She wonders if courts could be built, under a bubble, near Skidmore’s current outdoor courts. Also urgent is the boathouse: it’s literally sinking into Fish Creek. Faced with wetland and development issues, she says, “we’re looking for a creative solution.” Meanwhile the Van Lennep stables and arena badly need insulation and other improvements. There’s also talk of a fieldhouse, which many peer colleges have. “I mean a proper fieldhouse, for field sports,” says Segrave. In Saratoga’s climate, he points out, lighted and covered practice space is a must.

“On my wish list?” asks exercisologist Fehling. “A campus wellness center that would combine health services and counseling with fitness and exercise.” In fact, thanks to a recent donation, Skidmore has added a national expert on alcohol and drug counseling to the staff. But other wellness needs are unmet. For example, people doing workouts often have to cede their spots to physical-activity courses. Those and the recently restarted employee-fitness sessions always fill up quickly, yet Cummings-Danson has no plans to expand them, because “with our current space we can’t realistically accommodate more people or classes.”

No wonder the “Creative Thought, Bold Promise” campaign targets athletics and wellness. With fitness so popular across America—even as the epidemic of couch-potato syndrome (what Fehling calls hypokinetic disease) keeps spreading—Skidmore policymakers feel some urgency to direct more resources toward healthy, active lifestyles. As the ARC report noted, most colleges have older and longer-established athletics programs than Skidmore, and many improved their facilities in the 1990s. Pat Oles says, “Our athletes rank well in the standings. They deserve facilities that rank up there too.” He adds, “Some people get excited about diverting too much budget to athletics, but I don’t think there’s any risk of that here.” In fact, athletics—including physical-activity classes, fitness, recreation, and varsity sports—amounted to 3.3 percent of Skidmore’s $112 million operating budget in 2006–07.

And many contend that their value far outstrips their cost. According to The Game of Life, “Sports draw upon our passions and our myths in a way that little else does.” Helping students interpret and hone those passions, whether in public contests or solitary workouts, is job one for Skidmore’s athletics staff. “I never taught tennis,” Segrave says. “I taught through tennis about camaraderie, empowerment, and self-knowledge.”

Editor’s note: For more facts and opinions about sports at Skidmore, go to and click on “Scopedish.” Or share your views by e-mailing