That’s what we’re doing with college athletics. We’ve taken one of the most critical fields of human learning and dumbed it down with our own prejudices and guilt. We’ve made it a neglected subject and cut ourselves off from a core curriculum.
Imagine if we turned this on its head and treated elite sports performance as a major — a valuable course of study that encompasses human cognition, leadership, ethics, collaboration, the science of performance under pressure, sociology, labor law, concepts of justice and ancient traditions. One worthy of textbook readings, student papers and, yes, degrees, with athletic departments as organically absorbed into universities as music, language or drama departments.
Does that sound like a ruinously revolutionary idea, the end of academia? Actually, it’s the conception of a renowned academic named Drew Hyland, a professor of philosophy and classical scholar at Trinity College who coalesces his ideas in a stunning lecture titled “The Sweatiest of the Liberal Arts: Athletics and Education.” Hyland is not some pencil neck, though he’s the author of half a dozen books on Plato and Socrates. He was part of a basketball team at Princeton (Class of ’61) that reached the Sweet 16, and it has been a source of bafflement to him ever since that his most intensely mind-enlarging experience, as impactful on him as his philosophy degree, was belittled as peripheral and meaningless, not worth thinking about.
Americans know on a gut level that few subjects are more thrillingly exploratory — or prized — than excellence at play. It’s partly why Clemson pays Dabo Swinney $9 million per year and the price tag for Alabama’s football stadium renovation is over $100 million. The trouble is, we’re half-guilty that it’s all money misspent on an obsession. It’s not. Nick Saban is probably the most potent teacher on Alabama’s campus. Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker, the former Duke great, calls Mike Krzyzewski the finest professor he ever had. “And that’s not a knock against the incredible faculty I had there,” he says.
Gary Walters, former longtime athletic director at Princeton, a former chair of the NCAA men’s basketball committee and a onetime teammate of Bill Bradley’s on a Final Four team, says, “The fact is there are many, many professors who would benefit from going to a practice and watching coaches in action perform their responsibilities. It would enhance their pedagogy.”
Great coaches are incontrovertibly great teachers, whereas for many academics teaching is secondary to research. “Part of the fabric and prerequisite for a coach is to be a tremendous communicator,” says Amaker, who serves as an executive fellow at the Harvard Business School. “You can have the knowledge, but if you can’t give it to someone else . . .”
Where we’ve gone wrong is in the sequestering of this teaching from the rest of liberal arts, restricting it to a small set of students performing in front of huge stadiums for huge revenue, and calling it overly commercialized. We start with the right instinct, Hyland writes, “But having joined together formal education and athletic experience — insightfully in my opinion — we all too often allow the educational richness of that relation to disintegrate. We risk taking back the very insight embodied in our joining athletic experience to educational experience by disastrously labeling athletics ‘extracurricular’ . . . and so implying that we do not, after all, seriously believe that athletics is a significant component in our education to full humanity. We forget the wisdom of the ancient Greeks.”
Worse, we’ve told ourselves that athletics actually interferes with education. We don’t do that with any other disciplines in the humanities, arts or sciences. We acknowledge that learning music or language promotes varieties of intelligence. How absurd — what a discriminatory cheat — not to recognize the same of athletics. Powers of concentration, controlled poise, systems of organization, heightened spatial awareness, multiple brands of analysis, critical thinking, methodology, adaptability. Self-mastery, the ability to direct energy on call. Are these things not in fact the root of acumen and professional competence in any field — and do sports not teach them with a special and perhaps even matchless power?
Athletic training does more than just impart knowledge. It embeds it. “I was already motivated, but being inspired is different, deeper, longer lasting,” Amaker says. “There is a part of it that touches your soul and heart.”
Why have we splintered our campuses this way? According to Harry Lewis, a former Harvard dean who wrote a stirring critique of university education, “Excellence Without a Soul,” it’s because we let the “intentional lie” of amateurism infect the university system. Lewis devotes an entire chapter to college athletes and money. “Alongside the sin of competitiveness in the ideology of amateurism stands the sin of extreme proficiency,” he writes. We’re a little afraid that if college athletics makes too much money for too high a standard of physical excellence, it won’t be pure learning. What a crock.
What would happen if we assigned serious value to athletics, treated it as more than an entertainment vehicle? Creating a sports performance major wouldn’t solve every problem in athletics, especially in the Power Five conferences, but it would at least be a profoundly clarifying reordering. Players, even those only on campus for a year or two, would be required to write and reflect and make more direct connections in their real, chosen course of study, including the economic and legal underpinnings, which would equip them to be more than just ephemeral competitors. Their scholarships would gain value. Athletic departments would become answerable to an academic dean. Coaches would be faculty members required to teach to broader classrooms, which would sort out the cheaters and poseurs from those who truly know how to impart principles of organization, leadership and collaboration.
By correcting the underlying fallacy that college sports are worthless despite all that money, some plaguing issues would become sharper. Our commitment to nonrevenue sports and women’s sports would be much clearer, and athletic directors would be prohibited from cutting them in a fiscal crunch. The money that schools such as Ohio State have poured into needless administrative bloat and legions of deputy athletic directors would be redirected where it belongs — to educating students.
What would such a reordered system look like? Hyland says it would look a little bit like ancient Athens at its peak, when holistic education, the development of a whole person, meant something. Athleticism, Hyland points out, is a Socratic exploration: Know thyself. It’s hard to think of a purer form of learning than the lessons of elite competition. It’s one of the most ideal learning environments, he says, “for the complexities of a thoughtful life.”