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Princeton’s commitment to inclusion must extend to athletics

Content Warning: The following article contains descriptions of homophobia and sexism. 

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

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Princeton is supposed to be a place where everyone is welcome. People here frequently talk about their commitment to diversity and inclusion. That’s why, when I first committed to Princeton for varsity wrestling, I was ecstatic. But as it turns out, the commitment to diversity and inclusion often doesn’t extend to Princeton’s varsity sports teams. In order to ensure everyone feels welcome, that culture has to change.

I started wrestling at the age of seven. My father, a former Princeton wrestler, encouraged me to try the sport. I quickly fell in love with it and found myself competing in tournaments across the country. There’s a certain magic to competing on your own, without the added complexity of a field full of teammates.

But that magic was clouded by the culture of toxicity and intolerance that surrounded me throughout my wrestling career. Growing up, my private coaches regularly used homophobic slurs to berate those who were not performing up to their standards. My high school teammates did the same. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I was scared to speak out — worried that the backlash would make an already brutal sport that much more difficult.

Even as a varsity captain of a nationally ranked program, I knew I could not approach the subject of the toxic culture without being made fun of by teammates and coaches alike and facing the risk of being outed. My teammates and coaches would often make up scenarios where an LGBTQ+ individual was discovered on the team — and how they would try to push them away from wrestling by any means possible. It felt like I had to choose between my passion and my identity.

That’s why wrestling at Princeton was such a dream come true. My very conservative, private Catholic high school had numerous nationally successful athletic programs, but intolerance and bigotry were espoused by both faculty and students. Princeton had both an excellent athletics program and many inclusive places on campus — such as the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC). The thought of interacting with open-minded and kind people at Princeton kept me excited throughout my senior year of high school. 

After arriving on campus, I realized that this was not the environment that I had envisioned — at least not on the wrestling team. The first thing I noticed was the casual use of homophobic slurs, which only got worse when members of the team drank alcohol. Moreover, constant jokes were made at the expense of minority group members of the team. Women involved with the wrestling program were disparaged constantly. 

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The drinking culture became another point of exclusion. My freshman year, another freshman on the team voiced that they disliked drinking alcohol. The upperclassmen on the team never let him live it down. When I, myself, declined to drink the day after I had a moderate amount of alcohol, I was mocked mercilessly. The emphasis placed on the “team culture,” of which alcohol was a major part, meant that my social interactions with the team were often forced and uncomfortable. I often left events and gatherings early because of how anxious I felt. 

One of the most salient memories I have from my time on the team occurred in the locker room, before practice. When an upperclassman was addressing the wrestling team, the topic of LGBTQ+ athletes came up. Rather than expressing acceptance, he stated, “The day that there is a gay person on this team is the day that the wrestling program has gone to s***.” Hearing that intolerant sentiment was heartbreaking, but not surprising.

Unfortunately, I faced direct discrimination as well. At Princeton, I have disability housing due to my sleeping disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression. When my teammates saw my Whitman single — they became fixated on their belief that I “had lied” in order to receive better housing accommodations. Despite my protests, my teammates never acknowledged my disability. I felt distant, excluded and uncomfortable — just the things I had hoped Princeton would cure.

Most students have lots of choice when it comes to which communities they want to be a part of on campus. Athletes don’t — team culture is tight-knit.  When that culture is as exclusionary as my experience demonstrates, it becomes a straightjacket for athletes that break the norm. The culture can’t be blamed on any specific person — it’s the result of a collective lack of will to do better.  Despite the overwhelming discomfort I felt each day at Princeton, I maintained my silence. I participated in a culture that disappointed me deeply. 

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After COVID-19 sent the Princeton population home in March 2020, I realized just how unhappy I had been on campus. So, I left the team at the end of July 2021. While I gave up the opportunity to compete for an excellent D1 athletic program, my mental health was more important.  

This fall semester, my quality of life improved dramatically. I found friends that care about my wellbeing and make me excited to get up every morning. I am so thankful for the inclusive and kind friend group that I have become a part of. Both individual faculty members and members of the GSRC and SHARE groups have helped improve my mental health beyond what I used to think was possible. 

But athletic culture at Princeton remains an ongoing problem. On the wrestling team, there have been steps in the right direction, including the creation of a women’s wrestling program. While I was ultimately not the person who could bring about the cultural change that the team so sorely needs, I am hopeful that in the future every Princeton athlete will have the benefit of an inclusive and understanding environment. 

AJ Lonski is a junior from Franklin Lakes, NJ majoring in Neuroscience. He can be reached at alonski@princeton.edu.

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