Dartmouth athletes happy to have sports restored but critical of process

  • Harry Sheehy, Dartmouth's eighth-year athletic director, is shown during an Oct. 19, 2015, home football game at Memorial Field in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/1/2021 8:39:12 PM
Modified: 2/3/2021 10:45:22 PM

HANOVER — Stas Van Genderen’s phone wouldn’t stop buzzing with notifications on Friday morning. Lying in his bed, sore from skiing the day before, he finally picked up an incoming phone call from his mom.

“My phone is just blowing up, million text messages,” recalled Van Genderen, a senior on the Dartmouth College swimming and diving team. “So my mom says, ‘We got the team back!’ And I just say, ‘Is this kind of sick joke?’ I was shocked.”

Van Genderen’s mother was referring to Dartmouth’s decision to reinstate the men’s lightweight crew, men’s and women’s golf, and men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs immediately to comply with Title IX and avoid a possible class-action sex discrimination lawsuit.

“I thought we would be able to put up a helluva fight, but they (the women who organized the lawsuit against Dartmouth) really held the line,” Van Genderen said in a Monday phone interview. “(Dartmouth) always said, ‘No matter how much money you raise, we will not reverse the decision.’ While I thought we were just to fight their decision, I knew it would be a really difficult battle.”

So if Friday morning signaled new beginnings for Dartmouth’s relationship with the five varsity sports it previously cut, Friday night was a reminder of how far the two parties have to go.

A Zoom call attended by athletic director Harry Sheehy and athletic department employees Jennifer Chuks, Joann Brislin, Richard Whitmore and Tiffani-Dawn Sykes was meant for student-athletes impacted to be formally reintroduced into Dartmouth athletics’ family. Instead, the question-and-answer portion of the discussion included calls for Sheehy to apologize and resign.

“Frankly, the call did more harm than good,” said Jason Liu, who is a member of the men’s golf team.

Added swimmer Maggie Deppe-Walker: “It seemed like something Harry (Sheehy) thought he should do, holding the meeting. But he wasn’t helpful in answering our questions. He was very resistant to apologize or admit he made a mistake. I think we asked him about five different times on the call to apologize for cutting the sports, and he did eventually apologize to the women on the call for violating Title IX.”

The call lasted roughly an hour, including a 10-minute break because the call was ended when Sheehy was answering a question about comments he made last summer to The Dartmouth.

“I had the third question of the Q-and-A, and I asked Harry Sheehy about the comments he made to The Dartmouth this summer,” Van Genderen said. “He said this summer that if he made these 10% cuts unilaterally, instead of cutting five teams, it would create a subpar athletic experience. I asked him to clarify that, because I wanted to work forward and hear what he was thinking.

“I recall him saying those quotes were misattributed to him in The Dartmouth. I interrupted him and asked a different way, asking, ‘At the time you gave that interview, did you think those five teams would create a subpar athletic experience?’ Then he stammered a bit and the call ended. It seems to be by mistake. The timing, of course, was pretty funny. I know he restarted the call pretty soon after and started to take more questions.”

Van Genderen said later on the call he started to ask why a task force wasn’t formed or why an auditor wasn’t called in to make these decisions, as opposed to Sheehy and his team making the cuts.

“Of course, I’m sure it was very difficult for (Sheehy) to be screamed at by a bunch of college kids,” said Van Genderen, who will graduate this spring. “He should be, ideally, working for our experience. Instead, he’s making it seem like we should be thankful that this hero came from the clouds and gave us our team back. When, really, he’s the one who shot us in the foot anyways.”

Sheehy still has not made a public statement after Friday’s announcement and has not been made available to the media. Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence is handling his media relations and released a statement Monday afternoon to the Valley News.

“As President Hanlon said in his community message on Friday, we sincerely apologize that this process has been, and continues to be, so painful to our current and former student-athletes and all who support them,” Lawrence wrote. “We know that many in our community have been deeply disappointed by the decisions we made, and the discovery that the Title IX data may not have been complete only adds to that disappointment.”

A group of alumni met virtually with Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon, Sheehy and some members of the college’s Board of Trustees on Friday morning before the announcement was made public.

“Overall, I think the meeting had a pretty positive tone,” said Joby Bernstein, a 2017 graduate who swam for the Big Green. “President Hanlon had a prepared speech and started off apologizing. He talked about correcting these issues. Phil had to leave halfway through the meeting, and Harry did take some questions. I don’t think there was anything that stuck out.

“I was optimistic when a lot of people didn’t think there was a chance. I think my fear is that when you cut these teams, you possibly tarnish their reputation for many years to come. I’m just hoping the college realizes that even by bringing us back, they have to work hard to bring us back, that by making the decision to reinstate the teams everything is not normal.”

Justin Sodokoff chose not to attend Friday night’s Zoom call with Big Green administrators because he “couldn’t stand to look at our athletic director.” A senior at Dartmouth, Sodokoff is a diver and is hoping to return for a final season next year if he’s granted an extra year of eligibility.

“I love this school; my dad and grandfather are Dartmouth alums,” he said. “Like a bad relationship that’s maybe coming to an end, you might love them but you eventually see they’re not as perfect as you might think. And that sucks.”

Now, the student-athletes have to work with their athletic department to find a way to move forward. Deppe-Walker, who is graduating this spring, said a lot needs to happen for the women’s swimming and diving program to get back to normal, such hiring a coach. She is even more concerned about the program’s future after almost half of this year’s freshman class decided to transfer after the sport was cut.

“This makes my school look really bad,” she said from her apartment in Hanover. “It sucks even more because people have jobs to check out these kinds of things, to make sure Dartmouth doesn’t violate laws. Speaks miles to me about how the administration doesn’t have great communication. They’re definitely flawed.”

Pete Nakos can be reached at pnakos@vnews.com.

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