No Offense/A Defense: Examining where sports fit into our intellectual college lives

Posted by Jake Dolgenos

With the excitement of the Summer Olympics only now slipping from the world's headlines, and with football season underway, the experience of once more finding ourselves enraptured as a species, and as a school, by the results of competitive athletic activity comes with a sense of occasional communal confusion. As we are ostensibly drawn together through our desire to better ourselves intellectually, what, if any, is the place of athletics on a modern college campus? It's a question that provokes much whispered skepticism, and may elicit some ill will for the mere act of it's asking, but one which warrants some discussion nonetheless.

It's easy to feel frustrated as a student when a character like Ryan Lochte, the Olympic swimmer for the United States, captures the world's attention and applause only to prove an inarticulate, self-centered jock. His self-congratulatory mumbling made it hard to ignore an uneasy feeling that punctuated the jingoistic trash talk around my television. Is this the role model we've chosen to represent our society? Is Ryan Lochte deserving of our national attention? It's hard not to weigh the broader sociological implications.

This connects to what I'll call the Typical Intellectual Objection (TIO) to sports in general, one all of us have probably heard or felt or defended or attacked during our time at college. Athletic competition shouldn't command the attention it does, the argument goes. It shouldn't fill our time or define our lives. It shouldn't take our minds and bodies from class, or funding from our tuition. Our national love of sports, the argument may continue, is part of a larger cultural trend, which emphasizes superficial values, anti-intellectualism, and mindless competition. Celebrity worship. The obsession with fitness and skinniness. The stereotype of the dumb jock bully is rarely mentioned, but seems always to hover around the TIO intimidatingly

Admittedly, it seems hard to defend athletic competition in the modern world, a world run by computers and machines, a world no longer requiring the kinds of physical activity we once needed to survive. Cooperation, not competition, seems far more promising a proposition.

I am the first college athlete in three generations of both sides of a particularly bookish family. I come from a world of near-sighted English majors and the authors of books on constitutional law. My parents pushed me into recreational soccer but routinely read books while I played, and encouraged my inevitable mediocrity with the overarching assurance that sports and games are for fun, and that pursuits of the mind were the activities that mattered. Few have been so well exposed to the TIO as have I.

So when I heard my aunt, who teaches law at Rutgers University, admit that athletes were often her favorite students, it gave me pause. She elaborated.

They come to class on time and prepared. They respect the authority and knowledge of the professor. They are considerate of the group's experience in the class, not just their own. They get their work done and don't question its value. They know how to ask for help when they need it. They know how to accept criticism and make appropriate changes.

This was not, she made clear, representative of all of the athletes she taught, nor were these qualities relegated to only those students who had participated in collegiate athletics (soldiers were another favorite of hers). But I found in her assertion my own answer to the TIO.

Athletics, like any other activity, do not magically transform anyone's personality. I say this to make it clear that I intend to make no apologies for Lochte-like cockiness or (seeming) stupidity. There are some athletes who fully embody the dumb jock stereotype. But I believe that the spirit of the liberal arts involves learning from all kinds of experiences and experiencing all kinds of learning.

Playing a sport may involve kinds of physical activity that society no longer needs, but it also promotes and rewards actions and attitudes, which remain truly important in any society. Leadership, cooperation, organization and self-improvement as the result of accepted criticism sounds like a laundry list of inspirational business posters, but these are the kind of incredibly necessary, hard-to-teach values that organized sports inform.

There is little here, I imagine, that students have not heard before, and constitutes a fairly typical response to the TIO. But for me, the kind of hypothetical argument it encompasses is grounded in my own experiences and those of my athletic friends.

There is a mindset to athletics that I rarely see in the rest of my life. It's an attitude that relishes greater challenge, that encourages constant self-examination and critique, which involves honor and dignity in the face of obstacles or defeat. It feels old-fashioned. It's a thrill. It wakes me up in the morning.

For those who live without this feeling, or for whom sports offer little interest, consider the value of the modes of life they inspire. To my fellow athletes, consider what athletics mean to you in a broader sense and try, like my aunt's favorite students, to more fully embody the positive values a lifestyle of competition should promote. What a world it would be, to have every professor so convinced of the benefits of a class full of athletes. 

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