An alum’s response to ‘Why are student-athletes more important…’: Not us vs. them

Opinion by Mikaela Brewer
Jan. 24, 2021, 9:13 p.m.

Being frustrated, apathetic and angry, along with the rest of the emotions in the book, is absolutely justified. I’m sure there are things we have felt and experienced this year that we don’t have adequate words for, as we wrestle with a global pandemic that has been wringing us dry for nearly a year. I think we can agree that any and all feelings are warranted and that they shouldn’t be bottled up. When they become problematic is when they are viscerally disrespectful to others, and worse, are expressed as such on a public news platform.

I believe that we’re all entitled to our own opinions, but only to the extent that we understand who our words could harm. I thought we had collectively learned this, especially at an institution like Stanford, which prides itself on teaching its students to tolerantly and empathetically value experiences and conversations. Most importantly, we’re taught to be informed and educated when we speak or write about experiences that are not our own. With all that 2020 crafted us a lens to see, it is discouraging to see that some members of the Stanford community haven’t learned, even now that hindsight really is 2020. 

Everyone has experienced the pain and heartache of this pandemic differently — we can truly only speak for ourselves and how the weight is manifesting pressure in our body, relationships and life. The least we can do is understand and respect this about each other. Needless to say, the last thing we need to be reading in our school newspaper is a group within our community being damagingly represented. Importantly, this is a group, because many see them as less intelligent and unwelcome, that has always had to lift up its own voice. Student-athletes’ voices have been some of the most prominent, powerful and impactful tools in combating injustice, whether they hail from Stanford, other NCAA schools or professional sports. Dare you say they’re more privileged when you haven’t walked in their shoes. Many, if not most, are competing this year for reasons well beyond the respective game they play — their role is beyond what they can do with a ball. Athletes are not more important than anyone else, but they are doing an important job that not all have the platform to do. 

Now is not the time to create an intentional rift. If anyone needs someone to bash, there’s a long list. Don’t come after the student-athletes who have given their bodies, minds and hearts to ensuring that we can see some kind of normalcy on TV (that isn’t a glorified Zoom meeting) and who have fought relentlessly to use their platforms to instill change in our shared community. You might wonder where my place is in this. Well, I was a student-athlete at Stanford too — I graduated in June. I also recognize that I haven’t lived through what it’s like to be an NCAA student-athlete during the pandemic, so I did some research and asked the current student-athletes themselves. Many of the sentiments that follow are a reflection, echo or paraphrase of their words. Apparently, doing research and ensuring that you’re informed is a novel concept for some, even those publishing pieces of writing who attend one of the premier research institutions in the world. 

I don’t doubt that being on campus is tense to say the least, and that unpopular decisions about living arrangements have immensely affected everyone within the Stanford community. I truly cannot imagine the dearth of complications, abuse and inadequacies that many students are being forced to live with away from Stanford, and I don’t dispute that certain decisions will take a financial, mental, emotional and physical toll. Be critical of Stanford’s decision-making — I fully respect that, but don’t make claims about an experience that you haven’t lived. You cannot think or write critically about something, especially a group of people, if you don’t understand their experience. Generalizing about that group, and speaking on behalf of them when you aren’t one of them, is ignorant. Many decisions affect student-athletes too. Let’s take a moment to think about their experience, and what they have lost for how much they continue to give to Stanford. 

The vast majority of student-athletes have not been on campus. Throughout the pandemic, since their seasons ended so abruptly in March, student-athletes have spent time at home like everyone else, with all the challenging baggage that this brings. Imagine trying to train at home — without facilities, coaches and teammates — in order to prepare for a season that might happen. Practice, lifts and adequate preparation for a season cannot be orchestrated over Zoom (not to mention, student-athletes are still required to take the same course load as everyone else). After loving a sport so much that you give thousands of hours to it over the course of 10+ years of your life, a pandemic switches the gears on the train, setting you on an unprecedented, uncertain, foggy path where the very thing you have dedicated your life to is stripped away. Mental health among student-athletes, to no surprise, has suffered greatly. I lost the end of my senior season back in March, but at least I was semi-prepared for the end of my career. I can’t imagine how dark and unclear it might be trying to navigate without this empowering piece of your identity — the thing that gives life, purpose and meaning. A public lack of empathy for other members of our community and what they are experiencing only deepens the distance and stress of this current moment.

What has been painted as “special privileges” for student-athletes was a decision to protect other students and the community as a whole. To accommodate Santa Clara’s strict policy, student-athletes have been housed in Mirrielees House and Suites. Per county protocol, teammates in only two households can share equipment at one time. Additionally, Stanford does not want student-athletes to be housed in the same buildings as other students in order to ensure that one group does not get the other sick, if by chance someone is exposed elsewhere and brings it back to campus. The same goes for student-athletes residing in the hotels near campus. By nature of the close physical proximity in competition and COVID-19’s continued spread, it is smart to isolate the student-athletes this way. 

For student-athletes on campus right now, the reality is not a fun, social or privileged experience. Most days are spent pushing bodies to their physical limits and taking classes isolated and alone in dorm rooms. As is typical with a student-athlete’s lifestyle, there is often little to no time to eat meals. I can surely see an electric bike being helpful here, saving time and providing a quick leg break (not to mention the fact that there is a very small subset of student-athletes who have electric bikes — many cannot afford them). Just because student-athletes are peak physical performers doesn’t mean that their bodies aren’t constantly exhausted or injured. Student-athletes’ bodies are riddled with injuries that will permanently alter their mental and physical health for the rest of their lives. Student-athletes are on campus to work, compete and advocate. 

Student-athletes spend at least 20 hours each week training. This does not include the time spent getting ready for practice, transitioning to practice from class, fueling and refueling, tending to injuries in the training room and training outside practice. Of course, there’s also classes and all other academic requirements that come with being a Stanford student. Athletically and academically, Stanford student-athletes represent the University diligently and passionately, hence our program’s 25-year streak of winning the Directors’ Cup, awarded to the best Division I program in the nation. 

This op-ed is not meant to garner sympathy from anyone. It is meant to set a standard of respect. There is a time and place to complain about the privileges student-athletes might have — the time is not now and the place is not at Stanford (many other schools give their athletes privileges which do not exist at Stanford). Importantly, no one’s slate is clean. Mistakes have undoubtedly been made by everyone — manipulation has occurred, groups of students have been harmed by decisions, students have been hit on sidewalks by bikers and COVID-19 policy and restrictions have been disrespected and disregarded. However, you’d think we would be beyond generalizing now, and painting everyone with the same brush, especially in an opinion piece. Write about something that you have thoroughly researched. A newspaper is not a space to spew hatred. Journal, rant to a friend, pray. God loves us despite the chaos. Being tired is warranted, but be tired of systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality in access to mental healthcare, inequity, lack of cultural competency, ethnic and LGTBQ+ disparities and lack of affordable housing to name a few. Help everyone quit these instead. Understanding and making space for a difference of opinion is how we grow, but there is a time to take a step back and be critical of your perspective and vantage point — what are you standing for?

Student-athletes are students, hence why “student” comes first, but they are doing a job, right now, that not all students can do. They represent something much bigger than themselves and they’re not doing it because it is necessarily fun. They are doing it because they have a duty to stand, or kneel, within a heavily broadcasted platform that others don’t have. And they do it for everyone. Respect and appreciate that, especially now. I think this is where some people can learn from student-athletes, who build around a team, selflessness, compassion and accountability. We’re all on the same team. We can’t be turning on each other anymore. 

Contact Mikaela Brewer at mbrewer8 ‘at’ 

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