Magazine Preview: Welcome to the Club

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The November issue of The Blue and White will be arriving on campus soon.  In the meantime, we’re previewing the issue on Bwog.

Many Columbia students did not attend a high school that lives and dies by the football team’s fortunes. And even if they did, they certainly don’t attend a college that does. Despite this, being a naturally competitive bunch, Columbians are sympathetic to the obsession with making varsity. However, the peculiar athletic culture here means it’s not necessarily true that being a varsity sports team is more rewarding than existing only as a club sport.

Last spring, the Columbia University Sailing Team held its first alumni dinner, where sailors of all ages dined on roast beef and quaffed Martinelli’s in Wien lounge. Tanned students and weathered alumni clad in Sperry Top-Siders and J. Crew chatted about favorite regattas and hovered over the club’s merchandise table. Dave Perry, a coach from a major sailmaker and the Chairman of the U.S. Sailing Appeals Committee, spoke of the intimacy of the sailing community, mocking himself for showing up in flip-flops.

That night celebrated the culmination of the club’s fundraising for the spring, an effort that raised an inspired $115,000 for ten new 420 Class dinghies—the two-man, 14-foot boats widely used in collegiate sailing. Fordham, which sails out of the same yacht club as Columbia on City Island, also purchased 10 new boats that year, and, agreeing to pool their resources, the teams now share a fleet of 20. Despite this dynamism, sailing team co-captain Marie Johnson, BC ’12, denies aspirations for more competitive divisions: “We’re improving our program, but we’re not moving to varsity.” The claim not to have varsity aspirations, coupled with the serious energy the sailors have devoted to the program’s recent overhaul, suggest a program not quite sure of its identity.

The world of collegiate sailing seems to exist beyond the scope of traditional athletics and also cultivates a particular social milieu that seems somewhat out of place in the middle of Manhattan. Morningside Heights simply is not a campus well-suited to competitive sailing, nor does it have much in common with the sun-splashed dock towns full of lobster-print chinos. Despite the obvious physical impediments, co-captains Kerry Morrison, CC ’11, and Marie Johnson have worked diligently to expand the club’s horizons. In addition to fundraising and buying new boats, last summer the club hired as coach one William Brown, a former Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association of North America All-American. The team feels the difference: “Our new coach this year is obviously a lot more competitive than some of the coaches we’ve had in the past,” says Morrison.

Given their successful trajectory thus far, one might wonder why the club would not want to make the jump to varsity status to further increase their edge amongst competitors. Such a move, however, would require funding from the University—Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 stipulates that no educational program receiving federal financial assistance can discriminate on the basis of sex, meaning that men and women’s sports have to be invested in equally. Since male sports tend to attract more funding as a general rule, the sailing team would have a better chance of attracting varsity sponsorship by promoting just the women’s team. But this idea is unpopular among sailors who feel that it would weaken the team’s chummy character. “My freshman year there was talk of just the women’s team of going varsity, but our team didn’t want to have that divide between men and women,” says Morrison.

Not only would the team be broken up by sex, but the team would suffer an unwanted loss of independence. Team captains would lose the right to send sailors to a regatta without a coach, as well as the ability to take on sailors with little experience. “There are a lot of captains that come to our team who have never sailed before college,” says Morrison. “You can have people become a really important part of our leadership that came in with no experience.” Sam Hicks, BC ’11, is one of these sailors. “I came to campus for accepted students day and my mom jokingly pointed to the table where the sailing team set up,” she remembers. “There were two guys in Polo shirts and she just goes, ‘Sam, hey, you should totally join the sailing team. You love J. Crew.’ I was like, ‘Mother, stop. Please?'” But Hicks’ mother clearly knew best — her shared affinity for preppy clothing soon developed into an e-mail/Facebook relationship with sailing team members that compelled Hicks to join up upon arriving on campus in the fall.

Even if the team were willing to give up its co-ed roster of beginners and old hands, it is likely the team would lose money as a varsity sport. All varsity teams pool their donations into one fund while clubs keep whatever they raise. With strong connections to an affluent alumni community, a club could easily take in more than an official varsity sport. This is the case at Brown, whose sailing club was established in 1896. While Columbia sailing was established during World War II and lacks a 19th-century endowment, the club is nonetheless in a position to capitalize on donations from its older seamen and is working to establish an annual drive in addition to its alumni regatta and dinner.

While beneficial connections allow the team to flourish as a club, they are still missing out on certain benefits of the varsity cache. Within the Ivy League, Yale, Brown, Harvard, and Dartmouth traditionally have the top performing teams, with Columbia, Penn, Princeton, and Cornell residing on the second tier. While club sports have gained weight in admissions processes at those other schools, Columbia still only allows varsity coaches to recruit. The captains believe their inability to influence admissions decisions in favor of experienced sailors is responsible for this loss of ground in the league standings.

The principal benefit of going varsity would be to establish legitimacy in a sporting community that discriminates between clubs sports and their varsity brethren. Club sports at Columbia, which can only call themselves “clubs” and not “club sports,” are not allowed to associate themselves in any way with the lion mascot, nor can they display the school colors in certain ways. The Columbia University Club Sports Style Guide dictates the particular shades of blue to be used in the crown logo and typeface. “That holds back the club,” says Morrison. “We had to almost beg to have our website just say ‘Columbia Sailing Team.'”

Hassles like these motivate clubs to weigh carefully the value of moving to varsity. Rumors have circulated that men’s hockey and men’s rugby have thought about upgrading their programs, but men’s and women’s squash are the only club teams to have made the change recently after a generous donation from Geoff and Annette Grant, SEAS ’82 and BC ’83. These teams will benefit from improved facilities and administrative assistance from the athletic department, but sailing is working to prove that with enough initiative, club sports can succeed without the varsity moniker.

–Adam Kuerbitz
Illustration by Wendan Li

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