Bilas and Lawson were pretty good models for student-athletes. Bilas majored in political science at Duke, and then received a law degree. He contends basketball was not only intellectually challenging but required as much immersion as law school did.
“I don’t see any difference in terms of the time and the focus and the mental energy,” Bilas said. “It’s not better because it’s athletics, but it’s certainly not worse either. And you don’t see people going through the library and saying, ‘You’re spending way too much time in here.’ It seems like the academy can live with that.”
Lawson majored in business and finance, but she credits Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt with teaching her more about communication than she learned in her public speaking classes. All of Summitt’s teams have to read books about organizational success and executive decision-making, and prepare weekly reports on them — and are responsible for a teaching a chapter to their teammates.
“The stuff you have to remember, the concepts that you have to get down, are difficult, and it’s actually harder than studying for a test,” Lawson says. “When you study for a test, we all used to cram and then dump it off 24 hours later, but you can’t do that in sports. . . . Your recall in sports at the collegiate level has to be instantaneous. And for that to happen, you can’t just study it; you have to freaking own it. And there’s a big difference between studying something and owning it.”
Isn’t that kind of ownership what all teachers wish they could embed in their students?
The best college coaches teach sport as a set of problems and how to tease out the solutions. They don’t just teach content and skill, but how to transfer it into real-world performance through study, organization and communication under pressure. They ask, what happens if you follow a strategy to its logical conclusion? What are the consequences of making things up as you go along? Why do things break down? What are effective fallback principles when skill or strategy breaks down? What are the traits of successful organizations across professional boundaries?
Not all college coaches are great teachers, of course, any more than every member of the English faculty is. Some coaches would no doubt mail in their lectures, or bore people, or dish off their teaching responsibilities to their assistants or to grad students.
Emphasizing the teaching aspect of coaching wouldn’t cure the ills of college sport or eradicate academic fraud. Cheating is a vice, like smoking, that won’t go away. But we can at least sharpen our mind-sets and identify what it is we really want from college athletics, and get the emphasis right.