At Bowdoin, there are two kinds of people: varsity athletes, and everyone else. Colloquially, this second group is commonly referred to as “NARPs:” Non-Athletic Regular Persons.
True or not, the idea that a student’s sport (or lack thereof) defines his or her life on campus is so pervasive that even last year’s National Association of Scholars’ (NAS) report on the College discussed the notion of two distinct spheres on campus: the athletes and the non-athletes. This conclusion was largely based on information gleaned from decade-old Orient articles and the College Prowler book “Bowdoin College 2012: Off the Record.”
But contrary to the NAS report’s conclusions, this divide—if it exists—is not an academic one; the differences in athlete and non-athlete GPAs is negligible, according to an April 2013 Orient article.
More noticeable are the perceived social consequences of playing (or not playing) a sport. The Orient took a more in-depth look at this issue by interviewing over 20 students, including varsity athletes, club athletes, non-athletes and former athletes about these campus divisions.
The athlete presence
There is a prevailing belief that athletes constitute a majority group on campus.
Non-athlete Preston Thomas ’17 said, “when I first got here, it seemed like everyone was playing a sport.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics data, 638 of 1830 Bowdoin students participated on at least one varsity team in the 2012-2013 school year.
Of these varsity athletes, 353 were men and 285 were women.
Bowdoin ranks second in the NESCAC in student-athlete population percentage, though all except Tufts fall within five percentage points of each other, and athletics are a central and visible part of campus culture.
Last month, the field hockey team won the NCAA national championship, and the football team was features on ESPN Sports Center’s Top 10.
Although athletes are seen as prevalent on campus, there is a notable lack of school spirit in terms of game attendance.
The NAS report highlighted this, noting, “perhaps the most important finding is how little Bowdoin students care about their college’s on-field performance.”
In an Orient editorial from 2010, as the men’s soccer team was beginning their NCAA play and the field hockey team was closing in on their third NCAA championship, the Editorial Board encouraged students to take a break and attend athletic events.
Before coming to Bowdoin, senior Brittany Vernon said she hadn’t expected sports to be so significant: “I thought because it’s a D-III school, athletics wouldn’t be as big of a deal and that there would be people playing, but it wouldn’t be that serious. Now it seems that everyone is super into their sport...I was surprised.”
This seeming ubiquity may contribute to the sense of social division on campus, which some say stems from the perceived uniform appearance of the College’s athletics teams.
Hayley Nicholas ’17, who doesn’t play a varsity sport, noted that teams seem “homogeneous.”
“It’s a little stereotypical, but they all kind of have the same look,” she said.
Fellow first year non-athlete Casey Silvernale agreed: “they run in the same circles, kind of look the same, wear the same clothing—headbands are big with the girls.”
Sophomore non-athlete Kelsey Freeman observed that many people on campus used sports as the first way of identifying a fellow student. It comes up in conversation as students introduce themselves to each other. And it is mapped in the objects students carry around.
One such identifier is the well-known “Gatorade bottle” given to athletes at the beginning of a season by the training staff.
“The Gatorade bottles are a big [identifier]...but also the sweatpants and the track clothes,” said non-athlete Tomás Donatelli Pitfield ’16. “I don’t think it’s intended as hostile segregation, but I do think it is a marker of their shared identity and culture.”
Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan ’98 agreed that the visibility of athletes is tied to their apparel and routines.
“I think a lot of the members of our teams are often found wearing a hat, sweatshirt or t-shirt that associates them with their particular group, which makes them easily identified,” said Ryan. “If you’re sitting at the same location at the dining hall on a consistent basis, I think its easy for people to make connections between groups that may be following particular patterns.”
Many other students recognized, as well, that specific teams command their own tables at the dining halls. Nicholas noted the existence of the “hockey table” in Moulton and the specific section in Thorne that athletes occupy, but said “it’s not exclusive, it’s just apparent.”
But stereotypes cut both ways and non-athletes can find themselves thrown into a catch-all category as well with the term “NARP.”
Zaima Mazumdar ’17, who isn’t on a team, was not familiar with the term, and said she felt it should be “Non-Athletic Irregular Person” instead, due to the number of student-athletes she perceived on campus.
