Rebuffed Cross Country Psych Prompts Debate, New Approval Process

The women’s varsity volleyball team has done a variety of psychs over the course of its season. Photos courtesy of Claire Cooper; collage by Reid Alexander.

A large share of the men’s and women’s cross country teams dressed as sorority girls and fraternity boys, respectively, on Nov. 5 as a psych in anticipation of the D.C. championship meet the next day.

But less than two hours after classes began, their head coach, Anthony Belber, emailed the team’s captains recommending that the runners change their clothes after he had received a complaint from an LGBTQ teacher who called the psych “highly offensive to the trans community.”

Many students took issue with the cancellation of the psych. Some pointed out that GDS women’s sports teams had previously dressed as frat boys without objection as part of the longstanding tradition of wearing coordinated outfits to build excitement for a game. 

The incident prompted Athletic Director David Gillespie to implement a temporary process for psych ideas to be pre-approved by the school while administrators weigh options for a long-term policy.

“The athletics and DEI offices are working together to create some guidelines to help teams ensure that psychs are selected with positive community impact in mind,” Gillespie wrote in an email on Nov. 8 to varsity volleyball and soccer players, whose seasons were continuing with championship tournaments.

He requested that they email him and their head coach to receive approval for prospective psychs before game day.

Gillespie explained in an interview that a new policy to vet potentially insensitive psychs for future athletics seasons was still being developed. He said his goal is to continue the tradition of psychs “without making anybody in the community feel uncomfortable or hurting anyone.” 

The same day he announced the new psych approval process, Gillespie rejected the varsity soccer teams’ idea for men’s players to dress up as soccer dads and women’s players to dress up as soccer moms on Nov. 9. 

Gillespie explained that he erred on the side of caution after consulting with administrators because the psych guidelines were not finalized. “That’s not to say that it wouldn’t be allowed in the future,” he added, referring to the proposed soccer parent psych. 

Sophomore Lina Fawaz, a player on the women’s varsity soccer team, criticized the school’s decision to veto the soccer psych. “That was ridiculous,” she said. “Soccer moms and soccer dads, no one’s gonna find that offensive.”

Junior Leo Pivato, a member of the men’s varsity soccer team, also did not understand the school’s objection to the psych idea and added that administrators should not regulate psychs at all. “They should have zero say in what we do,” he told the Bit.

When asked about students’ claims of administrative overreach, Gillespie said, “That’s their opinion and that’s fine. Our job as the adults is to work through this, and see the whole picture, and help guide everyone in the right direction.”

Until last week, GDS teams informally picked psychs with no involvement from coaches or administrators.

Junior Luke Cohen, a member of the cross country team who opted not to participate in the sorority girls psych but did not foresee any opposition to it, admitted to being surprised by the pushback. “We had seen other teams do psychs like frat boys throughout the whole season,” he said, “and no one had said anything about that, so we kind of assumed that since frat boys didn’t hurt anyone, sorority girls wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

(The Augur Bit’s editors-in-chief, senior Seth Riker and junior Ethan Wolin, and senior Adam Leff, a Features editor, were members of the cross country team. The Bit’s faculty advisor, Julia Fisher, was an assistant coach.)

None of the seven students interviewed about the cross country psych said they were offended by it, and most expressed confusion about the reasons for calling off the psych.

Transgender sophomore Morgana Brand said in an interview that she was not bothered by the psych and disagreed with the anonymous teacher’s suggestion that the psych was broadly offensive to the transgender community. 

“If you’re going to call cross-dressing or going as a sorority girl or frat boy for a psych transphobic, are feminine-presenting boys or masculine-presenting girls transphobic in their identity?” Brand asked. 

Sophomore Cole Huh, a member of the men’s team who dressed as a sorority girl before the psych was scrapped, said, “I did not see it as offensive then and I still don’t see how it was super offensive.”

Junior Izzy Auerswald, another cross country runner who participated in the psych, initially did not find it problematic. But after talking with her advisor, Performing Arts Department Chair Jason Strunk, she understood why it could have made some community members uncomfortable.

Strunk explained in an interview that he objected to the cross country team “putting on identity for the sake of camaraderie.

“We have seen throughout history that people have assumed identity for entertainment or for the sake of humor, certainly something that was seen at the height of the minstrel shows,” Strunk said, referring to nineteenth-century performances in which white actors wore blackface. GDS community members and society at large, he said, “have not had that conversation about the trans community.”

It is not clear whether any transgender person raised concerns about the psych with Belber, Gillespie or any administrator. (Belber did not share the identity of the LGBTQ teacher who initially complained.) But Gillespie said what matters more is whether the psych could have caused offense.

According to Gillespie, one possibility being considered for the school’s psych policy is to provide teams with a list of approved psychs and require them to seek permission from him and the office of diversity, equity and inclusion to add other ideas.

When told about that possible system, Auerswald said it was “a great idea.” 

Cohen, on the other hand, said, “It would be really sucky as a team to have an okay list of psychs and then have to ask for approval. I think a lot of the idea of psychs is coming up with original ideas that are fun and new and not just repeating the same ones over and over again.” 

Cohen said he understands the school’s interest in preventing offensive psychs but expressed concerns about how administrators will decide which stereotypical themes to veto. “It’s really hard to draw that fine line between what’s okay and what’s not okay,” he said. “I feel like an argument can be made to say that every psych is not okay.”

Gillespie said that however the new plan takes shape, he expects the diversity, equity and inclusion office to play a central role in determining what psychs could potentially offend community members. “That’s their specialty,” he said.

Marlo Thomas, GDS’ director of diversity, equity and inclusion, did not respond to multiple emailed requests for an interview.

In retrospect, Gillespie said that previous psychs may have bothered some community members beyond his awareness. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the cross country team was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”