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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

College Football and Moral Education

Lately I've been pondering the significance of college sports.  In the United States, nearly every college or university devotes significant resources to athletic facilities, coaches, and teams.  It's so prevalent, we don't think of how peculiar it is that we have so closely united academics and athletics.  Plenty of theorists of education have suggested that there is a natural connection between playfully educating the body and educating the mind, but it is not always obvious that there's a natural link between having a basketball team and having a strong math department, for instance.

Whenever I read an article in the local paper about a local talented high school athlete who has signed with a college sports team, I wonder why we don't report that a local talented debater, chess expert, or math student just made it into Harvard or the University of Chicago on the basis of her talent. It makes me wonder: Do we not care about intellectual ability as much we care about physical prowess?


In 1908 Harvard Philosophy professor Josiah Royce published an essay entitled "Football and Ideals."  The essay is over a century old, but the topic and the ideas sound like they could have been written yesterday.  Royce writes, "Football is at present a great social force in our country.  It has long been so.  Apparently it is destined to remain so."  So far, this is correct.

In Royce's time football was still largely a college sport.  (The NFL was founded twelve years later.) Just as college sports in the United States do today, it drew big crowds.  Just as in our time, football had its scandals: severe injuries among players; hooliganism among the crowds; and unethical behavior among players off the field and among fans and gamblers.

And just as in our time, supporters of the sport claimed that football did more social good than harm.

In his essay, Royce takes all of this seriously.  Any social force this great deserves to be examined, Royce says, in order to determine what social goods it provides, and at what cost.  Only a few play, but all of us are affected by the sport.  He puts it like this:

"Football must be estimated as to its general relations to the welfare of society, just as Standard Oil, or just as the railway management which results in killing a larger proportion of railway passengers in our country than in other countries, must be estimated; it must be judged by non-experts, precisely in so far as it influences their great common social concerns."
Royce was in one sense a non-expert inasmuch as he was a professor, not a college athlete; but in another sense he was an expert because he had devoted much of his research to this question of ethics and the common good. Royce held that the aim of our moral lives is the fostering of loyalty, and that we can see this in a range of social institutions.  He wasn't arguing that we should aim for small and local loyalties, though, but for loyalties that, though they begin and are expressed locally, develop into a broad agape-like loyalty that includes all people.

We often hear this expressed in similar terms today when proponents of college sports say that participation in sports fosters virtues like teamwork, or school spirit

I think participation in athletics actually can do even more than this.  As an educator, I have noticed that college athletes are often some of my most disciplined students.  In general, they wake up early, take care of their bodies, and get their work done.  There are exceptions, of course, but this has been the case with most of my student-athletes, anyway.  Perhaps this is because I teach philosophy, and the weak students shy away from it because it is a difficult subject with no obvious cash value for their lives.  In any event, my student athletes generally keep up the "student" part of that title fairly well.  Being an athlete can provide numerous benefits for a student.

But this is only a small part of the question, isn't it?  Royce reminds us that the question we are asking is not "Does playing football help the student-athlete?" but "Does football on campuses make us and our communities better?"  In other words, this is not a question about the athlete but about the spectatorsIt is really a question about us.

This question is not a soft, squishy, depends-on-what-you-mean question. Royce has something very specific in mind: does the example of others' athleticism make you more ready to "go and do likewise," or does it merely thrill you?  Or does it even sap your desire and ability to demonstrate similar excellence and loyalty?

Royce says that "if a man has only taught you to cheer him, he has so far only amused you," and if football has only allowed you to "let off steam" without making you "more practically devoted to your own tasks," then it has not made you better but possibly it has even stripped you of your moral strength.

This requires honest self-assessment.  When you watch football, or other athletic contests (like the World Cup) are you becoming a better person, one more able to devote yourself to the tasks that strike you as worthy of your energies?  Are you developing a deeper loyalty to others, and deeper respect for the loyalties of others, or does fandom in fact make those goals more difficult to attain?

Note that this is not a critique of football as a game, nor even of college sports as an institution.  It is a critique of the spectators, and of the effect sports have on us when we watch them.  Are they making us more fit for life together, or are they in fact making us less so?

I will not try to answer that question for now.  Royce's conclusion, in his time, was that the conditions of spectating made football unfavorable "to the best moral development of our youth."  College sports may be great for the players, but not for those who do not play, he said.

