A Culture of Excellence

By many metrics, the Harvard women’s cross country and track teams have been successful, recently winning championship titles and awards. Yet behind this facade, all is not well. Indeed, I have witnessed several coaches for the program endanger the health and well-being of student-athletes. Though these athletes have raised concerns through multiple channels, no visible changes have been made to protect them. I am a coach on the team, and I am speaking out because I can no longer watch as students are harmed.

As both a volunteer coach with the team and residential proctor, I train with the students and help them with their dual roles as student-athletes. Over the past three years, students have confided in me experiences of mistreatment; I have seen several of the coaches act without regard for the well-being of our student-athletes. These coaches have publicly criticized athletes for their weight, pushed athletes to compete despite injury, and created an environment where athletes feared retaliation if they raised concerns.

According to guidelines published on the NCAA website by consulting psychologist Ron Thompson, “the primary risk for developing disordered eating/eating disorders involves the emphasis on a lean body and its purported relationship with enhanced sport performance.” From what I have observed, the coaching staff ignores this risk, directly linking performance improvements to weight loss. They have commented on athletes’ weight, directing athletes to lose as much as 20 pounds, and publicly berated athletes for food choices.

A healthy diet is critical to performance, but conversations about nourishing eating versus harmful caloric restrictions are not sufficiently nuanced. The International Olympic Committee recommends that a “coach should not pressure an athlete to lose weight” nor attempt to set an athlete’s weight. Athletes should be referred to professional dieticians and nutritionists. Yet contrary to these recommendations, members of the coaching staff actively discredit the Athletic Department’s dietician, insisting on personally being the source of nutritional guidance for their athletes.

The apparent disregard for IOC recommendations may have led to significant consequences for the entire team, especially the female members. In women, disordered eating and inadequate nutrition to meet physical activity can lead to disruptions in reproductive cycles and low bone mass, or osteoporosis, a combination known as Female Athlete Triad Syndrome. Over time, these conditions can lead to increased skeletal fragility and heightened risk of bone fractures, a danger further compounded by demanding workouts.

These risks are not simply academic: Less than half of the female distance runners were healthy enough to compete at the 2017 Ivy League championships—most because of stress fractures. We cannot continue to ignore these dangers. Rather than reevaluating training programs, some coaches blamed athletes for their injuries, ascribing the problem to breaking restrictive nutrition recommendations or poor sleeping habits. These comments degrade and shame athletes rather than improve performance.

In the past, members of the coaching staff have pressured injured athletes to compete in championship meets. For example, an athlete with lingering injuries was slotted to participate in multiple events at a past Ivy League championship. She wrote in the Huffington Post last year that when she raised concerns about her ability to compete, her coach responded by questioning her place on the team.

Athletes who voice concerns are told that they are the problem, that their inability to “buy-in” and trust the coaches is the underlying issue. With the staff deaf to concerns, many athletes have turned to those outside the team for help. Yet the coaches have berated athletes who have sought outside help for “breaking the chain of command” and putting the coaches’ jobs at risk. They have discouraged athletes from writing letters to the administration, saying that doing so could jeopardize an athlete's spot on the team. In my view, this hostile environment is the reason half of the women’s cross country team have left over the past three years.

Members of Harvard’s cross country and track teams do not deserve this treatment. They are some of the most driven and dedicated individuals I have met. As an academic institution, we should be celebrating their bravery and integrity in speaking up for their well-being, not allowing the Athletic Department to ignore and silence them. For the past four years, I have coached them, laughed with them, cheered for them, and been inspired by them. I beg the administration to intervene to ensure that all student-athletes are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Lauren B. Kuntz is a Ph.D. student in Earth and Planetary Science, a freshman proctor, and a volunteer coach with Harvard’s Track and Field team.

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