It was 2010, and I was teaching at Penn State. Top floor of an old building on the main quad. 8 AM. On the first day of class, I gave an index card to each of my students. I asked them to write down their name as it appeared on official documents, what they preferred to be called, their hometown and three interests.
It seemed like every student wrote down some version of " PENN STATE SPORTS!" or "Penn State FOOTBALL!" as an interest.
Three of them, two girls and one boy, wrote "Playing field hockey for Penn State," "Swimming for Penn State," and "Penn State wrestling team."
No monitor from the athletic department ever came to check on that trio. No middle-aged white guy, spackled in college gear, arrived in our classroom to count off kids from his list (I remembered seeing those innumerable, interchangeable men counting up their charges at the college where I went to undergrad). It was just us: a graduate student teacher, and 25 college students, figuring it out together. Except that three of the students were unpaid workers for the school. Their academic future, their health, their identities and their institutional roles on this campus were, in many ways, inseparable from that labor.
In that first semester, I listened to those athletes talk about their version of campus life. The swimmer with morning practice was wiped out, drained utterly, before her first class of the day. At 3 PM, the field hockey player gave her day over to the athletic department. She couldn't take any mid- or late- afternoon classes in her chosen major. The wrestler wrote about the whims of a new coach, a legendary amateur wrestler who had swept into town to remake the program. He wrote that he was scared he was going to be pushed away from the team, neglected and gaslighted until he quit, thereby forfeiting his scholarship and freeing up room for a recruit chosen by the new coach.
I heard them, and reflected upon my life at a graduate student. I could fail to write a single thing for my workshops, or, at the least, I could sporadically submit woeful pieces, and not run the risk of losing my fellowship. Presumably, if I got injured (shredded my elbow writing a villanelle), I didn't run the risk of some NYU kid coming in and taking my spot on the poetry team. My schedule, outside of my weekly workshop and my assigned teaching duties, was mine to assemble. I could sell anything to any publication, could coordinate any reading series, could tutor for admissions tests or edit a magazine or engage in any kind of labor outside the school that I wanted and I would never put my own status as a graduate student and instructor, two positions that were both paid (in a tuition waiver and in salary, respectively), at risk.
This felt doubly absurd. On a human level, such a stark difference in institutionally permissible behavior between us felt arbitrary—like something out of magical realism (the slate grey Eastern European variety.) On the level of pure capital, well, very few aspects of a graduate program in the humanities bring real added value to the university. Even if one of my classmates "made it" in the literary publishing world, that added value to the university was one-ten thousandth of the value that it could glean from a single swim meet, let alone from a single football game. The athletes that I taught were, class-wise, more of employees of the university than I was. Even if the swim team or the track teams they played for don't break even, the presence of those teams makes the university a more attractive place. They add to the "feel" of a school, they attract lucrative out of state undergraduate applicants, and help to sell more school gear. A football team alone does not a 'fun sports school' make.
Small, private country club schools can lure undergraduate applicants with rock walls and organic salad bars; public universities who focus on sports can use smaller, niche sports even potentially unprofitable ones, to gussy up their profile. A student may be equally unlikely to use the rock wall as they are to attend a water polo match, but it's nice to know they are there. Furthermore, since Penn State is one of the few schools that actively turns a profit athletically, the non-revenue sports, the ornamental teams, were run at no burden to the university.
In the following semesters, as I taught more athletes (track, lacrosse, football, volleyball), as I listened to them in office hours, and read what they wrote, I became attuned to more moments of difference in our classrooms. Assignment extensions to athletes in season became natural and necessary: it's hard to write an essay when your job takes you on an eight-hour road trip over a weekend. I referred more athletes—both high and low performing—to the university's writing center as opposed to the athletic department's academic counselors: I wanted them to meet with those who saw them as students first. I made myself more available for answering questions about school in general: for many of my freshmen and sophomore athletes, our writing class was the only one of their classes that didn't take place in a gargantuan lecture hall.
Each midterm, I would receive a set of envelopes and forms from the athletic department. The form, one for each athlete, asked me to score their performance in "homework" "attendance" and "grade." Only once in four semesters did I receive communication back from the athletic department.
I had a young man, a wrestler, in my second year teaching at Penn State. He sat in the front row. He said nothing, took no notes, and turned in tangential essays devoid of punctuation or capitalization. He got Fs; I beseeched him to come to office hours. After my dire midterm report to the athletic department in which I did all but write "NOPE," I began to receive emails from the athletic department that asked if he was coming to class. I said that he occasionally was but that his work was unacceptable. Radio silence. I continued asking him to seek help from the writing center. I paired him with the deftest, most patient of his classmates when we had workshop. The senseless essays continued to roll in. He just nodded when we spoke. He asked no questions. I sent emails to whomever would listen, including those invisible academic 'coordinators' in the athletic department. I explained to the student that he was on the verge of failing the class. The day before grades closed, a day long after the add/drop deadline had passed, he disappeared from my class roster and gradebook.
A mosaic of small social moments from that campus remains with me. I remember seeing a cluster of men and women from the school's fencing team, one of the best college fencing programs in the nation, a pipeline for Olympians, walking through the center of campus at noon, in their college warmups, with not a single one of their classmates apparently aware of who strolled to class alongside them. On the other hand, I remember hearing a boy I taught—a shaggy, basic Bucks County type—who had written a delusional, ahistorical 'position paper' on affirmative action adoringly praise the merits--speed, power,, "swag"--of a star football recruit to his bros.
Division I athletes do not lead the same lives as their classmates. They know this. Anyone who studies with them, lives with them, teaches them or coaches them has to know this. The fig leaf of college amateurism rests on the following bargain: a young person gives their time and their body so that the university can try to make money, whether by pure revenue sports, or by knock-on 'brand' enrichment. In exchange, the school gives them a version of their service: a "college education." But while the student's ability to enjoy that service—taking the classes they want, earning intellectual capital by doing actual course work (ahem, North Carolina), studying without fear of having their means taken away (one-year scholarships in some sports)—is so regularly compromised, schools never have to reconsider their end.
A year after I finished at Penn State, I went to teach high school at a Catholic high school in South Florida with a strong athletic department. There I would teach a handful of soon-to-be DI athletes. My second fall there, one student, a gregarious, kind young man and gifted power forward destined for college ball, came to our classroom at lunch and asked me what life was like in college. I weighed my words. I said that he would have a different life than most of his classmates. I said that in many ways he'd work for the university as much as his teachers and coaches would work. I told him to watch out for himself, and decide how much of himself—what parts, what times, what sides—he would give to his school and the people who would always, always, place the school above him. He listened, nodded, and left.