The Realities of Unity
“The world of sports knows no religious, racial or political differences,” proclaimed Robert Kennedy. “Athletes, from whatever land they come, speak the same language.” In what was likely a rousing speech rife with examples of athletic camaraderie, Kennedy expertly tapped into a collective desire to understand sports as a unifier, as a transcender of racial boundaries and a unique arena of justice. But was Kennedy, with his idyllic understanding of athleticism, actually right?
At Packer, some students feel that the general social world, the one of athletes and non-athletes, is laden with racial divides, as friend groups frequently break down along the lines of identifiers.“Some friend groups more than others, but I generally think that people tend towards those who they’re more comfortable with, and often that means people who have similar experiences as you,” said Maya Joseph (‘20). “We’re pretty reluctant to deal with the discomfort of making different friends, so I would say there is some racial divide.”
Sports teams, though, inhabit a social world of their own, one which prides itself on companionship and aims to eliminate any sense of distance among teammates.
“Unity is one of the reasons many people join teams,” said Director of Athletics Darrin Fallick. “They want to play the sport and try to win, but for the people I’ve spoken to in my career, it hasn’t been so much about winning, it’s been about the relationships.” Small teams, such as the ones at Packer, breed closeness, as they force students to spend pockets of empty time together, from sitting on the bus, to watching from the bench, to resting during practice. But just because those teams are tight-knit does not necessarily mean they are exempt from the social divides that plague Packer more generally.
In a survey sent out to the Upper School, student-athletes were asked to rate, on a scale of one to five, the relatability of the statement, “I feel more comfortable on my sports team than I do in the larger Packer community,” with five meaning that they strongly agreed. Of the 68 respondents, a notable 78% of whom were white, 28% rated their level of comfort a three, 31% a four, and 25% a five, suggesting that sports teams at Packer typically feel more accepting than does the general student body. There are, however, caveats; many respondents who identified as people of color responded that when a sports team is diverse, the environment is improved, but when a team lacks diversity, their awareness of racial disparities is more acute.
“In 9th grade, I didn’t feel very comfortable on the team because it was centered around a group of white girls,” explained an anonymous junior who identifies as Latinx. “However, 10th and 11th grade were much better because a few girls of color joined the team…and it felt not as divided as before.”
Of 53 white respondents, 10 wrote that their identifiers don’t affect their athletic experience at all, while some others named their whiteness as the root of their comfort. “Of the 14 or 15 people on my team, only 2 members are non-white,” wrote a sophomore girl. “Because I am white and the majority of my team is white, it is very easy to feel comfortable.”
Darrin acknowledged the challenges of creating diverse sports teams in a space like Packer, which does not reflect the full diversity of the larger world. He explained that attempts at diversification through the admissions process are not always effective, given that not all accepted students choose to come. “I don’t think [that the sense of separation] is necessarily sports,” Darrin said. “I see it as Packer not being as diverse as we would, I think, like it to be. That causes this ripple effect in all spaces, whether it’s teams, theater, bands…”
For the teams that see fewer racial disparities, though, there seems to be a unique sense of closeness. That intimacy perhaps stems from the instant connection established between those who share a similar trait, in this case a love of a sport. Often, having at least some diversity on a team results in a more universal sense of belonging and connection among members.
“I am a person of color and there are other people of color on the team, so it does feel nice that I can be trained with people who likely had similar upbringings as me,” answered Antonio Mota (‘21). Given that 96% of survey respondents said that, overall, they felt accepted and appreciated on their team, there is surely a ring of truth in Robert Kennedy’s words. Sports teams generate a sense of unity that one is unlikely to find elsewhere. But Kennedy’s understanding of the athletic community, while not necessarily wrong, seems to be too simplistic. The companionship that so many athletes here seek is dependent not only on a shared interest, but on accurate representation; only when Packer is as diverse as the city it lives within can all of its sports teams begin to “know no differences.”