A student-athlete’s response to ‘Why are student-athletes more important…’?

Opinion by Liam Anderson
Jan. 23, 2021, 12:00 p.m.

As a student-athlete at Stanford, I typically make every effort to employ restraint when I read a fellow student’s ill-informed criticism of one aspect or another of the student-athlete experience at Stanford. However, I occasionally see a claim or accusation levied at student-athletes as a whole that is so egregious and absurd that I feel obligated to say something to correct it. This is one of those instances, not only because of the utter ridiculousness of the assertions made on Wednesday by Rachel D’Agui, but because of the semblance of legitimacy lent to her false and harmful statements by their publication in The Daily. If you have not yet read her opinion piece published here on Jan. 20, titled “Why are student-athletes more important than every other student?” I encourage you to at least skim through it after finishing this paragraph. Please note, however, that The Daily issued corrections of false statements and retracted misleading statements while this piece was being edited, and the version linked above reflects those changes. I applaud The Daily for taking such action to combat the spread of disinformation, and their doing so serves only to echo the point I make herein, that beliefs based upon factual inaccuracies pertaining to student-athletes are rampant among certain corners of the Stanford community. You can find an archive of D’Agui’s original op-ed here.

I’ll begin where D’Agui began, with on-campus housing policies, and here is something I believe she and I can agree on: R&DE has done an atrocious job of managing the return of students over recent months. From shuffling students around campus and removing ovens from EVGR, as D’Agui mentions, to telling some student-athletes with OAE accommodations requiring a kitchen that they would have to choose between either participating with their team or having their medically necessitated accommodations met, R&DE has quite plainly failed to meet the needs of Stanford’s undergraduate population for stable and adequate living spaces. I recognize, as I believe D’Agui surely must as well, that R&DE is juggling an ever-evolving set of objectives and restrictions as dictated to them by University administration and Santa Clara County, which can be no easy task. Some of R&DE’s failings must be attributed to the admin’s inability to take decisive action time and time again, but that isn’t to say they lack blame. R&DE’s lack of transparency and communication around the housing allocation process for those permitted to be on campus has undoubtedly left many students and student-athletes alike upset with their housing arrangements, especially those who have been forced to relocate yet again. 

As for the student-athlete-only housing D’Agui bemoans as a malevolent scheme to force non-athlete students into paying for meal plans while separating student-athletes into a “distinct and superior class,” I offer two counterpoints. First, contrary to her suggestion, the vast majority of student-athletes will not have kitchens this quarter (there are more than 900 student-athletes at Stanford but only space for 290 residents in Mirrielees) and thus will also be “forced” onto meal plans; and more importantly, there are clear and necessary public-health reasons for this separation. As noted by this Daily article that D’Agui cites in her piece, student-athletes are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, both due to the difficulty of maintaining social distancing in many sports and the risk of exposure inherent to any sort of travel. Due to this increased risk, it stands to reason that separating student-athletes from the general student population would serve to protect the health of the student population at large. I would also note, however, that the general student populations of many universities have experienced astronomical infection rates, so the protections afforded by separating student-athletes from general students goes both ways. 

Now, with regard to D’Agui’s insinuation that doctors are fraudulently documenting and diagnosing conditions that necessitate kitchens in order to place certain student-athletes in Mirrielees: Consider the fact that there are many valid and legitimate medical conditions that necessitate a kitchen, such as various enteropathies and other gastrointestinal pathologies, some of which occur among student-athletes at rates many times higher than the general population. Furthermore, D’Agui suggests that such fraud occurs, but offers no evidence to the point, let alone rationale for how said crime could be perpetrated on such a large and coordinated scale.

Another of D’Agui’s insinuations, that Stanford Athletics is purchasing $2,000 bikes for its student-athletes, aside from being a very strange and obviously false suggestion, is problematic in a number of manners. First and foremost, if such a purchase were ever to occur, it would almost certainly be a violation of NCAA bylaws relating to impermissible benefits. Of greater import, however, is that it is offensive and disrespectful to the student-athletes who themselves — or whose parents — spent hard-earned money on a bike in order to make the trek across our expansive campus all that much easier after a brutal practice or game. Being passed by a student-athlete on an e-bike is an incredibly strange thing to get so worked up about, but for D’Agui, it seems to have had a outsized negative impact on her life.

