Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Whenever anything is complimentary, there will always be some bad apples who abuse their privileges. I remember the signs posted around the Lothian dining halls almost four years ago, asking students to not take coffee cups home with them. Whenever I go to Costco, I and assuredly many other patrons abuse the unspoken “one free sample rule.” The newest UCR instance of a “tragedy of the commons” is the new Student Recreation Center (SRC), which has so far lost thousands of towels since it opened in October 2014. With losses reported at around 150 per week, the SRC staff has posted signs all around the gym, begging patrons to not take the towels. However, more must be done to keep the towel service sustainable at the SRC.

The need for towels in any gym environment is obvious. Nothing kills my motivation to go to the gym like sitting on a weight bench in a puddle of sweat left by the last user. There is even a more nefarious downside to wet gym equipment, as bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments. Nasty bacteria, including Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) and E. coli can be transmitted through dirty gym equipment, as well as the fungi that cause athlete’s foot. Getting an infection is the last thing anyone needs in the pursuit of better fitness, and a total discontinuation of the towel program will likely lead to an increase in unwiped gym equipment.

However, the current model is not sustainable, and I am sure many of us would be disappointed to see a loss of towel service at the new SRC. The ability to have clean, fresh towels likely incentivizes a visit to the gym for people who either don’t want to launder their own towels, and makes it much more sanitary than it would be if there was a “bring your own towel system.” Thus, I propose that the gym should keep its complimentary towel service with the inclusion of a checkout system. When you want a towel, you simply present your ID card to the gym staff. In exchange, they give you a towel. If you do not check out a towel or bring your own, then you cannot use the gym. Upon returning the towel, you get your ID back.

A system similar to this is used for renting fitness equipment at the SRC already, as well as at Latitude 55 and in our libraries (for game equipment and markers, respectively). The operating costs would be minimal, as all you conceivably need are a few binders with alphabetical tabs and a staff that knows how to read and hand towels across a counter. In cases where a student loses a towel or irrevocably damages one, the student should then have to pay for the cost of a towel, at which point they would have their ID returned. If the student is unable to pay at the time, the charge should simply be levied onto their Growl account. For instances wherein other gym equipment is rented along with towels, towels should be handed out at the equipment rental desk.

Now, this all seems like a lot of fuss over a dry issue, but the recent towel thefts at the gym have almost certainly showed that a certain demographic of the gym clientele cannot resist the allure of free towels, and all of us non-towel thieves have to suffer the consequences. That is why, as annoying as a checkout system may be, it is necessary if we still want to enjoy the full range of benefits the new SRC has to offer. If the towels are phased out entirely, that would serve to only limit the amount of people who actually go to the gym, undermining its purpose as a place to promote student health and fitness. Though these recent events have proved quite difficult for the SRC staff and student gym users, it is still too soon to throw in the towel.