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At the very dawn of the sixteenth century, Michelangelo liberated from a large chunk of discarded marble the most famous statue in the history of western art. After a few centuries standing outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, today his David resides in the Galleria dell’Accademia, the academic gallery, where he contemplates his victory over Goliath, and daily hundreds of tourists and art lovers contemplate him. This incredible work of sculpture seems today to have two primary functions. The first, alas, is to provide a certain number of giggling philistines with sophomorically smutty postcards and other souvenirs that focus on David’s distinctly masculine nudity. The second is to stand as an emblem of the pinnacle of human aspirations in the Renaissance. Michelangelo’s David is a model of reason, piety, and athleticism. In our honors programs and colleges, in today’s academies, I have come to think that in our eagerness to cultivate the first of these virtues, thoughtful rationality, we have grown to ignore, to our loss, the other two: spiritual depth and serious attention to physical vigor.
I want to say a few words about collegiate athletics from what is increasingly being designated the “30,000 ft.” perspective. If your experience at 30,000 ft. is at all like mine, this means we all enter a tiny space that can barely contain us, lugging heavy little suitcases that won’t quite fit into the overhead compartments, rather than paying to put our luggage in an actual baggage compartment. Then, an overworked attendant circulates among us, offering to sell us such luxuries as water or coffee, after announcing (as on a recent flight) that three of the four bathrooms to which we have access are unfortunately not working. Maybe the time has come to kill forever that “30,000 ft.” metaphor. In any event, my primary subject here is honors and intercollegiate athletics for women and men. By and large, what I say would apply equally to less formal sporting activities—intramural sports and recreation as well as wholly unprogrammed individual and group endeavors. Of course, I would heartily endorse these ventures, too, especially since many honors programs field intramural teams for softball or touch football, and honors students often engage in pick-up Frisbee or volleyball games. I’m focusing on interscholastic athletics because it is the most extreme form of regular physical activity on college and university campuses, and if the case can be made for athletics, it more or less goes without saying for intramural or casual exercise. Too, I confess, it seems to me more of a challenge to link honors and athletics since these are often seen as, if not hostile, certainly wholly disconnected collegiate endeavors.
Colleges have lots of reasons to develop and support intercollegiate athletics programs, some of which are quite pragmatic, and there are lots of reasons why such development and support should be viewed with suspicion. Sports programs help us with student recruiting, which is certainly a pragmatic, fiscal rationale for maintaining them; at many smaller colleges, as many as half of the students participate in intercollegiate athletics. On the other hand, they can be incredibly costly in lots of ways, including time commitment and raw dollars. Most of us don’t really want to know what it costs just to outfit each of our 40–80 football players, much less to coach, transport, feed, and house them.
Our central mission as colleges is not fiscal well-being but education, so I want to ask what it is that young women and men, including honors students, can learn in their athletics careers. Since most honors programs and colleges see their enterprise as liberal learning, what sorts of liberating collegiate experiences might we be providing our student athletes that reinforce or complement what they are learning in the classroom, laboratory, library, faculty office, or elsewhere in honors. One caveat: the positive lessons of college sports will occur when the institution has a sensible, balanced, and appropriate perspective on the relationships between athletics and academics and when there is strong, solid collegiate leadership—from presidents and provosts, athletics directors and coaches, and even honors directors/deans— steadily affirming productive links; when institutions lose that good sense and/or when leaders do not seek and reward it, positive results are unlikely, and, as we all know, negative ones can take their place.
Let’s start with the two easy links. Everyone knows that participation in sports teaches young people (and older ones, too) the value of team cooperation and hard work. Honors programs should teach these two skill sets, too. But we might want to pause a while and see if perhaps there is a more nuanced way to think about these two kinds of lessons.