With just two dominant labels for students:—athlete or “NARP”—some students find their athletic status more in the gray area.
In a 2011 opinion column “Reconsidering the division between athletes and ‘NARPs’,” Zohran Mamdani ’14, who plays club soccer but not a varsity sport, discussed his realization of his “NARP” status at a party. He wished to instead be in “a sub-category for those of us who almost play a sport,” but ultimately concluded that “if you are not a varsity athlete, you’re a ‘NARP.’”
Senior rower Katie Ross said she finds the term “somewhat offensive,” and noted that “if you’re not a visible athlete on campus, somehow that makes you a ‘NARP’” which she believes is an issue since “there’s so many ways to be an athlete and not participate on a team.”
Senior Kevin Miao—who played football before tearing his ACL last year and is a member of the Longfellows—also felt an athlete identity label did not fit him.
“I don’t associate myself as a football player, especially because I don’t play anymore but also because I never really thought of myself as one of those ‘rah-rah’ football players,” said Miao. “I mean, I sing so I never could be.”
With all the time that teams spend together, many student-athletes form closer bonds with their teammates than with other students.
Basketball captain Kirsten Prue ’14 said that, as a first year on the team, “upperclassmen encourag[ed] us to have friends outside the team. I felt it was really hard to do that, because I spent so much time with the team anyway that in my free time I was trying to do work, not make friends. And I felt like I already had 13 awesome friends.”
Maura Allen ’14, a member of the women’s rugby and hockey teams, said, “a lot of times I tend to have to be closer to my team friends because I just see them more often.”
This group bond formed from athletic commitment is also seen on club teams such as ultimate frisbee.
Zach Morrison ’14 said, “we have a frisbee house, we eat together at Moulton after practice five times a week, [and] we obviously travel together for different tournaments.”
This isn’t always appealing to athletes. Caitlin Greenwood ’15 quit volleyball during her first season because of its monopolization of her time.
“I didn’t know any of my roommates until I quit,” she said. “[I] didn’t even get a meal with them because we’re not allowed to, except for lunch...Every dinner after practice you have to eat together, even if you don’t want to. That’s one of the things I didn’t like.”
Ryan noted the importance of team leaders allowing players time to participate in other areas of campus.
“We’re fortunate that a lot of our members of teams are involved in Residential Life or Peer Health—several different areas within campus—which is able to expose them to students who may not necessarily be involved on their team,” he said.
Miao, however, felt that this is not often the case.
“There’s a few examples of people who do athletics and other things, but for the most part people are athletes and athletes, or non-athletes and non-athletes,” he said.
While being an athlete doesn’t preclude students from doing other things, one’s first identification is often as an athlete. Being on a team cultivates strong friendships which lends themselves to these group formations we see as a divide.
Miao sees this evidenced in the trust that is required between teammates in order to work as a unit.
“Football specifically does teach you how to work as a team which really translates to your relationships too—me and my friends are always willing to do anything for each other,” he said.
The close bonds between teammates spill over into closer relationships between athletes on different teams.
She said that “because athletes have something in common, they want to hang out with other athletes as well, so then teams hang out with teams.”
Prue also discussed the lack of access to the so-called nonathlete social sphere she sometimes felt in her role as an athlete.
“I know a lot of people who aren’t athletes but are friends with athletes and they end up going to parties and hanging out with the athletes,” said Prue. “But the people who don’t have friends who aren’t athletic—I don’t know what they do. And I wish they did because maybe I’m missing out on something really cool.”
This isn’t a new theme on campus, and was the subject of an Opinion column by Ben Kreider in 2003.
“Now, it is not wrong for people with similar interests to spend time together. One of the great joys of sports is learning to work together with others and building friendships,” Kreider wrote. “That being said, there is such a thing as spending too much time with a very narrow group of people.”
This is where many students see the strongest divide. Freeman said, “I don’t see athletes as much; they’re off in their own world.”
Tennis player Luke Trinka ’16 believes it’s important, albeit difficult, to establish himself outside his team in the greater college community.
