A lack of transparency in club sports tryouts – Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Unconscious bias persists in sports, but in swimming it doesn’t have to


Nina Walat/Daily Collegian (2019)

I have been swimming competitively for over a decade. When I entered college, I knew I wanted to continue swimming at a high level while still prioritizing academics. So I decided to try club swimming, but that’s when things went south.

Swimming has made me who I am. I swam at the New England Championships almost every year in swim club and was MVP every year I swam in high school. But when I entered college, I wanted to impart my other talents like many students entering a new atmosphere.

The University of Massachusetts club swim team seemed like the perfect team to continue swimming competitively, a team that continued to strive for excellence with national qualifying times while being fun and not having an overly energetic schedule. Although I soon found that the standards I envisioned did not exist.

The tryouts 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, time trials. In the two days I couldn’t make it, I spoke to the team’s board and emailed them to let them know, and I got a “no worries.” I also did extra time trials one day to make up for the day I missed.

Turns out my times didn’t matter.

Curious as to what the team was looking for, I asked the E-board several times. They presented to me the 3As: attitude, ability and attendance. The first thing I remember thinking when I heard this was, “Um, what?” Such standards are vague and are at best loosely correlated to swimming. And that raised another question – what was the point of time trials? Why be a team swimming at nationals if times aren’t your main point of view?

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But I was just a little worried. I was the fastest swimmer in all my events at trials and the 3A’s looked good to me.

Then I got an email that I didn’t make the team.

Swimming is a sport where performance, especially in the absence of consistent training, can quickly deteriorate over months. My high school team required all swimmers to do time trials, regardless of the previous year’s performance, and I was surprised to find that the club team here does not do the same.

Determined to find out how I wasn’t selected, I decided to contact the club sports advisor. I wanted someone who was not involved in the selection process to look at my case in a transparent way and address all my concerns. I wanted answers that didn’t just point me back to the 3A’s, which are not transparent standards to use.

Vague standards can encourage unconscious bias, because without time standards the distinction between swimmers becomes blurred. Unconscious bias is not new to sports, as a 2007 study by the NBA found. The study showed that racial bias is evident when calling fouls in basketball, and black players received 2.5-4.5 percent more fouls when the game was officiated by white referees. However, swimming is a sport where gray areas are few and far between. By keeping the time at the top of the assessment, any kind of bias can be reduced.

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What I have always loved about swimming is that what makes one swimmer better than another is their time. But if a swimmer’s times are removed from them, how do you fully judge them as an athlete?

After two weeks of back and forth with my counselor, there was never a meeting with the Club Swim E-Board. I finally received an email from the Office of Equal Access and Opportunity confirming that my case had been referred to them, but my interest in a meeting has since been met with silence.

The lack of response to such a matter worries me deeply. I am a girl of Indian descent who has competed for years in a sport almost completely dominated by people of European descent. I’ve been on a number of pool decks where it was surprising to find another person who looks like me. The lack of transparency I experienced in the tryout process contributes to the overall discrimination that racialized athletes face outside of their sport.

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Claire Sisco King, associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University, says the predominance of white swimmers is a good example of the impact of historical institutional racism and the racial disparities that remain. According to the 2021 USA Swim demographics for female swimmers with premium membership (the highest possible membership running in a calendar year), there are only 329 female Asian swimmers compared to the 2,027 white female swimmers on the New England Local Swimming Committee. And 329 doesn’t even begin to show the stark difference in numbers between athletes from East Asian backgrounds and the few South Asian athletes.

This is why the 3As and the lack of transparency in the matter is a cause for so much concern. The counselor’s inability to find out why I wasn’t selected within two weeks shows the failure of the 3A’s and its ability to harm minorities already dealing with racial bias in swimming.

I continued to swim on my own and nothing can stop me from that. My commitment to the sport is greater than any tryouts or competitions, but a timely response from the university and a commitment to a simple, transparent tryout process will prove its commitment to diversity, inclusion, openness and excellence in all fields.

Muskan Kumar can be reached at [email protected]


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