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Recruited to Play Sports, and Win a Culture War

Rivera Calderón, who emerged as a leader on his team, was invited to work at the student-affairs office, and he was asked to help interview a potential senior hire at the school, along with several returning students who were established leaders on campus. After the interview in late November, the other students joined Rivera Calderón for lunch, which is how he found himself sitting down, for the first time, for a meal in the dining hall that did not include any athletes. The returning students assured him, as they all talked, that their problem was with the administration, not the athletes. But they did wish the athletes wouldn’t segregate themselves so much from the rest of campus. For Rivera Calderón, the message was a huge weight off his shoulders. “I actually realized the returners don’t hate the athletes,” he said. “They actually want to get to know us. I always thought they don’t want us there. That was the moment I realized a lot of people have this whole thing wrong.” Around the same time, someone wrote in chalk on a campus sidewalk: “Your coaches are lying to you. We don’t hate you.”

‘My coach told me we have a lot to learn from these kids. And now I know what he means.’

The last New College party of 2023 (theme: “Nearly Naked”) struck Maya Rish, a freshman on the school newspaper, as a breakthrough. More athletes attended that event than any other, even if they stayed in their own circle, doing a standard dance: hands waving in the air and chanting, “Ay, Ay, Ay!” Nearby, the returning students were dancing in their own way — Rish described it as more like a Grateful Dead scene — but the presence of so many athletes at the party suggested a new degree of openness.

Garcia, the softball player, was happily reigniting her high school interest in theater and set design. As a result, she was one of the rare athletes who was spending a lot of time with returning students, some of whom were fascinated by what she did as a catcher on a softball team, even if it was clear that they didn’t totally understand it. How exactly was softball different from baseball? they asked her. How on Earth did she squat for that long? Was she OK? Their curiosity was touching to her, and a little funny. She answered all their questions, and she knew they came to appreciate her dedication to her sport. Now she wanted the athletes to appreciate a little bit more of what the theater students were about. “I’m going to try to force all the athletes to come to the play,” she told me in January.

If the athletes were changing the school, there were also indications that the school was influencing the athletes. Totten, having no other choice but to switch majors as a senior, had visited a bunch of classes and decided she might be interested in sociology. Her sociology classes were opening her eyes about a lot of things, she told me, like “how once you change your community and your society, your perspectives and your ideas change.” She herself, for example, had a new understanding of the L.G.B.T.Q. community at New College. “I just wasn’t exposed to it — and now that I am, I realize where they’re coming from and why they feel threatened in the world the way they do,” she said. “Just getting yourself out there and exploring, finding new things, is how you’re going to learn and get along with more people.”

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