It's not obvious to me that things are now as they were then, but it is obvious to me that football has become a greater social force than it was in Royce's time a century ago.  If so, it merits our constant examination.  And if we are honest, and good, we will not be content with vague observations about building teamwork in the players.  After all, the players never play alone, but always with a crowd.  It is not just two teams who play a football game, but those two teams play together with the combined energies of the crowd, and each influences the other.

This should be obvious to us from the simple fact of team selection.  Coaches select players from the general body of students (or potential students) in order to win games for the school, not in order to help those select few become better people.  At many high schools and colleges, coaches are considered teaching faculty.  But there is this important difference between sports teams and academic classes: academic teachers are not permitted to choose which students they will educate, but coaches generally have free rein to eliminate from their tutelage any whom they choose. So while college sports may be similar to classes (inasmuch as they purport to teach) they differ significantly in this respect.

For myself, I am not opposed to college sports.  If anything, I would like to expand them to include all students as players, not merely as spectators.  After all, if there are moral benefits to playing sports, then why would any institution of higher education not want to urge all of its students to gain that benefit by playing?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Melville on Religion

Offered without comment:

“As Queequeg’s Ramadan, or Fasting and Humiliation, was to continue all day, I did not choose to disturb him till towards night-fall; for I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, no matter how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.”
 Herman Melville, Moby Dick. (New York: Signet, 1980) 94, ch 17, “The Ramadan.”

Newspapers, Sports, and Healthy Societies

Everywhere I've lived I've subscribed to the local newspaper. I do so because I think it's important to be informed about what's happening in my community, and because buying the local paper is like a voluntary tax you pay when you love democracy.  It funds investigative reporting about local politics, which, while imperfect, is one of the keys to fighting corruption.

I have caught some of de Tocqueville's enthusiasm for the way journalism can pump the lifeblood of a free society.  Subscription to one's local paper is an act of patriotism.  It is a commonplace of contemporary life in the United States to say that our freedom is won and preserved by soldiers.  But this is, at best, only partly true, and history shows that armed men can both help and hinder freedom.  Armies may be helpful, but there are other services that are more essential to freedom: lawyers, educators, and journalists. 

But my idealism concerning journalism contends with my cynicism.  Publishers of news are, after all, publishers; and publishers must pay their bills, too.  They've got to sell ads, which means they can't risk offending those who buy ads.  Right now we are in one of those times when there are a very few companies that own very many of the news outlets, and it's hard to imagine that doesn't affect both the slant of news stories told and the way those stories are selected and omitted in the first place.  And they've got to print what we want to buy. 

All this is a prelude to something else I have in mind to write over the next few days, about the relationship between sports and education, a question at least as old as Plato's Republic. I begin here by noting the role sports play in our news.  How much of television news is devoted to sports?  On any given day, a third of my local newspaper reports local and national and international sports stories. 

This raises several questions for me. Why does this hold such fascination for us?  And is our fascination with sports healthy?  

Since some of what I will say about sports will seem critical, let me point out that I'm not opposed to sports.  I'm a member of a society devoted to philosophy and sport, and I love outdoor recreation.  I swam for the varsity team in my high school; I played club ultimate in college; I encouraged my kids to play various sports like flag football, gymnastics, little league, and soccer throughout their youth; and I am now the faculty advisor for my college's martial arts club and I am a U-19 recreational league soccer coach in my city.  Sports are important; but that does not mean that all the attention we give to sports is well given. 

So, once again, I begin with noticing the attention our newspapers give to sports.  Plainly we need our journalists to attend to judges and legislators, to governors and police departments, because all of those are public offices endowed with public trust.  Journalists are one of the main ways we prevent the violation of that trust.  So what about sports?  Is the presence (we could even say the domination) of sporting news merely a distraction from the real work of journalism?  Is it a necessary evil to get us to buy the paper and to support the important democratic work of reporting? 

One could argue that we need newspapers to watch athletes and coaches and owners of athletic teams to ensure that their influence on society is not unjust.  But this cuts both ways: were it not for the attention we already give to sport, the influence of athletes, coaches, and owners would be minimal.  The fact that newspapers report so much about sport is the symptom; we ourselves, and our attention to sport are the cause.  It is not something called "sport" that is at issue here, nor the leaning of the journalists, but rather, the attention we ourselves pay it.  If newspapers are physicians of our civic life, then we are the patient; and the doctor can only do so much to make us healthy if we will not do our part, too.