“I’m living in a College House this year, that’s great and that’s already providing me with another community. That’s the important thing: establish yourself in different niches,” said Trinka. “Not necessarily compartmentalizing [your niches], which would suggest they’re existing independently of one another; finding a way to try to connect them.”
Allen lived in Quinby House and felt similarly that the system offered another type of community.
“I think I have a number of friends who are non-athletes, but I think a lot of that is facilitated by living in Quinby...and by staying close to my floormates,” said Allen. “I feel like that’s rare sometimes.”
However, Allen also felt that living in Quinby was sometimes “frustrating” during times when “people didn’t understand the commitments [she] had made to her team.”
Weekend social life
These divisions often present themselves most in the weekend social scene. Teams typically go out as groups on the weekends, although the degree to which these groups are open to non-team members varies.
Trinka has found that his social experiences on weekends were often dictated by his team, though he emphasized the inclusiveness.
“In no way do I feel confined to just go and hang out with my teammates,” said Trinka. “I even feel very comfortable with bringing students who are not athletes with me to attend a party the team is hosting.”
Apart from College Houses, larger parties often take place at off-campus “athlete houses,” which can compound both stereotypes about athletes and the perceived divisions between athlete and non-athlete social life.
Thomas, who doesn’t play a sport, said he’s never been to any athlete houses, but “probably would have been to them if I were an athlete.”
Julian Barajas '17, a non-athlete who has never gone to an athletic house, said “I don’t think the social scene is dominated by athletes...I hear [the houses] are exclusive, but I don’t care because I’m not going to be there—that’s not really my thing.”
“Teams can be very insular and cult-like,” said senior Cole Duncan, who has played football and rugby at Bowdoin. “I think that is a direct result of the school not having fraternities. I believe that our lack of fraternities creates this atmosphere where the athletic teams are the source of fraternity.”
Allen agreed with Duncan.
“I do kind of feel like the social scene really is dominated by athletes, especially for upperclassmen, outside of smaller parties it feels like everything ends up going to a sports house,” she said.
The first-year experience
With the fall season coming to a close, many first years are transitioning into out-of-season life for the first time.
Trinka describes being out of season as being “in this limbo, awkward period of time where you have some of your day opened up to socialize with people outside of the ‘athletic sphere.’”
Current senior Evan Gershkovich, who played soccer as a first year, commented on the transition.
“You’re kind of behind the bunch [in friendships] because its like, ‘where were you this whole time?’ ‘Oh, I was playing soccer,’” Gershkovich said. “It was strange because I had met some people, then was gone from them for 15 weeks, and then I met them again.”
First year football player Steve Anderson, however, noted that while he is now meeting people outside of his team, he still feels as though “the time you spend with [the team] doesn’t really drop off from the season.”
Evan Fencik ’17, a member of women’s soccer, said she spends more time with her teammates, and that she’s “become closer with them [the first out-of-season] week than [she] had the whole season.”
One big contrast between first year athletes and non-athletes is the built-in upperclassmen friends.
“I think it’s easier for [athletes] to get to know upperclassmen more—since they’re right there, they’re teaching you, they’re helping you practice—but for me, I’ve become friends with upperclassmen because of my classes and I haven’t found it difficult,” said Nicholas.
Growing past the divide
Many feel the social divisions most acutely in their first years at Bowdoin, and report that social barriers come down as you get older.
Miao feels the divide obstructs developing initial relationships but has not hindered him in forming friendships in the long run.
“Now that it’s senior year, I feel like the divide is almost gone between kids who play and kids who do not,” said Miao.
“But at the same time I only see a small subgroup of Bowdoin College every given weekend and I’m sure [the divide between athletes and nonathletes] definitely deters a lot of people from hanging out right off the bat with each other,” he added.
Ross felt similarly that the starkness of athletes versus non-athletes has faded throughout her time at Bowdoin.
“When I was coming in, the athlete to non-athlete divide was pretty jarring to me. Since then, I’ve just been exposed to many more kinds of scenes and groups of people and affiliations that exist on campus,” said Ross. “It’s less troubling to me now than it’s ever been before.”