On Oct. 17, New York Times writer Stephanie Saul published an article titled “Fencing Can Be Six-Figure Expensive, but It Wins in College Admissions.” To preface, I will say that I am not here to disagree with either of those statements. There are certainly instances where fencing costs, due to international travel, can reach exorbitant levels, and it’s no secret that recruiting for sports has long been a way for students to get accepted into college. However, I do have some issues with this article’s coverage of fencing as a member of the community for a decade.
In the article, Saul groups fencing, along with sports like “crew, golf, sailing, skiing and squash,” into a category called “country club sports.” He states that these are all usually played primarily in white suburbs, and this is correct. What comes off as a bit disingenuous about this, however, is that in order to play sports at the top level and not in the country club category, massive amounts of money are required. Travel baseball, for example, can cost over $4,000 a year, according to a 2016 article by Drew Jackson of Samford University. While this figure is nowhere near the six-figure amount referred to in the Saul article, it doesn’t need to be, because travel baseball isn’t usually leaving the country.
In the article, there is a claim made that “good equipment [for fencing] costs $1,500 to 2,000,” and while top-of-the-line gear can certainly cost that much, a set of fully functional equipment that can all last for more than a year can be purchased for under $1,000. To compare baseball and fencing again, both one fencing weapon and one baseball bat for use at the high school or college level range from slightly under $100 dollars to a few hundred at most, with the most expensive baseball bats costing more than the most expensive fencing weapons. Both are certainly massive barriers to entry, but hefty equipment costs turning a sport like fencing elitist should not be the norm, without that same lens being used for all sports.
Fencing is only so expensive as due to the international traveling involved, the article says. Regarding the popularity of fencing in the United States, the article reads, “But fencing never achieved mass appeal. More than a century later, only 44 out of 1,100 N.C.A.A. schools have teams.”
“But fencing never achieved mass appeal. More than a century later, only 44 out of 1,100 N.C.A.A. schools have teams.”New York Times article
This is true, but there needs to be scrutiny of why that is. It simply isn’t because fencing isn’t appealing — it’s due to a feedback loop; if the sport is not popular, it won’t get mass support, but if it does not get supported in the community, it won’t have a chance to become popular. Here is the crux of the issue: Fencing, alongside other country club sports, does not have supporting infrastructure in a high school setting, and is viewed on a national level as either solely a college excursion or for those looking to be on the Olympic track.
I was a varsity fencer in high school for three years, and I was first team all-state in my senior year. If I was involved in a more commonly supported sport, like baseball, with that resume, I would have been more likely to receive more offers from colleges. However, fencing exists in two worlds. There is the world of those looking to fence for an NCAA school and a world of those who fence in high school because they enjoy the sport, and they want to excel in that environment. For some sports, those two can be the same, as a pipeline exists to go from varsity high school athletics to college athletics.
As long as the main pipeline for college fencing is not regular high school programs, the sport will remain as inaccessible and unsupported as it is now. Also, if the majority of people considering fencing for NCAA schools in college are those looking to compete internationally, there simply won’t be enough fencers to go around to have many NCAA programs.
In short, if high schools across this country provide more of a consistent structure for niche sports like fencing, they can become more normalized in this country, creating opportunities for high-level athletics that aren’t halfway across the globe, which costs tons of money. This would allow for the pool of athletes to grow, which would create more justification for having more college programs, thus furthering the accessibility of the sport.
“Preferences for athletes in niche sports would seem to be one of the first items on the chopping block.”Mr. Driver, expert on the Court’s education decisions
There is already proof that something like this can work, such as New Jersey being a state that has implemented high school fencing statewide, right alongside baseball, football, track and field and more.
The final dimension from the original article that must be considered is the topic of the two affirmative action cases currently being heard on the Supreme Court and how they may affect sports like fencing.
“If the court moves to prohibit or limit affirmative action, as widely expected, colleges likely will be under pressure to overhaul their entire admissions process,” the article reads, “including practices that favor privileged applicants, according to Justin Driver, a Yale Law School professor.”
‘Preferences for athletes in niche sports would seem to be one of the first items on the chopping block,’ said Mr. Driver, an expert on the Court’s education decisions.”
Implementing a system that makes niche sports less niche would not only keep these sports from being wiped from college programs, it could also serve to make them more accessible in general, killing two birds with one stone.