Tailgates, flashing lights, packed stands, and the screams of masses of students as the Bearcats score another point: these are some of the things that new students may have been imagining upon their arrival to campus. However, upon attending a game, one will find these scenes aren't a facet of Willamette life. During my time attending sporting events at Willamette, I have heard many murmurs of disappointment regarding the current state of sports culture. In recent years, many sports fans seem to be asking the same question: “Does Willamette have a sports culture?”
“I noticed the sports culture here early on,” said Daniel Plumer (‘23,) who has been on the basketball team since 2019. “It’s a lot different from what I came from.” Willamette’s academic rigor and D3 status places more focus on academics than it does on sports. The student-athletes at Willamette are students first, athletes second. At D3 schools, students do not receive scholarships for their sport, they play for the love of the game. As a result, some students may take the game more seriously than others, while some may want to prioritize their academics. Some student non-athletes arrive at Willamette with preconceived notions of athletes. Lucy Devlaeminck (‘26), a first year student who described her relationship with Willamette sports as “non-existent” explained, “I notice a lot of people still have this idea of a ‘jock’ in their brain.” This leads some students to feel intimidated upon seeing athletes together in spaces like Goudy, for example. “There’s very much this air of ‘oh, that’s the soccer boy table.”
In order to see what sports culture could be, one must look at the sports culture of the past. Were sports more popular at Willamette before COVID-19 swept the nation? “There were definitely more fans in my freshman year than we’ve had the past few years,” said Plumer. Aaron Swick, head coach of the baseball team, explained the culture in the years leading up to the pandemic. “Our group of seniors in 2018 and 2019 were not just close, but their families were close,” he explained. Athletes traveling together, attending team retreats, breaking bread, and engaging in more team activities outside games and practice established a sense of camaraderie which created a fun atmosphere for the athletes and fans.
When the pandemic hit, suddenly spectators were unable to attend games and athletes had to keep their distance from their teammates. Teams could no longer eat indoors and had to take several buses to games to comply with pandemic guidelines, considerably impacting the team dynamic. The absence of fan culture and the distance between teammates meant that the sports culture was essentially reset. Now that COVID-19 is easier to manage on campus, sports are beginning to see a return to normality. “There are definitely more fans this year than there have been in the last few years,” said Plumer (‘23). The pandemic has also made athletes more grateful for the community that athletics provide. “You never know if it’s going to be taken away,” said Swick.
Despite this, the fan culture still struggles to grow. Devlaeminck (‘26), like many students, questioned if it even exists. Most, although not all, games are still plagued with small, quiet student sections. Swick, Plumer (‘23), and Devlaeminck (‘26) all agreed that sports culture should change. Inefficient advertising may be a contributing factor to the complaints. Lack of physical advertising paired with easy to miss social media posts and “Today At Willamette” emails leaves many students in the dark when it comes to sports information. “I would go to games if I knew where they were,” said Devlaeminck (‘26). On the other hand, if more athletes attended non-sport events, non-sporting students might feel more inclined to attend the games.
It has been just over a year since Oregon lifted its mask mandate. With sports still recovering from the culture reset brought about by the pandemic, current and future Bearcat sports fans have a prime opportunity to shape the culture to be what they want it to be.