The great divide: Students vs. student-athletes

By Russ Fiorella
Opinion Contributor

Summer has come and gone and the beginning of a new chapter at Canisius College is well upon us. Freshmen remain humorously aloof, Tim Hortons is back crafting its classic caffeine and culinary dandies, and Joe Van Volkenburg is still enamored with his job. The beat goes on. Yet, these delights are quick to be overshadowed by a smell pungent enough to asphyxiate a kindergartener. Luckily Canisius College’s inhabitants are over eighteen years old. The air is coated with the nauseating, distinct smell of bad blood and it’s coming from the disconnection between students and student-athletes. This mephitic fume is widespread throughout the campus and it is disuniting our community. If you are confused as to what I am speaking of, check into the nearest hospital and ask for a phrenologist. Polarization between students and student-athletes is a reality, and it can’t be dealt with unless it’s talked about.

The social structure at Canisius is based on perceptions, or as we will soon find, misperceptions. The “cool” kids are nestled at the top while less “relevant” individuals rest in the lower sphere. The higher you land on the pyramid the more the “I’m better than you” perception tends to be relevant.  Athletes, for whatever reason, are perceived as the kings and queens of Canisius College, whereas their remaining “unskilled” classmates cower below them. Like a cult they talk, walk, eat, and bunk together. Their cliques are so tightly bound that they stretch beyond campus. Take a dive down to Chippewa in the wee Saturday morning hours and you won’t know a soul unless you play hockey or baseball. Heck, have you checked Facebook lately? They are even starting to marry each other. One big happy family.  

Strolling into the dining hall is comparable to stepping into a scene from “Mean Girls.” Turn to your immediate left and indubitably you will find a cohort of athletes situated in what many call “the nest.”  Like a territorial venue of vultures raising their heads from half devoured prey, they throw passive aggressive glares at any unrecognizable pedestrian. Judgmental, critical, they tend to gloat with their eyes. Walk the halls, venture into the library, or take a seat in the common area in Science Hall. Everywhere you turn braggadocios “flying-Vs” of blue and yellow warm-up jackets fetid with pettiness, arrogance, egomania, and narcissism prowl to and fro. As they skulk, they half-scowl. Their heads sway left and right throwing emotionless looks sharp enough to cut steel. Need I go further? If you fall in the bottom slice of the pyramid, none of this is probably coming as a surprise to you. What’s interesting is if you’re the average athlete reading this, you are likely flummoxed.  

Maybe perception is not necessarily reality?    

Non-athletes, have you ever spoken to a student-athlete? Let me restate that, have you ever spoken to a classmate who plays a sport for Canisius? Moreover, have you ever placed yourself in a student-athlete’s shoes?  Have you ever exerted yourself in the weight room for an hour and a half, sat through a tedious film session, then pushed through grueling drills for two more hours, and return to your dorm with a pile of assignments due the next day? I have and it’s not fun. Afterwards you’re irritable, fatigued to the bone, and hunger is at the forefront of your mind. Maybe that’s why they sit in the same spot in the cafeteria, because it’s nearest to the food lines. Am I condoning uncomfortable glares and assertive stands? Absolutely not. But questions beckon more questions to student-athlete skeptics everywhere. Why would an agile and physically domineering soccer player walk to the opposite corner and spontaneously strike a conversation with someone when the buddies he’s had since freshmen year are sitting at their usual spot? Why would this same soccer stud want to strike a conversation with residents who glare at him as if he’s public enemy number one?

There are a few things that need to be established once and for all. One, athletes typically do not interact with non-athletes because, by default, their friend groups have been chosen for them, rather than by them. A basketball player who works on his or her game 20 or more hours a week has no choice but to acclimate themselves with his or her teammates. Second, athletes are just as put off by the awkward gestures of non-athletes. I learned this in a conversation with Adam Weir, a guard on the men’s basketball team. In an animated chat about the gloomy sports culture on campus, Weir at one point exclaimed, “I don’t get it.  Everywhere I go people look at me as if I’m the bad guy. I haven’t said a word and people seem to be judging me.” Here’s another fact: athletes are just as busy, if not busier than the average commuter or residential. Practices, film sessions, meals on wheels, lifts, games, the list goes on. They are probably taking fifteen credits, they are contemplating life after college, and they have a right to have fun too.    

