On Tuesday night, I took my usual spot, my daughter at my side, on the bleachers at Manhattanville College, just a stone’s throw from my office in Founders Hall. I tend to sit middle left at GoValiants.Com field, wedged between the unofficial students’ section and the unofficial parents’ section. The event? Women’s lacrosse – the first playoff game of the Skyline Conference postseason.
There was a time when I didn’t know a whole lot about lacrosse, a Native American sport with origins in the St. Lawrence Valley. Growing up in the Berkshires, attending public schools, lacrosse was relatively unfamiliar to me. My first year at Bates College, I could see Garcelon Field from my dorm, and grew intrigued by the part football, part hockey game that unfolded before me. It was fast, confusing, and – oh yes – a bit violent.
I was kind of hooked.
When I settled into my position in the Fall of 2019 as Professor of Sport Studies at Manhattanville, I began to work closely with a lot of student-athletes and found them to be one of the most dedicated groups on campus, similar to the devoted and passionate student artists and performers I had worked with in the past. After becoming advisor to many of them, I started to follow their team results – I had to do something to offset the hardships of being a Red Sox believer. In November of my first semester, I finally made my debut as a Manhattanville Valiants fan at Rye Playland’s Ice Casino for a women’s hockey home game.
It was all kinds of fabulous, perhaps especially the moment that a rather quiet and studious member of my Ethics in Sport class checked the daylights out of her opponent. That, I thought to myself, is a side of Janet I have never seen.
The multifaceted lives of student-athletes go beyond their on-ice, on-field, personas. It also emerges in their relationships with their friends (“But I have to go to practice!”), their professors (“But I have an away game!”), their teammates (“But I have to study!”), and their coaches (“But I have a test that day!”). Student-athletes navigate a lot of the contradictions we throw at them. They learn to question everything while working in my classroom, rewarded for substantiating new ideas with investigation and research, while on the field, they submit to strategies set by a coach, and calls issued by a referee. Debating in the classroom might get them an A for participation. Arguing on the field might get them a yellow card or a seat on the bench.
Of course, a poor grade on a paper might be considered as unfair as an offside call on the pitch, while feedback to a coach about how to approach an opponent’s star player might be received with a slap on the back and a charge of “let’s try it.”
But what I’ve discovered by dedicating time and attention to their games is that I am, quite honestly, in awe of them. Their work ethic. Their sportsmanship. Their ability to balance so many things at once. And – I hope – their capacity to ask for help when they need it.
The arrival of COVID-19 on campus took away so much from these students, including intercollegiate sport. Entire seasons fell by the wayside, while spectator-less events meant there was no spot on any bleacher for me. But still, we got the work of college done. In fall, 2020, I opted to teach outside in order to somewhat dodge remote learning. At that moment, in the pre-vaccination world, any return to campus felt, well, kind of crazy. But the student-athletes were there, hoping to wrangle any semblance of a season they could. I put together what we call a “flipped” classroom: I posted lectures online, carefully voiced with my comments, for students to work through before class, and then we would meet for a few hours each week on the patio of the college’s Center for Design Thinking, determined to make it work.
“What if it rains?” I asked them.
Then we will get wet, they replied.
The experiment created a seminar community unlike anything I’d ever experienced. They showed up, week after week, in wind and cold and – oh yes, forgot about the time change – dwindling light.
Once spectators are allowed at your games, I told them, I will be there.
And I have been: soccer, rugby, hockey, basketball, volleyball, and – oh yes – lacrosse. Last Tuesday night, as the women’s lax team paved their path to the semi-final round with a spectacular victory, I was there. I was there to see Lara and Kerry combine for nine goals, to cheer Kasey when she caused a turnover, and yell for Caity when she fired the ball into the net. I was there to watch the men’s team, their season over, show up for the women’s side and make their presence known.
And I was there, as it turned out, for what would be their last victory of the season, as just two days later they fell to the US Merchant Marine Academy, the number 1 seed.
But to me, they are champions, serving as a crucial part of my getting back some of that normal we all have been seeking of late. And when they cross the stage in a few days in caps and gowns, their friends and families watching, I will cheer for them one last time. Their victories, as with any student who made it through college in the age of COVID, are many.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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