I am sorry the basketball season is over. I can do without the racket of a tiny gym in my ears, not to mention the "Hear-attack-Hoyas'" habit of winning or losing each game in the last seven second. This season I have learned something. I have begun to grasp how close to the being of a university its athletes work.
This spring semester I have had in class three of the university's basketball starters, along with 27 other students. So far, we've been working on Gerard Manly Hopkins. My part of the course is classic. I explain and expound the beauty of the poems. I hand-hold students through a maze of metrical experiments as I introduce them to a poet as startingly foreign as his contemporary Rudyard Kipling would be, if he walked into out classroom. My aim is contemplation, that the class grow to read, to hear and to understand the poems and the poet. The poetry is close-worked and tough, and I ask for a lot of writing. Even English majors with nothing like a full-time basketball schedule on their hands find it heavy going.
The three players in the class, along with working their way through Hopkins, have an added agenda all there own -- winning basketball games. Unlike my work, what they do is physical, as hard and real as contact on the court. To comtemplation they add the swift flow of instinct and training into act. We both deal with beauty. They together make it. I comment on it once made. We belong together.
The more I watch them play, the more I realize that these young men work at something very ancient. Pindar was the last of the Greeks before Aristotle to know that the spirit is not hostile to the body, is indeed its welcome guest and not its prisoner. He reads athletics, even team atheletics, in terms of beauty and honesty and justice. All three are the stuff of nobility. Where all are present a man is at his best as individual and citizen. Pindar wants his atheletes "wise and strong of hand and eloquent." He is not the least bit ashamed if that eloquence uses the body as well as the mind.
My three student players teach me how much our jobs fit together. I start, with Hopkins, captured by their skill: "the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! Brute beatuy and valor and act . . ."
That is any spectator's response to a team. I can't stop there, nor do I want to. With Hopkins I see how hard they work: "The sweep and the hurl . . . And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress."
One of them is the best natural shooter I have ever seen. Again, it takes a poet to see him, "flash from the flame to the flame, then tower from the grace to the grace."
The two worlds are close, a poet marking beauty and a player making it. Because I am a teacher I want to take it further -- from beauty into good. For my three and for all the others (even from the other side) as they weave their great dance, I pray that their days may come to a "dextrous and starlight order." I want in them to acknowledge the draw of God's deepest trace; "He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him!"
Athletes walk a rough road to acceptance, even among fellow students. We have such disparate canons for judging. After four years of work for a congressman or a committee, undergraduates can hold positions of inflence and even or authority. We admire and accept that. Young scientists learn their intricate trade well enough to work in laboratories and publish their results. They enjoy both reward and praise. But when a young man or woman so masters the body that through its discipline and training, its grace and skill, he or she creates beauty for us, we worry. My poet worries too and asks "To what serves mortal beauty?" He owns it is dangerous, but then tells what it offers all of us: ". . . See; it does this: keeps warm Men's wits to the things that are; what good means . . ."
Athletes belong because they keep warm our wits to things that are. Within the university, those who play serve those who don't, as in myriad ways all students serve each other. Their need, their promise, draws the faculty, too, into service that is learned, thoughtful, frequently prayerful. Whitehead defines the university as a place where we all feel the jar of youth on age, of energy on intellect; where we who comment on beauty and they who make it find ourselves richly together. Another poet, this time an Irishman, looks at a simpler living thing and asks; "O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole;"
My player students show me how we can put the same question to the university. After living in it for many years, I can no longer unknot its strands. As back and forth across a court our player students weave the beauty of their game, I ask: "Body swayed to music, O brightening glance How can we know the dancer from the dance?"