Friday, June 13, 2014

College Athletics: Cui Bono?

This Strange Marriage of Athletics and Academics

This week I've been considering the place of sports on American university and college campuses. (See here and here for the other pieces I've written on this this week.)

If you grow up here, it doesn't seem at all strange, because it's simply how things are.  But a little reflection suggests that the juxtaposition of academics and athletics is a little strange.

I say it is "a little" strange because throughout the ages thoughtful people have said that the two complement each other.  Plato's Republic discusses the relationship between gymnastics for the body and philosophy for the mind, for instance. Of course, Plato, famous for his irony, is never wholly straightforward, and the target he is aiming at is probably something else, but the characters in his dialogue act as though bodily exercise and mental exercise are related.

Walking, Playing, and Thinking

One of Socrates' other students, Xenophon, wrote in his Cynegetica that the best education comes through learning to hunt, and that book-learning should only come after a boy has learned the art of coursing with hounds, and practiced it in the country.   And there are many others who tell us that moving our bodies and learning go together: Maria Montessori reminds us that the work of children is play.  Philosophers as diverse as Aristotle, Nietzsche, C.S. Lewis, Henry Thoreau and Charles S. Peirce tell us that walking and thinking are natural companions.

So the strangeness of the marriage of learning and playing is not the hypothesis that the body and the mind work both need exercise.  The strangeness is the way we pursue - or, just as often, fail to pursue - that hypothesis.  We are told that movement helps us think, and that playing team sports teaches us virtue.  If all that is true, then why do we not encourage all students to play sports? 

The Irony: We Do Not Practice As We Preach

Speaking of irony, consider this: What we claim and what we actually do are at odds with one another.  We say sports are good for everyone, then we expect coaches to eliminate all but the best athletes from their instruction.  Rather than advertising our schools as places where students can get an excellent physical education we expect our coaches to travel far and wide to recruit only the best athletes, i.e. those who need the least instruction and who are most likely to win competitions.  It is fairly obvious that, rather than using athletics as a means of inculcating virtue and fostering better thinking, we use athletics to gain honor through victories.

And of course, this is obvious to us.  We want to win games because winning is a form of advertising.  For good or ill, we accept the fact that high school students will often choose our school in order to participate in the glory of competitions won.  But we continue to give the other justifications for participation in athletics, perhaps because we perceive that it would be crass to come right out and say "Come to our college and bask in the glory won by others.  It will thrill you, and it might help your job prospects," or "We hope that the victories of our athletes will help us to raise money from people who won't give unless we are winning games."

I don't want to be cynical about this.  As I have suggested above and said directly in my previous posts, I'm in favor of athleticism.  What troubles me about it is the way that certain college sports become increasingly professionalized.  Why, after all, are student athletes considering unionizing?  That's something employees do, not students.

Let Everyone Learn To Play

My conclusion is not to push for the elimination of college athletics, but for athletics to be brought more into line with the best reasons for preserving it.  If playful exercise makes us better people and better students, then let's urge more students to play.  Let's give less attention to inter-collegiate competition and more attention to teaching lifetime sports that will allow our alumni to enjoy the benefits of physical activity for the remainder of their lives.  Let's teach poorer students to play golf so that when they enter the business world they aren't at a disadvantage when deals are made on the fairway.  Let's teach everyone to swim.  Let's take all our students on walks - serious walks, cross-country walks.  Let's teach them what Thoreau calls the art of sauntering.

Playful activity takes many forms.  We should resist the temptation to think of it as the pursuit of a ball.  Swimming, hiking, rock climbing, Tai Chi, dance, yoga, and numerous other activities have the same moral and intellectual benefits as team sports.  There should be as many opportunities for vigorous play as there are bodies.

Some of my friends have balked at this, understandably.  Not all of us are athletic, or at least not all of us feel athletic.  But I think a good deal of this is because many of us learned about athletics in a victory-oriented environment. That environment fosters a narrow and shallow view of the active human life.  We may not all be quarterbacks, point guards, shortstops, or strikers, but all of us can be active within the limits of the bodies we have been given.  If activity is good for us, then we should treat it as good for all of us.  Play should not be limited to the activity of a few for the thrill of the inactive many.  Play should be, as Peirce said, "a lively exercise of our powers," whatever those powers may be.  And it should be a delight.

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