Sports that Struggle

Ted Stanley has a vision for Kenyon football.

"My vision," says the College's new head football coach, "is that on Saturday afternoons in the fall, Kenyon football is the event. Everyone wants to go. There will be tailgate parties, professors walking their dogs, families picnicking on blankets. Football is the nation's most popular sport. It can bring together the whole campus, the whole community."

The goal would be fun and togetherness, not necessarily winning. But the vision in its fullest form includes a conference championship. "I really, truly believe that Kenyon wants a winner," says Stanley. "Imagine if we were to start out our season 6-0. People would be going crazy and loving every minute of it."

Kenyon does have its share of winning varsity programs, but the traditional mainstream American team sports--baseball, softball, basketball, and football--are rarely among them. And that is a persistent source of frustration for the coaches, who feel that losing seasons and meager rosters do a disservice to their players and, perhaps more important, that their programs' struggles reflect a greater need for socioeconomic diversity at the College.

"This has been a mantra for me since I've been here," says Suzanne Helfant, Kenyon's head women's basketball coach since 1995. Kenyon excels in several essentially individual sports--swimming, tennis, and cross country. "But look at the lack of success of our traditional team sports," says Helfant. "It screams out at you. It's not simply that we're failing to finish consistently in the top half of the conference. We're almost always in the bottom half."

Indeed, since the ten-college North Coast Athletic Conference was founded in 1983 (the first games were played in the fall of 1984), Kenyon has won a championship in women's basketball just once and shared a football title once. Neither the men's basketball team nor the baseball team has won a championship in the conference's twenty-year history. (The softball team was started only in 1998.) The volleyball team won two titles, the men's lacrosse team was in a three-way tie for the championship one year, and the men's soccer team enjoyed a period of success in the 1990s. But otherwise Kenyon's name comes up on the championship list only in swimming, tennis, and cross country.

The problem, say Helfant and Stanley, is that the traditional team sports are "blue-collar sports." Good players often come from working-class or middle-income families that cannot afford Kenyon. Thus, added to the already intense competition for top student-athletes is competition for financial aid, often a decisive factor when families choose colleges.

"Kenyon is in a tough predicament," says Stanley. "We're very expensive, but we are not a resource-rich institution." Too often, other colleges can offer more need-based aid or more generous merit scholarships. As a result, Kenyon loses not only athletes but also socioeconomic diversity.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some of Kenyon's competitors offer athletes aid in the form of "leadership scholarships." Technically, these grants are a form of merit award, but Kenyon's admissions office frowns on them, seeing them as a thinly disguised way of circumventing the Division III prohibition on athletic scholarships. Some of the College's coaches, on the other hand, point to such practices as "creative" and "progressive."

Kenyon's national student body is a mixed blessing for the blue-collar sports. On the one hand, the coaches value the fact that their players come from all over the country. On the other, they wish they could recruit more heavily in Ohio, which typically supplies only 18 or 19 percent of the College's student body but which is, in Helfant's words, "a tremendous breeding-ground for college athletes." The trouble is, she says, "In Ohio, people who think about athletics at Kenyon think about swimming." Other coaches agree that Kenyon is often better known in Connecticut or Washington, D.C., than it is in Canton or Cincinnati, at least among high-school coaches and athletes. A surprising number of coaches and players, they say, haven't heard of Kenyon at all. The situation is particularly frustrating because many of Kenyon's opponents field teams rich with Ohio athletes.

In one sense, Stanley is lucky. The College's football program sank so low in 2002 (with a second straight 1-9 record, morale problems, a dangerously small roster, and complaints from parents) that the Board of Trustees made a major commitment to rebuild the program. A Grinnell graduate who coached at his alma mater as well as at the University of Chicago, Stanley was hired at Kenyon in February 2003. Aggressive recruiting by his coaching staff and support from the admissions office enabled him to enlarge his roster from just thirty-five players to forty-nine, of whom twenty are first-year students. Despite the team's 2-8 record in 2003, Stanley says, "It was a fantastic year. We gained a lot of pride; we brought a lot of respect back to the program."

He admits to being worried about the future, though. He sees Kenyon becoming increasingly selective and wonders whether the College will sustain its commitment to rebuilding football. "We can't be satisfied with 2-8," he said. "We're not fixed. We're not even close to being fixed."

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