Unconscious biases persist in sports, but it doesn’t have to be the case in swimming
I’ve been competitive swimming for over a decade. Going into college, I knew I wanted to continue swimming at a high level while still prioritizing academics. So I decided to try club swimming, but then things went wrong.
Swimming made me who I am. I swam in the swim club’s New England Championships almost every year and was the MVP I swam in high school every year. But when I went to college, I wanted to explore my other talents, like many students who are entering a new atmosphere.
The University of Massachusetts club swim team seemed perfectly suited to continue swimming competitively, a team that continued to strive for excellence with national team qualifying times while being fun and not having an overly strict schedule. Although I soon realized that the standards I had envisioned didn’t exist.
The auditions lasted four days, the same week that many other auditions and first club meetings took place. Two days consisted of training and the other two consisted of time trials. On the two days that I couldn’t make it, I spoke to the team’s board of directors and emailed them to let them know and got a no worries. On one day I also completed an extra time trial to make up for the missed day.
Turns out my times didn’t matter.
Curious about what the team was looking for, I asked the E-Board several times. They introduced me to the 3 Aces: Attitude, Ability and Presence. The first thing I remember thinking when I heard that was, “Um, what?” Such standards are vague and loosely correlated with swimming at best. And it raised another question – what was the point of time trials? Why be a team that swims nationals when times aren’t your primary concern?
But I was only slightly concerned. I was the fastest swimmer in all of my tryouts and the 3As were looking good for me.
Then I got an email that I didn’t make the team.
Swimming is a sport where performance, especially if not practiced consistently, can deteriorate rapidly over a period of months. My high school team required all swimmers to complete time trials regardless of our performance the previous year, and I was surprised the club team didn’t do the same here.
Desperate to find out why I wasn’t selected, I decided to contact the club sport advisor. I wanted someone who is not involved in the selection process to be transparent about my case and address all of my concerns. I wanted answers that didn’t just lead me back to the 3As, which aren’t transparent standards.
Vague standards can encourage unconscious bias because without time standards, the distinction between swimmers becomes blurred. Unconscious bias is nothing new in sports, according to a 2007 NBA study. The study showed that racial bias is evident in foul play in basketball, and black players received 2.5 to 4.5 percent more foul play when the game was called by white umpires. However, swimming is a sport where there are few gray areas. By putting time first, any kind of bias can be mitigated.
What I’ve always loved about swimming is that what makes one swimmer better than another is his time. But if a swimmer’s times are subtracted from them, how are you supposed to fully judge them as an athlete?
After two weeks of back and forth with my advisor, a meeting with the Club Swim E-Board never materialized. I finally received an email from the Equal Opportunities Office confirming that my case had been referred to them, but my interest in meeting has since been met with silence.
The lack of response to such a case worries me deeply. I am a girl of Indian descent who has been competing for years in a sport that is almost entirely dominated by people of European descent. I’ve been to numerous pool decks where it was surprising to find another person who looks like me. The lack of transparency I have experienced in the tryout process contributes to the general discrimination faced by athletes of racial origin who are not frequented in their sport.
Claire Sisco King, associate professor of communications at Vanderbilt University, says the dominance of white swimmers is a prime example of the impact of historic institutional racism and remaining racial disparities. According to USA Swim 2021 demographics for premium membership swimmers (the highest possible membership for a calendar year), there are only 329 Asian swimmers compared to the 2,027 white swimmers on the New England Local Swimming Committee. And 329 doesn’t even begin to show the stark numerical difference between athletes with East Asian backgrounds and the few South Asian athletes.
For this reason, the 3A and the lack of transparency of the case are of great concern. The counselor’s inability to figure out why I wasn’t selected within two weeks demonstrates the flawedness of the 3As and their ability to hurt minorities who already struggle with racial prejudice in swimming.
I kept swimming alone and nothing can stop me. My commitment to the sport is greater than any tryout or competition, but a timely response from the university and a commitment to a straightforward, transparent tryout process would demonstrate their commitment to diversity, inclusion, transparency and excellence across the board.
Muskan Kumar can be reached at [email protected]