My freshman year at Emory, the varsity swim team wasn’t one to brag on. The team was club sport level – my freshman year was the first time more people showed up than there were spots on the team, giving Coach Peter Smith a chance to actually put together a team rather than just take all comers.

In swimming, there is nothing subjective about a swimmer’s best time. A 1:01.2 is faster than a 1:01.3, and that’s that. There are no ambiguities in swimmer’s best performance, making the job of putting together the best team pretty easy.

Except when it’s not.

The Emory men’s varsity team, like varsity teams everywhere was seeped in the jock culture sportswriter Dave Zirin this week crisply described as a combination of “hero worship, entitlement and machismo.” Nevermind that any of the Division I women’s teams would have handily beat the Emory varsity men’s team in a head to head dual meet. Nevermind that none of Emory’s male swimmers at the time could have even made the practice team at a Division I school. On Emory’s campus, they were studs.

And they acted the part. Saturday night post-meet keg parties were drunk, sloppy and stupid. The women’s team, me included, took part in the partying. There was at least one incident that, had there been twitter and camera phones, would have looked an awful lot like Steubenville High School. There were many others that came close.

Zirin is careful in his article to say he not proposing that playing sports causes young men to rape women. He is asking, rather, about the “connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture”:

We need to ask whether there’s something inherent in the men’s sports of the twenty-first century, which so many lionize as a force for good, that can also create a rape culture of violent entitlement… On colleges, there is reason to believe that the same teamwork, camaraderie and ‘specialness’ produced by sports can be violently perverted to create a pack mentality that either spurs sexual violence or makes players fear turning in their teammates.

Where a pack mentality exists – as we are safe to presume it does on sports teams – the leader of that pack plays a special role.  The text messages introduced as evidence last week in the Steubenville trial includes one of the football players assuring another that everything was OK, because the football coach Reno Saccoccia “took care of it.”

In another text about the coach: “Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried.”

The Emory men’s team that I swam with so many years ago was made up of some very fine young men. The team captain was one of the kindest, most upstanding men I’ve ever known. Yet, the team also included some major assholes. Put together in a group and liquored up, they were not just obnoxious. They were dangerous.

The best thing Coach Smith did in the years it took to turn a mediocre swim team into a good swim team was remember that good meant more than fast. One year during winter training, he shocked everyone by cutting three of the faster swimmers from the men’s team. Coach Smith’s excuse was that they had shown up late once too many times. The real reason, I think, was that he sensed they were driving the camaraderie and ‘specialness’ of the team in the wrong direction.

A lesser coach would have looked at the men’s best times and let them stay on the team. A 1:01.2 is faster than a 1:01.3, after all, and isn’t putting together a good team all about finding and keeping the fastest swimmers? Coach Smith didn’t think so.

In my memory, this was the moment Emory’s swim team stopped being a mediocre collection of decent swimmers and turned into a good team. Two weeks ago, the men and women’s teams each won their 15th consecutive conference titles. Tomorrow, the Emory women’s team will be in Shenandoah, TX to try to win its fourth consecutive national title.

Go Eagles! And thank you Coach Smith.

See ya’ll queerfitters at 6:15 today in our usual Inman Park location. It will be bright and there will be deadlifts.