D’Agui goes on, further claiming that student-athletes have been bequeathed some sort of immunity from punishment for violating COVID-19 safety protocols by “Daddy Stanford,” however she is merely propagating an unsubstantiated rumor instigated by an anonymous FoHo tipster. Although I personally believe it is entirely possible the party to which D’Agui references did in fact occur, it is neither my place nor hers to make public conjecture about what student-athletes have and have not been permitted to do based solely on a single unsubstantiated rumor. 

I also find problematic the outdated data and events D’Agui cites and refers to. It appears she wrote much of her piece in October of last year, based on the publication date of numerous citations as well as her note of Stanford Football’s refuge in the PNW. One such outdated source of information D’Agui cites is a Daily article from mid-October noting nine cases of COVID-19 among athletes. The most recent data for winter quarter, covering the first two full weeks of the new year, include 67 cases among the student population at large. Given the constantly evolving nature of the COVID-19 situation, citing data from more than three months ago when discussing student-athletes’ winter-quarter return to campus isn’t just poor journalistic practice, it’s intentionally misleading.

Then D’Agui makes her grievances personal, comparing the announcement of two Stanford football players’ new scholarships, a reward for years of hard work and dedication to their team, to a new scholarship she herself received, asking “where’s my article?” Although I think I understand the point she’s attempting to make, she is off the mark. The two Stanford football players in question were each awarded with an athletic scholarship in the ballpark of $80,000 annually, and The Daily’s sports desk subsequently published an inspiring piece detailing the players’ successes that led up to the announcement. A feel-good story amid trying times, the article was appropriately placed on the front page. I won’t speculate as to what sort of scholarship D’Agui received, but I am certain it wasn’t a large athletic scholarship. Nonetheless, receiving a scholarship of any kind is something to celebrate, and I offer D’Agui my sincerest congratulations. However, being worthy of celebration does not necessarily make something newsworthy. 

To close things out, D’Agui asserts that she is not “anti-athlete,” and assures us readers that she even has friends who are student-athletes. She offers a solution as well: Just pay student-athletes as though their sports are campus jobs. Forget the obvious financial impossibility of asking a cash-strapped athletic department to shell out millions annually to pay student-athletes, as well as the countless other problems that would come with a system of that sort, I want to hear how D’Agui would feel about the inequities between non-athlete students and student-athletes then, when a star football player is earning seven figures from the University, compared to the couple of grand the average student is paid for their campus job.

In the days since D’Agui’s piece was published, many of my fellow Stanford student-athletes have taken to social media to express their incredulous responses to her statements, and to convey their dismay with The Daily for publishing such a problematically misinformed piece, even as an op-ed. Beyond the almost comedic value of such absurd slander (especially with regard to her inexplicable feelings of resentment around bikes), there is real peril in D’Agui’s words of division, and her many baseless accusations and insinuations are made all the more harmful when you consider the broader picture in which there does exist a divide, even a level of hostility, between student-athletes and a small minority of students. It is an established fact that many non-athlete students harbor a variety of beliefs about student-athletes that represent a gross misunderstanding of what occurs in reality, and D’Agui’s opinion doesn’t just testify to that fact, it perpetuates it. From insinuating that Stanford Athletics distributes $2,000 bikes to student-athletes to suggesting that doctors are fraudulently supporting disability accommodation requests for the sole purpose of gaming the draw system to get their patients placed into more desirable housing, D’Agui is spreading patently untrue falsehoods that serve only to further misinform the Stanford student body and ostensibly widen the very divisions between student-athletes and non-athlete students that she claims to wish to close. So, Rachel, let’s be clear: Your rancorous rhetoric and misinformed accusations are, to borrow your own words, “simply bullshit.” 

Contact Liam Anderson at liamand ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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