SCHWARTZ: Consider the academics of sports

In Thursday’s Washington Post, sports columnist Sally Jenkins challenged the entire structure of athletic programs in American colleges. Her argument is simple: Universities embrace music, dance, theater and art as legitimate academic disciplines. All of these are respectable programs that mix practical experience and technical skill with theoretical and historical study. So, Jenkins asks, why not treat collegiate sports similarly?

A central piece of Jenkins’ argument rests on a parallel she draws with the theater studies major here at Yale. After thinking about the way education here works, I find the argument quite reasonable.

We are (perhaps regrettably) no longer an academic institution committed purely to classical study and the training of religious ministers. Indeed, we have widened our scope exponentially, creating programs of study that are part technical (art, engineering and theater) or part political (gender and sexuality or environmental science).

Nevertheless, as long as these programs are anchored in familiar textual and experimental study of some kind, we view these slight deviations from traditional academic study as legitimate supplements to — and outgrowths of — real scholarship. It is difficult to find any reason why college athletics should be treated differently.

Of course, your average 10-year-old will think that studying sports, art and movies all sounds like a breeze. But that is because she has never taken technical drawing at Yale. Disciplines are only a joke if they are taught poorly, and the academic study of football can be as rigorous as anything else if taught by serious faculty.

Does coaching take any less skill or require any less training than directing a play? Is studying military tactics or “grand strategy” somehow more scholarly than studying football strategy? Are hours spent perfecting athletic techniques any less creditable than those spent taking music lessons or organizing test tubes? Most importantly, what message are we sending to student-athletes when we say that the activity to which they devote hundreds of hours can get Yale’s money — but has nothing to do with our academic mission?

As Jenkins rightly points out, sections of the Yale Theater Studies program description sound like they could be transferred wholesale to that of a college athletics program. According to the program’s website, the major “combines practical training with theory and history, while stressing creative critical thinking. Students are encouraged to engage intellectual and physical approaches to explore diverse cultural forms, historical traditions, and contemporary life.” A mix of “intellectual and physical” approaches? That sounds workable for athletics to me.

Given the Ivy League’s extensive history of intense involvement with varsity sports and the recent soul-searching about their place in this university (consider, for example, President Levin’s drastic reduction in the number of admissions slots reserved for athletic recruitment), it seems strange that no one ever considered working sports into the University as a regular discipline. So why haven’t we seen this happen?

The answer, I think, lies in a subtle but pernicious form of discrimination that permeates institutions like Yale. People with Ph.D.s feel perfectly comfortable standing around in suits, sipping expensive drink and talking to like-minded, wealthy people from Europe about the arts.

Sports are different. They have drawn the interest and passion of an entire segment of America with whom the elites who populate American universities have little in common. This is not to say that professors cannot be sports fans; but it is to say that for a great many of us, sports are momentary diversions, amusing past-times, guilty pleasures, a way to stay healthy, or — even worse — an opportunity to connect with the “commoman.”

All of these motivations are quite far removed from an appreciation of athletic excellence as a good in and of itself. And so I think academia’s exclusion of athletics has a lot to do with the fact that people other than academics — and even more importantly, people other than the sort of people with whom academics tend to hang out — enjoy sports. It’s a silly hang up and one that we should get over.

Yale strives to achieve a balance of interests and talents in its student body, and it never surprises us when incredibly talented people have areas of weakness. The stellar cellist with subpar writing skills and the young author who barely made it through geometry are rightly recognized for their talents and contributions. It is precisely because music and writing are recognized academic disciplines that we all intuitively understand these students to be brilliant. Let’s make sure we give sports the same path to communal respect. What’s more, Yale should lead the way in doing so.

Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at yishai.schwartz@yale.edu.

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