The majority of current Andover students would not have been eligible to play at the first Andover-Exeter (A/E) in 1878. In our years of rivalry, female athletes would have only begun playing in 1973, after the Abbot Academy-Phillips Academy merger. Black athletes, too, would have begun playing at A/E only 67 years ago—there were no Black students enrolled at Andover between 1878 and 1955. Our schools’ histories as exclusionary institutions are no secret. But, as our 144th year of “prep school’s oldest rivalry” rolls upon us, it may be an apt time to consider the complicated history that our schools continue to grapple with and in many ways, still perpetuate.
At A/E in the Fall of 2021, Andover students led a chant against Exeter: “number six,” a reference to Exeter’s Niche rankings in the 2021-2022 school year, when Andover was ranked number one. Meant by many as a harmless heckle, the chant endorses a potentially problematic way of assessing our education. Chiefly, the school rankings draw on categories that are often measured not by student health, happiness, or inclusivity, but rather, GPA, standardized test grades, college matriculation data, and endowment.
Often hailed as the “top schools” in the nation, we, as Andover and Exeter students, must carefully consider how we conceptualize the framework our competition (both academic and athletic) is rooted in. Last year’s “number six” chant may have been an effort at teasing banter, but it encourages us to examine the ways our rivalry extends beyond athletics, and the metrics on which we base our standards of competition.
More broadly, around A/E season each year, our schools compete over three specific categories—athletics, academics, and financial resources. Athletes play on the field, students banter over their rival school’s curriculum, and schools compete to get the most money through fundraising. Our “competitive giving” each year, in particular, reveals one way our schools’ elitist histories continue to manifest today. While a well-intentioned attempt at raising both money and school spirit, competitive fundraising can also exclude lower-income families, who may not be able to donate, and thus participate in school spirit, as extensively as higher-income households.
We can also trace A/E’s rich, white, and male history in our schools’ athletics today. Both Andover and Exeter have made strides in promoting athletic inclusivity, but sports remains a space on campus that lags, both culturally and demographically. At Andover, for instance, varsity athletes disproportionately come from wealthy households; 53.8 percent of students from households that make over 500,000 dollars a year are varsity athletes, according to the 2022 State of the Academy (SOTA).
Moreover, athletic recruitment at the secondary school level, which Andover and Exeter both engage in, relies on extensive experience in a specific athletic discipline prior to high school—an investment of time, money, and resources that many families cannot access. Students have also reported anecdotes of racial, gendered, and socioeconomic discrimination within sports at Andover. Blackouts and team walkouts in response to racism, classism, and homophobia in Andover athletics have occurred in recent years, with Girls Varsity Lacrosse leading one such protest protest in the Spring of 2021. These instances reveal an athletic culture that is trying to move past a difficult history, but in many ways, is still mired in the systemic issues intrinsic to Andover as a New England preparatory school.
Acknowledging this history and thinking critically about our athletic culture today, we then may think of ways to address how structural inequities manifest in athletic rivalry at prep schools more broadly. A/E, by virtue of its weight as “prep school’s oldest rivalry,” makes our athletic standing valuable to every member of our community, not just the students already involved in these programs.
Rather than holding ourselves to traditional standards of athletic, academic, and financial achievements, we should assess our schools’ success on more expansive standards, such as student wellness, quality of life, and community satisfaction. We could put equal weight on athletic inclusivity and sports victories as a marker of our success. We could prioritize equity initiatives over fundraising contests, or student wellness over GPA. At the end of the day, once the last touchdown is scored and the last exam graded, our commitment to our community’s health, happiness, and equity should come first.
We wish good luck to our teams this Saturday, and hope that our readers, regardless of which side you’re cheering from, continue this conversation beyond A/E weekend.