Regan: We Need Student Athletes

“Student-athlete” is not a contradiction: it is tautology.

by Joe Regan | 3/7/17 12:15am

A junior at Yale University named Cole Aronson wrote a column on Feb. 27 in which he argued that “sports have nothing to do with the mission of a college as I see it.”

Aronson’s argument revolves around these two points: first, that intellectual pursuits offer every benefit sports do and second, that intellectual achievement and appreciation is superior to all other forms of achievement and appreciation.

To begin, Aronson’s first point that every virtue or lesson acquirable in sports is acquirable in intellectual activities proves parity, not that sports are inferior to intellectual activity. Switch the italicized words, and you will have the opposite of his argument, yet his argument does not prevent such a reversal. Aronson admits that “courage, amicability and integrity” are necessary for “influence.” What he fails to do is indicate why we should suppose being a newspaper editor is any less impressive a time commitment than, say, the captain of a football team. To argue one is equivalent to another is not to demonstrate inferiority. The definition of equivalence is parity, something which Aronson has proven to exist between sports and intellectual activities, even if that was not his intention.

Clearly Aronson — if he does attend any sporting events — sees only the physical exertion of the quarterback as he hurls the pigskin, of the pitcher as he lunges toward home plate or of the rower biting his teeth against the pain of another “power 10.” If these athletes are captains, isn’t the organization of practice, communication and mediation necessary of these individuals equivalent, if not more demanding, than that of any scholastic position of leadership?

Furthermore, what is it about a “good mind” that excludes the mental exertion all sports require at the collegiate level? Aronson seems to think that all one needs is to watch “what passes for English on ESPN” to understand the gulf in intellect between those who strive physically and those who strive mentally. He fails to note that the volume of information, memorized and unfolding before the eyes of any athlete in their respective sport, is deserving of respect. Moreover, the ability to translate all the knowledge necessary to perform at a Division I level is akin to performing well on academic assessments. Even if an individual were suddenly endowed with the physical gifts and results of years of training that enable these athletes to perform, he or she would fail miserably. The mental cognition, manifested in explosions of movement and sweat in athletic competition, is as obvious and invisible as the furious scribbling that marks out any group of Ivy League students during an assessment. Aronson bandies about and fawns over the concept of intelligence throughout his piece. He refuses to define what comprises intelligence because if he did, he would be forced to conclude that Division I sports require it. Athletes, especially professionals, who have spent their entire lives focused on their sport, and not the honing of skills superfluous for their chosen field of expertise, are smart, not stupid.

Aronson’s likely rejoinder is implied by his observation that failing to produce more noteworthy athletes would not be to Yale’s discredit, while “if Yale stopped churning out superb doctors, writers, scientists, lawyers, politicians and engineers, it would cease to be a great school.” This is Aronson’s second contention, that sports are just benign entertainment, providers of unity and topics of discussion at the dinner table that are “dust next to contemplation, art and worship — individual or communal.” Yet athletic competition has lessons and values for its practitioners that are not as easily grasped by the lonelier pursuit of academic achievement. Furthermore, I think the character molding in sports fits the mission of liberal arts institutions more than inundating the world with ever-greater numbers of highly educated white collar workers and lab coat-wearing, degree-toting professionals.

Lux et Veritas, “light and truth.” Vox clamatis in deserto, “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” The first is the motto of Yale, the second of Dartmouth. Neither mean anything if the students of both haven’t learned to be resilient, persevering and ambitious. The beauty of sports is that there is a winner, and there is a loser. When you succeed academically, you have not succeeded despite your professor. However, in athletics, there is a very clear opponent actively trying to defeat you, whether it is your own limitations or those a rival athlete seeks to impose on you. While Aronson would likely argue that the struggle of the academic is over oneself, I would argue that the experience of an athlete is no different. Sports are not only the struggle over that person who doesn’t want to study any more game film or run as hard as one can again, but also the struggle against a very real opponent throwing obstacles in your way. In this way, athletics is a better indicator for preparation following graduation than the library is.

We don’t need athletes because they remind us of the hard truth of an opponent, so often absent from the classroom. We don’t need athletes because they are mentally adept or hyper-observant in a way that is harder to understand than scrawled numerals or long essays. We need athletes because the personal enrichment sports provide is another path, alongside “intellectual activity,” to the mission of the liberal arts. That mission is not rooted in achievement and accolades — it is rooted in the cultivation of the sort of person that tends to achieve. The ability to understand, interpret and apply one’s knowledge to solve problems is what makes a great athlete and a great scholar. That is why student-athlete is not an oxymoron: it is a tautology.