Mind you, there are plenty of athletes who have unflattering personalities, but there is a copious amount of comparably stuck-up characters among the groups of residents and commuters as well. Why don’t non-athletes cheer on their school? Why do these barriers and stereotypes exist? Why are both camps throwing each other under the bus? Simple answer: an absence of direct personal engagement and invitation. There is a lack of one-on-one conversation going on between the two groups and we desperately need to establish a point of unification. Conversations are difficult to come by these days. Why interact with another human being face to face when you can text? Besides, I have to run. I have a part-time job to get to and I have tons of homework to complete for an online course. Everyone see where I am going here? Yet, what if a throng of hockey players struck up a conversation with Dugan residents inviting them to one of their games the coming weekend. Vice-versa, what if a group of Campus Ministry interns approached Coach Baron and his players about going on a hiking retreat after the season? What if the softball team started talking to members of the Student Programming Board about coordinating an event before a double-header at the end of May? Perhaps the most romantic of all, what if the lacrosse team sat down in the commuter lounge asking for support at their games?  Imagine what could be achieved if both sides wandered beyond their friend groups and directly, personally engaged each other?

Marketing wizards, mock trial phenoms, and Campus Ministry interns represent Canisius to the best of their ability all year. Student-athletes strive to excel at their respective sports with blood, sweat, and tears too. That should strike a chord no matter what social strata you fall under. I’m not pushing for students to construct shrines of Kevin Bleeker in their dorm rooms, but I’m not suggesting he should be abhorred either. This article is a call for both sides to put whatever preconceived notions down, and come together. If we can’t talk to each other, let’s cheer for each other. If we have to ignore each other, then let’s have a barbecue outside the KAC before our basketball teams tip off against Niagara together. If we can’t look at each other without having some contentious notion of superiority or inferiority, then let’s gather every of-age student and hit the Swanny House at five for a brew before a seven o’clock puck drop. If we can’t create a culture where going to basketball and hockey games are an expectation, an opportunity to exhibit pride for our school, where the only thing that matters is “Go Canisius, go, go!” then I’m afraid the stench of bad blood will linger on. To unite ourselves we have to engage each other around what matters most: Canisius. The “nest” should no longer reference the eight or nine tables on your immediate left in the cafeteria. The Koessler Athletic Center and the HARBORCENTER are the new nests, and everyone is welcome.

Every college and university has the same social norms as we do. Yet, Xavier University has the electrifying Cintas Center, St. Bonaventure has its rambunctious student section at the Reilly Center, and Dayton’s students create quite a clamor in UD Arena. Hostile vibes between students and student-athletes likely correlates to uninspiring attendance, an un-enticing student section, and lackluster level of pride at hockey and basketball games. I say: no more. A solution, among others, is to establish those arenas as unification points.  Going to sporting events, no matter who you are or where you’re from, should be the social event on Friday and Saturday nights. Attendance counters should be clicking rapidly, the student section should be hopping, and a strong feeling of camaraderie should saturate the venue. Students of Canisius College, I say this: when St. Bonaventure visits the Koessler on November 24th they’ll see five of our classmates take the court with “CANISIUS” embroidered across their hearts. When Robert Morris travels to the HARBORCENTER on February 26th they’ll see another six of our classmates skate to center ice with the golden griffin ripping through the air, talons flushed on their shoulders. It is at moments such as these when I hope with all the blue and gold blood I have coursing through my veins, that the opposing teams as well as those donning the Canisius shades hear a din of students, student-athletes, commuters, and the like chanting “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!” Because moments like that can bring our community closer. Moments like that, over and over again, will make every lover of Canisius brim with pride. It is in moments like that that have the potential to make us greater. Moments like that can make us unbreakable.

Let me be clear. This article is not meant to ruffle feathers or inherit enemies. I approach this issue with humility, urgency, and the courage to speak up about something everyone knows exists, but is not willing to face. This is about addressing a superfluous divide among two bodies of people. Do I see Canisius’ student-athletes as vultures or narcissistic jerks or anything along those lines? Hell no! But most students do, and that’s an ignorant generalizations based on perception, not reality. I see the student-athletes I have come to know over the course of three years for who they are: classmates, friends, regular people. I respect student-athletes, I respect students, and I think they should respect each other. Have I addressed the entirety of the issue? Most certainly not. Am I maybe not the best person to address this issue? Maybe yes, maybe no. But at this point, who cares!? Coming together, supporting each other, getting to know each other is all that should matter. If you disagree, if you want to point fingers, if you want to argue with me, if you think this is not an issue, if you want to continue to hate, if you’d rather remain disunited, if you are going to continue to ignore this, if you think I should have kept my mouth shut and stayed in line, so be it. But know stubbornness and misperceptions are what got us here in the first place, why our sports culture is subpar, and is holding our campus back from being a true college.  So I ask with an impassioned heart: if everyone isn’t united under one banner, then who are we? Are we Canisius, or are we one Canisius?

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