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Almost a year ago, I wrote an article in the Daily Princetonian about my negative experiences as a queer student-athlete on the Princeton wrestling team — experiences that ultimately contributed to my decision to take a step back from Princeton Athletics. Shortly after the article’s release, I met with John Mack ’00, Princeton’s Director of Athletics, voiced my concerns about the hostile environment that I experienced, and provided suggestions on how to ensure that future queer athletes would feel safe and supported on varsity teams. I left the meeting feeling optimistic that real change might be carried out.
I was wrong.
After a year’s worth of meetings, high-profile Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) staff hires, and push for increased DEI education and resources, the important changes to DEI policy, athletic training, and team programming that I hoped for have not come to fruition. Instead, the athletic department’s efforts have been incredibly performative, aimed at checking a box instead of actually recognizing the needs of a diverse and incredible group of marginalized athletes on Princeton’s campus.
In a perfect world, we would not need DEI efforts. But the world is far from perfect. Given that Princeton student-athletes come from many different backgrounds, there is great diversity in expectations and views among student-athletes. If we do not take the time to dispel negative and harmful stereotypes of the LGBTQIA+ community, then we cannot “create and maintain a culture of mutual respect and unity,” to quote the job description of the University’s Associate Director for DEI. Moreover, the expansion of DEI policy and training initiatives benefits marginalized groups on campus beyond the LGBTQIA+ community, including those who need expanded accessibility options or individuals who have experienced instances of interpersonal violence.
One of the core planks of DEI efforts for athletics that I hoped for is education. Besides some trainings from DEI offices on campus such as those conducted by SHARE peers like myself, athletic teams do not receive extensive training and education on topics related to building and maintaining just and inclusive communities.
In May of last year, Princeton Athletics hired Jordan “JT” Turner as the first-ever Associate Director of Athletics for DEI. I was beyond excited that Turner was joining campus and hopefully working to improve the lives and experiences of queer students. It seemed that my concerns and experiences, as well as the experiences of other queer student-athletes, like Griffin Maxwell Brooks, had been taken seriously. But, as recent coverage in the ‘Prince’ notes, after only four months, Turner left. Turner’s departure was not an isolated incident in terms of DEI across the University. Another DEI employee — Dr. Jim Scholl, who supported students like me in the SHARE office — also left, feeling a lack of support.
Speaking to the ‘Prince,’ Turner described an unsupportive culture upon starting their job, recalling how Mack informed them that “there were members of staff and alumni who didn’t even believe [their] role should exist.” The athletics department, Turner explained, “[was] pulling back on some of the promises that had been made to me.”
By insufficiently supporting DEI efforts, Princeton Athletics and other offices on campus reveal a lack of understanding of the importance of DEI and the role that DEI administrators can play in bringing about positive change on campus. Despite student leadership and advocacy, change often must come via a top-down approach. One cannot expect issues of team culture, such as those I experienced on the wrestling team, to be rectified by students alone. They must also be made important by Princeton Athletics as a whole and addressed by administrative leaders.
Supporting DEI administrators and holding departments to their DEI commitments is absolutely essential to creating change. Firstly, administrators must make good on their promises and provide the support necessary to protect students. The contrast between the public support of DEI from the administration and the seeming lack of support shown behind closed doors make affirmations of Princeton’s commitment to DEI performative at best.
Secondly, the administration is uniquely positioned and has a responsibility to advocate for students, especially on athletic teams where power dynamics between students can make change difficult. During my time on the wrestling team, I was not always comfortable speaking up in a room full of my peers, especially when upperclassmen voiced their discomfort with the idea of a queer individual being a part of the wrestling program behind closed doors, including in the locker room as I wrote about last year.
When no one else appears to share your concerns, the power dynamics between more senior members of the team and underclassmen become exacerbated. In these situations, it is crucial that the administration and the coaches provide support. Staff must advocate for students and policy change—advocating for marginalized team members and protecting them can only make the athletic community stronger and more inclusive.
Change is certainly possible. Take the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC), for example. Those in leadership roles, such as the Director of the GSRC Kristopher Oliveria and the Assistant Director Eric Anglero, have, in my experience, supported students who pushed for change and the expansion of DEI efforts — students like me. Their support has allowed the GSRC to grow into a vibrant and diverse community where students can feel safe and supported. But why isn’t this kind of support universal?
Within their mission and values, the Princeton Department of Athletics affirms that their values and culture “are aligned with the University’s primary purpose of teaching, scholarship, research and service.” Similarly, the motto of the Princeton wrestling program is “a higher standard.” Let’s start to hold others, and especially ourselves, to those principles. We cannot merely hold ourselves to a selective, athletic “higher standard.” Rather, we must apply that standard to all virtues, especially supporting those who need that support to thrive in athletics.
If we continue to act as if there is nothing wrong, then change will never happen. The issues permeating athletic culture and DEI efforts at Princeton will continue to propagate until another queer student is made to feel as if they cannot be themselves and have a successful athletic career. When Mack was asked about the departure of Turner and the issues brought up surrounding athletic culture, he declined to comment. But ignoring these issues will not make them go away. The Princeton administration must do more — athletics must do more — if they truly want to support the students that make up the community that they hold dear.
AJ Lonski is a queer-identifying senior from Franklin Lakes, N.J. majoring in neuroscience, as well as a former member of the Princeton varsity wrestling team. He is a peer educator in the GSRC and a peer in the Sexual Harassment & Assault Advising, Resources and Education (SHARE) office. He can be reached at email@example.com.