I have been to lots of different sports since I have been here—I’ve been to wrestling and it is one of the places where you see the nature of what disciplined skill looks like. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
—President Richard Brodhead
In sixth century Greece, wrestling was a much more homoerotic act of disciplined skill, featuring nude combatants drizzled lightly with olive oil. Even though those days are gone, it was refreshing to hear President Brodhead affirm a classical Greek view on college athletics in a conversation with The Chronicle last week. He said that his ideal mix in Duke sports would be to combine high athletic achievement with high intellectual achievement. In praising the development and exercise of both physical and intellectual faculties, he—probably knowingly—invoked the Greek principle of arete, a word roughly translated as a combination of excellence, virtue and achieving one’s full potential in every area of life.
This attitude is nice to hear, because data published in a recent book, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, starkly show the decline in number of good athletes who are also good students at selective universities since 1951. Lately, particularly in high profile sports, the trend has been toward more athlete and less student. This development is particularly unfortunate because many of the best students I know also happen to be on varsity teams. (I’d put money on the fact that the distribution of athletes’ academic performance has “fat tails,” meaning that athletes are disproportionately represented at the extremes of scholastic performance, both good and bad.)
For one reason or another, there seems to be a powerful synergistic effect between athletics and academic performance for those who take both seriously. This insight is by no means new; the Greeks saw fitness as essential and challenged their children with rigorous physical training. “Music and gymnastic together made up Greek education. From the day that the Greek boy went to school about the age of seven he spent a considerable portion of each day in the palestra and gymnasium exercising himself under trained supervision,” historian Norman Gardiner writes. This practice, perhaps, has something to do with the incredible creative fertility of Greek civilization and culture.
Unfortunately, this happy union did not last. “By the time of the Peloponnesian War the word ‘athlete’ had come to mean professional, while athletics were out of fashion among the young men generally. Aristophanes sadly contrasts the pale, narrow-chested youths of his day with the men who fought at Marathon,” writes Gardiner. One would be right to argue that the change in university admissions policy from the “balanced student” model a few decades ago to the “balanced class” model of today has effectively created a community of specialists who are much less versatile than their parents. The pressure to focus on a particular thing on campus now extends to athletics, and the result has been to make varsity participation and scholastic leadership less common than they were in the past.
College athletics are at a similar crossroads to that the Greeks experienced in 340 B.C. According to historian Stephen Miller, it was at this point that a massive rift developed between competitors and spectators, brought about by the infusion of large sums of money from Alexander the Great’s conquests, ultimately leading to the increased specialization and professionalization of athletics.
Since increased professionalization in college sports tends to withdraw those students from the community, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the highest academic achievers I have known are clustered in disciplines that lack substantial opportunities for future careers: field hockey, volleyball, swimming and track.
That said, Duke ought to take steps to promote and maintain high academic standards for recruited athletes, some of whom enjoy a much larger admissions break than minorities or legacy students. By doing this, athletics can be brought back into the academic fold. When seen as an essential part of the educational process, athletics have the potential to create a culture of excellence that extends beyond the playing surface, as it has so strikingly for Stephanie Istvan, a Phi Beta Kappa member of the volleyball team.
“It is no coincidence,” Miller writes, “that the Akademy of Plato was first and foremost a place of exercise for the body, and that the best preserved portrait of Plato, who we think of as a thinker, a philosopher, and a man of letters, appears on a herm from his gymnason and that we wears the ribbon of an athletic victor.”
Matt Gillum is a Trinity senior. His column appears Wednesdays.
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