In Defense of Athlete-Students

Perhaps the most important hour of my week occurs at 4 p.m. on Fridays when, after powering down my computer and returning my books, I head outside in my shorts and t-shirt to the green patch of lawn outside my building for a game of “soccer.” I put “soccer” in quotes not out of deference to the Europeans and Latin Americans who play with me that call it “football,” but because the activity we do only bares a loose family resemblance to that practiced by Lionel Messi or Alex Morgan. Instead, what transpires on the field fit for ten but filled with twenty is a tangle of feet, ankles and knees which would all need double digits to count the number of years it’s been since they’ve made such motions fluidly. “Pinball” would actually be a more accurate description of our game, as the orb seems to bounce between bodies of its own accord for 10, 20, sometimes even 30 minutes at a time before it finally ends up in one of the two nets. Causalities of the weekly game have included the branches on every nearby trees, coffee cups belonging to Design School students, and unfortunately an ACL or two. But the physical, psycho-social, spiritual renewal the weekly game delivers is far more valuable than the endless charade of stuffy lectures or sessions in the library that meander along the rest of the week.

This brings me to the subject of my present discourse, which is my dismay over the way the issue of the relationship between athletics and academics is currently being yapped about in the American mainstream. A series of so-called scandals in college sports has lead the leading lights of the World Wide Web to bemoan the excessive influence that sports programs have on colleges. My own favorite university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been dragged (unjustly!) through the headlines over the past few years for such minor infractions as offering fake classes to athletes, writing papers for them, allowing to enroll ball players who can’t read, and plagiarizing an assignment from a blog post written by four 11-year-olds about poultry.

But I’m here to tell the chicken littles, who are even gone so far as to call for the abolition of the NCAA, that it is not the excessive influence of athletics on the university that is the problem — precisely the opposite! The key to enriching the universities of the future is to have more sports, not less. Let me remember us that in the golden age of classical antiquity, the institutions of higher education were comprised entirely of an athletics curriculum. In ancient Greece, youth would meet at a public school for bodily exercises. Such exercises were done naked — gymnos in Greek — hence the name gymnasium. So what happened? Those pesky pedophilic philosophers began hanging around the gymnasia and whispering that they could teach the boys a little thing or two in exchange for some something something. If the Athenian philosophers had been barred from the ball fields the youth of the city would not have become corrupted and Athena’s jewel might have shined on for another millennium. This sad story repeated itself in Rome, where exercise grounds were eventually overrun with those peddling academic exercises. Yet even the great Cicero admitted he agreed with the opinion of the masses who would much prefer to watch the discuss than an academic discussion. And the wisest of Greeks discovered at last that the field of philosophy cannot teach you how to be a good person, all it can do is point you to others fields on which you might have a chance to become one. David Hume knew what he was doing when he said the antidote to all philosophical problems is to stop thinking and instead go play a game of billiards. And Albert Camus spoke well when he remarked “What I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”

And so, far from harming the purposes of higher education, the expansion of high school and college athletics — and yes, even increased compensation therein, should be greeted not as some colossal deviation from tradition but rather as a return to the roots of what a public school was originally all about. Do not forget that Wittgenstein would never had devised his groundbreaking theory of language games had he not been trained in the sport of chess. And imagine the pitfalls that John Rawls could have avoided had he thought about justice the way he did about baseball.

Speaking of justice and fairness, reflecting on the moral reactions we have to the arena of ball sports has the potential to correct some of our overhasty judgments in other spheres. Consider, for example, how this March, referee John Higgins received a flurry of death threats from fans of the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball team after he called a few fouls on some of the Wildcats’ star players in the first half of the NCAA tournament game against UNC, the eventually national champion. In addition to sending the death threats, Kentucky fans online demanded that the NCAA remove officials with a history of making bad calls toward their team from future assignments as well as institute a camera replay system to override officials’ incorrect judgments. A week prior, the Arkansas legislature introduced a resolution “Encouraging better education of NCAA basketball officials” after its own state university had fallen to the Tar Heels due to, in the eyes of some, similarly questionable officiating. According to the Arkansan resolution, “profoundly poor” officiating “left fans trying to find the strength to carry on, children crying, grown men weeping, cows unable to produce milk, chickens ceasing to lay eggs, and lambs lying with lions.” The Kentucky legislature, probably because its fans had resorted to the death threats, opted not to follow Arkansas’ suit in passing a law condemning the NCAA officials. However, the Kentucky legislature did pass in bipartisan fashion a few days after its basketball loss a law pertaining to the protection of a different kind of official: HB 14, a so called “Blue Lives Matter bill,” that extended hate crime protections to law enforcement officials and other first-responders. Why extra protection for law enforcement but not for the boys in black and white? Why instant replay for when the ball goes out of bounds but not for what a cop does? On the left end of the spectrum, why are liberals perfectly happy to applaud on LeBron James even though he worked for his exceptional natural athletic ability as little as someone who inherits a bunch of money or privilege from their parents?

Indeed, not just our schools but our too politics would be enriched by the presence of those who got a bit more playing time in their youths. Critics are haranguing the current president for hypocrisy about the number of days he spends playing golf when he lampooned his predecessor for the same practice. Instead, they should marvel that a thousand malicious decisions could be avoided and a couple good ideas might emerge if all branches of government spent most of their days on the links rather than in their seats in D.C.. We should not be surprised that some of our most important social critics are raised on the gridiron and not on Gramsci. Far from needing to “keep politics out of sports,” we need our sports to save us from our politics.