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One of Athletic Director M. Grace Calhoun’s primary objectives during her tenure is to improve the unity of the student-athlete community. In doing so, Calhoun hopes to improve attendance at athletics games and an overall involvement in sports campus-wide.

Credit: Osama Ahmed

If you fight the urge to look at your phone while strolling down Locust Walk, you just might notice a little something different among the sea of hurried people.

No, it’s not that the leaves are finally starting to turn. And it’s not that there are more pumpkin spice lattes in hand either.

If you look closely enough, underneath the unzipped hoodies and jackets of Penn’s student athletes, you will find bold new navy T-shirts are the latest in newly minted athletic director M. Grace Calhoun’s attempt to unify the Penn athlete community.

When it comes to bringing together upwards of 1,000 student-athletes, T-shirts may seem like a strange starting point. However, it is hard to walk more than a block across the heart of Penn’s campus without seeing a student proudly wearing one of these “IMPACT” T-shirts .

Calhoun explains that the T-shirts were an attempt to make this sense of unity visible. “First and foremost, it’s been about building that [athletic] community internally,” she told The Daily Pennsylvanian.

“[It’s that] they’re not a men’s lacrosse team, a women’s basketball team, a rowing team, that they’re part of the division of recreation and intercollegiate athletics. That they need to act as one community and support one another,” Calhoun said.

The first step, Calhoun explained during Penn’s first ever all-athlete kick-off picnic on Sept. 22, is to get to know members of the athletic community outside of just the sport in which you compete. Calhoun didn’t waste any time getting started with this measure: during the picnic, athletes were instructed not to sit with other members of their team so that they could get to know other athletes.

While the picnic was a galvanizing start, this athletic community will not form overnight from a few more Facebook friends. Calhoun wants athletes to make the time to attend fellow athletes’ competitions — and to do it for free. This year, for the first time, student athletes will not have to pay admission to men’s basketball games at the Palestra. This was done in hopes of reviving the passionate Quakers fan base that once thrived in the “Cathedral of Basketball.”

But she did not stop there. Calhoun also stressed to athletes a sense of accountability; if they want to be a part of a vibrant athletic community in University City, then they need to help make it.

“If we’re going to grow attendance at all sports, then [athletes] are personally responsible for helping grow attendance,” she said.

“If it’s inviting their classmates, their residence hallmates, their faculty, they need to be engaging in those conversations, getting information out about their sporting events and being personally accountable to trying to help bring people in. We all know that people have a better chance of wanting to go if they feel like they’re invited or they feel like they know people that they’re watching play.”

Tied to this element of accountability is athletes’ behavior off the field. According to Calhoun, “for student athletes, just always making sure that they understand that there are privileges, but also responsibilities that come with the role.”

“One of those responsibilities is being high [in] character and good citizens. Because if they’re not, it’s an embarrassment to not only themselves and their family but also the team and the division if something goes wrong.”

Recently, quite a few things have gone wrong. The last calendar year has been one of bad press for the Penn athletics community in the Greater Philadelphia area. To name a few, the women’s lacrosse team got into trouble last spring for allegedly damaging a bar and behaving vulgarly in Center City. This fall, junior wide receiver Cam Countryman was charged with simple assault after an altercation with a fellow student-athlete.

“Unfortunately we’ve had our fair share of neighborhood disturbances,” said Calhoun. “I’ve had enough of that.”

Through these policies it is clear that Calhoun is on a mission to establish a tangible presence in the lives of student athletes on campus. Although the semester is just shy of the halfway mark, her plan is already flourishing.

As a student athlete myself, I can attest to the success of Calhoun’s four short months in office. Her policies have already had a greater impact (no pun intended) on my life than anything done by former athletic director Steve Bilsky during the 2013-2014 school year.

Perhaps it is still too early to pass definitive judgments on our new fearless leader. But so far, I’m a fan.

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