by Abe Asher
Through the years, OES’ Athletic Department has been one of the school’s most stable and successful operations.
But over the last few months — which included a flap about fan behavior at basketball games — questions have been raised about the school’s norms around athletics and its overarching sports culture.
Simply put, does OES care about sports? And how does it care about sports?
As Athletic Director Dennis Sullivan told me, “We’re really passionate about sports here. But the thing that’s really unique about a small school is that the fan support is very different. If you go to a bigger school, there are more fans.”
Indeed. For most sports, on most nights, fans come few and far in between.
Said one person, “I think there’s a small subset of students that support athletes and sporting events. The same faculty come. It’s Gary, it’s Rob, Art, Dana, sometimes Deri, and John Holloran to take pictures. We don’t usually see administrators at sporting events if they’re not in the athletic department. ”
Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Other faculty members appear from time to time, and supporting athletics and other extra curricular activities is not mandatory in any way for teachers — many of whom have families and other responsibilities to tend to at the conclusion of the school day.
It’s also a numbers issue. Especially in the fall and spring, the vast majority of students interested in sports are playing sports. There’s another issue as well.
“The second semester senior is starting to show up at everything. So it’s how we manage our time,” Dennis told me. “If you’re not coming to a Tuesday night basketball game, it’s probably not because you don’t like basketball.”
Still, it’s undeniable there’s a bond that grows between both students and faculty and faculty members and the institution when faculty attend events. It’s also undeniable that coaches notice the level of support at games.
“Coaches notice the lack of support from administration, especially when you go to other schools and see a stronger level of the support,” said one person. Dennis acknowledged that fan support especially matters “For coaches, who are giving everything, and for parents, who are at every event.”
In just the last two years, OES has hired a new boys soccer coach, a new girls basketball coach, and a new girls lacrosse coach — and for at least one of those positions, there was a potentially detrimental shortage of interest.
This raises another question: should we care more about sports?
While the athletic director is on admissions committees, OES does not admit students chiefly for athletic purposes.
“It’s no secret that our student body is admitted here for their academic prowess, not their athletic prowess,” said Coleen Davis, longtime PE teacher and coach of the girls tennis team.
Said Dennis, “I don’t think at any point would we have any credibility with admissions, or with the league, if we, say, found a women who was not suited to OES academically but would help us win lacrosse games and admitted her.”
“Being a really good athlete helps paint the entire picture of a person, but it’s just one piece.”
That perspective is healthy. And credit goes to OES’ athletic department and outgoing AD Kris VanHatcher for instituting a no-cut policy for sports — which Coleen cited for “enhancing the programs and created more awareness around athletics.”
The truth is that sports are often ugly — especially at this level. Institutional and cultural reliance on sport almost always leads to unseemliness. We see this time and again on college campuses, and in high schools around the country.
There are other advantages to our type of sports environment. There is little outside pressure on teams to win, allowing the athletic department to be a positive, supportive place. Sports — while there are very real exceptions — aren’t among the most important things going.
This type of atmosphere denies entitlement to star student-athletes, which, again, is a very admirable thing.
But there is a line. There’s a difference between decency and political correctness in sports. Decency is always warranted. But in this arena, political correctness for the sake of political correctness rarely is.
For instance, OES’ directive to replace the unofficially official fight song, which includes the line “I’d rather be an Aardvark than a tree from Catlin High,” was met with a resounding guffaw from students last year.
After both the girls and boys basketball teams won at Catlin in early February, OES students sung the traditional fight song with gusto. The new song, created by Spirit Squad, hasn’t caught on.
Our rivalry with Catlin is a good thing — and it’s better when there’s an edge to proceedings, as there has been for various reasons this year. It shouldn’t be polite. Sports aren’t beloved because they’re laissez-faire, and laissez-faire crowds are bad crowds.
Enter the recent controversy over fan behavior. Said one student, “Our fans are nothing compared to other fans. If people were to go to a 6A basketball game, they’d find that the experience is completely different.”
It’s true, and while that’s neither here nor there, many feel that there are certain expectations around fans at sporting events that too restrictive. Only recently has a longstanding tradition of OES basketball fans falling silent while the other team is shooting free throws begun to come unglued.
A home-field advantage is a worthwhile pursuit. And we’re getting there more often than we have in years past.
“I think it’s [the support] gotten better. The school spirit, the number of students at games — in my 30 years — has improved. That might have to do with the success of the programs,” said Coleen.
The formation of Spirit Squad, the growth of homecoming, and the OES’ athletic department’s new social media presence — which has been very well supported — has contributed to an effort that there appears to be energy for.
It’s part of a new focus from the athletic department to, as Dennis put it, “celebrate our student-athletes.” But there’s a long way to go. Gathering announcements regarding sports are mostly met with lukewarm responses. Part of Mikaelah M.’s platform in her Presidential campaign last year was recognizing the college commitments of athletes.
For many teachers and students, sports are out of sight and out of mind. For those people, it’s hard to know how much time energy — mental and physical — varsity athletics require.
Sports don’t stand apart from the rest of school life. They’re not for everyone, of course, but they’re important. Supporting athletics encourages camaraderie and pride. Sports encourage people to buy into the school, the community, and each other — and those are all things that OES needs right now.
In some ways, it’s an uphill battle. It’s urban schools and small schools that tend not to care about sports, and OES checks both of those boxes. Students don’t generally come here thinking about sports. Underclassmen, who usually don’t have friends on varsity teams, rarely attend games.
That’s not to say this is a major problem — or really a problem at all. Students gripe about the attention paid to major sports like lacrosse versus other sports like sailing (budget: $210), but they almost universally agree that sports matter to the school.
The athletic operation carries itself responsibly, and one step inside the gym will tell you that the school has done pretty well for itself on the field across many disciplines.
But our sports culture, and our understanding of it, remains incomplete.