Back in the Game: The Resurgence of Sports at Spelman

2024 Founders Day Issue
Spelman’s Jaguar Lacrosse Team.

Photo by Mahsati Moorhead.
Spelman’s Jaguar Lacrosse Team. Photo by Mahsati Moorhead.

The sight of several foot-long lacrosse sticks poking out of traveling backpacks caught the eye of Kyle Irwin one fall afternoon. For almost a decade, the equipment was foreign on Spelman College’s campus- one without sports, club, intramural, or otherwise. And yet, as the gaggle of girls strolled past the grassy amphitheater, Irwin knew they were living, breathing pieces of evidence demonstrating the collaborative, vibrant spirit that manifests itself within a team sports environment at Spelman. Despite administrative shifts, an interest in sports has always existed at Spelman and reflected a passion for personal growth and teamwork that is carried on today. 

Before the campus’ tree-lined oval was a footless arena, it was a space for play. Spelman archival photos display the space being utilized for lively games amongst Spelmanites. This behavior was affirmed by campus-wide values and requirements. 

The 1925 Annual College Report in The Spelman Messenger announced, “There is a great need for a room for the practice connected with basketball, volleyball, and other team games. Interclass and inter dormitory games are one of the most normal and desirable channels through which adolescents may discharge some of the surplus energy which inevitably accompanies a regime of regularity in meals, sleep, and work.”

In 1938, the Spelman Athletics Council, which later became the Spelman Athletics Association, was established. This student-led organization handled the logistics of sports at the college, organizing popular basketball, volleyball, and tennis games and tournaments on campus and ensuring that the athletes’ achievements were highlighted in publications like the Campus Mirror. 

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The cornerstone for Read Hall was laid during a jubilant celebration on November 5th, 1950. Former physical education professor Ms. Marguerite Simon broke ground on the gymnasium while wearing a ceremonial white, in true Spelman fashion. The November 1950 issue of The Spelman Messenger reports that freshmen and sophomore students at the ceremony said, “To keep the body fit is the first essential in keeping the mind alert and operative, the conscience clear, and the soul courageous and aspiring,” and “exercise and games not only make for fun and good sportsmanship but they develop self-control, efficiency, and strength of the nervous system,” respectfully. 

Spelman’s Soccer Team. (Spelman College Archives)

These sentiments align with those held by current Spelmanites. Third-year student Olivia Robinson founded Jaguar Lacrosse, a non-registered club team that allows students to enjoy the benefits of engaging with the sport and each other.

“The team opens up a huge opportunity for students to celebrate women’s sports, which is meaningful anywhere but especially like an all historically black space,” Robinson said. “I also believe that cheering each other on amplifies our school spirit and our sisterhood, ultimately we just want administrative support to do so.”

Administrative support was restructured in 2012 when the college shuttered all its sports teams, leaving nearly 80 student-athletes sans half of their title. When the news broke at a private assembly, former President Beverly Daniel Tatum was met with shocked signs and gasps from the athletes. Understanding the student’s upset state, Daniel Tatum did not require the students to stand and clap at the end of her remarks, as is the college tradition. The choice was both financial and made with the entire Spelman community in mind. As it last stood, Spelman’s Athletics program cost a million dollars to maintain, a sum that Daniel-Tatum and other administrators could not rationalize spending on just 3% of the student body. 

When speaking about Spelman’s shift from athletics to Inside Higher Ed in 2012, Daniel-Tatum said, “We want all of our students to live long and healthy lives so they can get the return on that investment they’ve made in higher education…We really see this as a life-saving activity that we are engaging in.”

This activity included renovating Read Hall and ushering in what they called a “Wellness Revolution.” With coverage from The New York Times, ESPN, and more, Spelman made headlines for exemplifying what a vibrant athletics department at a college could look like without traditional teams. 

“We’ve really worked to develop a place of belonging for every member of Spelman’s community, whether you’re an athlete, or whether you are just a person here wanting to improve on your health and well being,” Neil Scott, Spelman’s director of Wellness operations, said. 

At the Wellness Center, one can find Spelmanites in tai chi and spin class, lifting weights, and running on treadmills, where they can gaze out at Sisters Chapel. However, some members of Spelman’s community still yearn for the robust sports environment of the past. 

Emi Marshall, a sophomore inspired by Robinson and Jaguar Lax’s successful season, started Jaguar’s women’s basketball last fall and was excited about the bursting interest that existed for the sport and was halted by all of the administrative nuances on campus. 

“The logistics of it all have been a lot to wrap my head around, just because the line between what is and is not allowed is blurry here at Spelman,” Marshall said. “But I’m ultimately just excited to keep working and seeing how far we can go.” 

Jaguar lax also had a monumental fall season, as well as traveling to Virginia State University to participate in the first annual HBCU lacrosse playday.

“I was just so proud that we were able to pull it off,” Caitlin Britton Wheeler, Vice President of Jaguars Lacrosse, said. “It definitely wasn’t the most ‘fantasy-land, I’m a D1 athlete on a private jet with my gatorade scholarship’ experience—we were on the Greyhound bus with a bunch of characters for 13 hours—but we were together, and able to get out there and play” 

During the 2024 spring semester, the Wellness Department successfully rolled out its revitalized intramural sports program, allowing students to engage in small basketball and volleyball games. The department cites President Dr. Helene Gayle’s support as a significant program proponent. 

“Dr. Gayle coming on board was a real game changer,” Scott says. “She really understands the importance of women in sports and is passionate about championing them here, so the sky really is the limit.”

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