Dear Columbia Athletics and the Columbia athletics community,
During my sophomore year, I quit the varsity sports team to which I was recruited.
I left volleyball due to frustrations with the team’s coaches that I felt would not be effectively addressed by the coaches or athletics administration while I remained on the team. After spending four years on campus interacting with current and former athletes, I have learned that negative team and coaching experiences like mine are the norm for many athletes, particularly female ones.
I entered my first year at Columbia like most other incoming student-athletes: as an elite-level high school player excited to make an impact in an undervalued collegiate program. I was attracted to Columbia for its pursuit of “excellence,” a word that was continuously repeated by coaches and administrators throughout my recruitment process. After meeting talented and passionate teammates who shared visions of winning the program’s first-ever Ivy League championship, I was optimistic about the future.
What I discovered, however, was that the team’s goal of winning was deeply misaligned with the strategy, and perhaps values, of its newly hired coaching staff. It did not appear that winning the game was the primary agenda when determining playing time. Further, issues that often undermine women’s sports became another hurdle for the team. For example, equipment was old, even dangerous, and prime practice time in the gym was all but reserved for men’s teams. My teammates and I had to wake up before sunrise to accommodate the 6:45 a.m. start times in season so the men’s basketball team could practice at their preferred time while out of season.
The result of this was unsurprising. During my first season, we lost nine consecutive games, finishing second-to-last in the league with a conference record of 4-10. Patterns from the first season continued throughout the year and bled into preseason of the following year. I quit the team alongside three of my teammates in the fall of my sophomore year.
As I continued to interact with other female athletes, I learned that my experience was not unique—coaching turnover was frequent, coaches’ competencies often did not live up to expectations, and players from a range of sports expressed a shared sense of disillusionment with their Columbia athletic experience.
These issues are rooted in the investment decisions of the athletics administration. Last March, Spectator published a report on thespending gap between men’s and women’s sports at Columbia, which highlighted a growing wage gap between head coaches by team gender as well as fewer championship successes for women’s sports. My own analysis of the data shows a positive correlation between total investment per athlete and Ancient Eight championships won in the following season, as well as a positive correlation between total investment per athlete and retention rate in the following season, for both men’s and women’s sports. In other words, the greater the investments, the higher the retention of elite athletes and the more championships achieved—regardless of gender.
The unprecedented spending and success of Columbia’s football teamserves as a prime example of the relationship between the two factors. Allocating equal monetary support to men’s and women’s sports is unrealistic, as popular men’s sports garner larger revenue streams. However, Columbia can do more to show it values its women’s teams. If Columbia Athletics wants to see greater success and fewer dropouts on its women’s teams, increasing investment, especially in women’s coaching staffs, would be a good place to start.
Beyond monetary support, improved communication between players and the athletics administration is imperative. After my teammates and I quit our sport, not one of us received an exit meeting with administrators to discuss our team’s issues. We sent letters and received no responses.
It is extremely difficult for athletes to initiate conversations with those in power regarding concerns for their team due to fear of retaliation, team politics, or the mentality engrained in athletes to push through the pain at all costs for their love of sport. The administration must be sensitive to this and become more proactive in listening to and engaging with its athletes.
To enhance communication, I recommend forming a coalition of player-nominated representatives from each team to participate in regular meetings with administration leadership. Meetings could take place both as a group and individually and should serve as a confidential space to address team-related issues, to celebrate success, and to foster personal connections between the administration and student-athlete community.
Although Columbia currently maintains a student-athlete advisory committee that espouses similar objectives, administrative higher-ups are often not involved in meetings. A space for direct communication between administrative and student-athlete leadership, where mutual accountability is the primary objective, is necessary.
Additionally, student-athletes must continue to demand improvement when their needs are not met. In a broader culture where even the highest-paid professional athletes are expected to “shut up and dribble” and are boxed out for their beliefs, silence and complacency are toxic. Players need a forum to share concerns so they can help improve the quality of their team and pursue the excellence for which they were recruited.
The relationship between athletes, coaches and administrators is reciprocal; each party depends on the others to work in its best interests and toward the same goal of fostering success and “excellence.” With greater administrative investment, particularly in women’s sports, and more open and frequent communication between all parties, Columbia’s longtime goal of athletic excellence can become its reality.
The author is a recent graduate of Columbia College interested in promoting positive change in the Columbia experience. She is pursuing her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Southern California.