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Varsity athletics struggle to retain players

Carleton is not an “athletics-first” institution. Though there is not a post-secondary educational institution that would ever claim this title, it is obvious that much of the American populace, including those with the most minimal knowledge of the collegiate sports world, would be able to designate schools that put a much stronger emphasis on athletics than others.

For most schools, this emphasis stems from the public’s ever-growing demand to watch college sports, which “athletics-first” institutions exploit to the best of their abilities. The University of Alabama, for example, which consistently features one of the nation’s top NCAA Division I football programs, raked in a colossal $177.5 million in revenue from its athletics department. Winning is a top priority, as each year, Crimson Tide administration offers full scholarships to the nation’s top athletic talent, in exchange for their playing, and therefore money-making, services.

Athletically, Carleton is in another separate dimension. As a Division III school, Carleton is not permitted to offer any formal financial aid on account of a student’s athletic ability. Coupled with the college’s relentless academic schedule, athletics tend to be viewed by students, athletes or not, as more of a side-hustle than a full time job. The issue with this train of thought is that NCAA athletics are a massive time commitment, one that is difficult for those not involved in a varsity sport to understand.

This time commitment, in conjunction with rigorous academia and no incentive to maintain a scholarship that does not exist, drives athletes away from varsity programs at Carleton. Across all programs, varsity athletics sees large groups of already established athletes leave the sports they’ve played for their entire lives each year.

This departure is enough to warrant unnaturally large classes of first-years, in order to account for the void left by those who quit. One of the more obtrusive examples of this phenomenon in recent memory, was the turnover in Carleton Varsity Baseball between 2018 and 2019. Coach Aaron Rushing brought in sixteen first-years to replace six other non-seniors who elected to end their baseball careers.

Joe Liesman ’20, a former pitcher for the Knights, is one of the six non-seniors who left the team. Liesman played two years with the Knights prior to receiving surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip during winter of his junior year. Surgery aside, Liesman had considered leaving the team prior to his injury. “I wouldn’t have been able to play at all junior year, but was thinking of quitting regardless of the injury,” Liesman said of his sentiments towards the end of his career.

“I didn’t like that baseball was taking up most of my time and preventing me from doing some other activities that I wanted to be doing. Along with changes to my priorities academically and athletically, my social priorities changed as well.” In place of baseball, Liesman has allocated the time once devoted to baseball to a variety of other activities, including forming a band, and working at the Carletonian.

Nat Gillard ’20, a former Womens’ Soccer player of two years, left Carleton Soccer for similar physical reasons: “I suffered a really bad knee injury (torn ACL and meniscus) that made playing very painful, which I knew couldn’t be sustainable. I was concerned with my overall health and well-being as well. Leaving was tough but definitely the smartest choice to make for my health in the long run.” Though not to downplay the severity of Gillard nor Liesman’s injuries, there is a significant lack of incentive to recover, or worse, play through pain, at Carleton than other schools. The intimate atmosphere and limited number of students allows for talented and capable individuals, like Liesman and Gillard, to jump right into success in other avenues. Gillard has since joined the Women’s Club Lacrosse team, has edited for the Carletonian, and works two on-campus jobs, as both a fellow for Off Campus Studies, and as a team leader at the rec center. Few other schools would present such ample and easily-accessible opportunity for students with newfound spare time. Perhaps this phenomenon serves as not an incentive to leave Carleton athletics, but somewhat of a consolation.

Some athletes commit to competing on a varsity team prior to being accepted to Carleton, and then decide not to compete before even coming to campus. Eryk Jones ’23, first-year prospective baseballer, determined baseball would not be a good fit prior to lacing up his cleats: “When I came to Carleton, I knew I would have a lot to do. Between classwork, work, baseball, sleep and social time I knew it would be a lot. After my first game doing play by play for soccer, I realized how fun broadcasting was. Between my newfound excitement for broadcasting and knowing I wasn’t that great of a baseball player (I hadn’t ever expected to play in college), I decided to have a talk with Coach Rushing.” Jones has stayed involved in Carleton athletics by working as a broadcaster for varsity soccer matches, and will do play-by-play for the baseball team this spring.

Mickey Walsh, a prospective swimmer turned CUT player, also was wary of the commitment a varsity schedule can impose. “I was just too burnt out and my passion for swimming just wasn’t strong enough to get me to make that kind of commitment,” Walsh remarked. “I didn’t want to do a disservice to the entire program by not really showing up for them in the way I would want to. The team deserves more than that.”

There is, however, one Carleton varsity squad that is trending upwards, in terms of retaining players beyond their first-year season. Though not a historically successful program, Carleton Football has managed to bring each team member from the Class of 2022 back for their sophomore season; this feat, rare to any Carleton program, has not been accomplished by Carleton Football in recent history. Sophomore offensive lineman Oliver Jacobs ’22 cites new Head Coach Tom Journell as the reason for increased morale in the locker room. “Journell is a huge reason why all of the freshmen returned. He found a way to make football fit Carleton, which makes playing a being a part of the team much easier. There is also a lot of hope and optimism in the program right now. It’s hard to keep people if you go 0-10 and have no chance of getting better, but with Journell, there has been a lot of progress, and it has made the team feel like we can and will compete in the MIAC. We also just have a great group of guys on the team, and we had an amazing group of seniors last year, which had a huge impact on everyone’s experience last season and onwards.”

Despite Football’s recent success in maintaining returning players, the trend of athletes failing to complete four years worth of a varsity sport at Carleton still persists. It will be interesting to see if the athletic administration will make an effort to curtail this perpetual roster turnover.

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