The critic of varsity sports alleges that sports detract from the educational project of the University. Recruits get into Yale at a lower academic standard, athletes enroll in gut classes that make a mockery of Yale’s pretensions to scholarly rigor, and teams constitute cliques isolated from the intellectual engagement that characterizes the rest of the student body.
The apologist for varsity sports responds, first, by mitigating the hyperbole of the critique. Many recruits are just as qualified as other students accepted to Yale, most non-athletes could use a gut course themselves — “Remedial Abdominal Training,” perhaps — and athletes are some of the most devoted readers of the student publications that constitute public discourse on campus. The apologist continues by citing the ancillary benefits of sport: money from alumni, the maintenance of rivalries in which the student body may achieve a ritual catharsis, and, of course, the raison d’être of the Yale Precision Marching Band.
And yet, while it is true that the critic’s allegations are overblown, that sport contributes in many secondary ways to the University, and that, in any case, the accumulated weight of tradition and alumni support mean it is not likely to die out soon, it is hard to avoid the sneaking suspicion that the apologist has not really responded to the critic’s argument. It seems that the apologist has bought into the fundamental premise of the critic — that sport has no educational function — and is merely trying to show that any negative impact it may have on education is small and balanced by its positive impact in other realms.
A strong defense of sport, on the other hand, must begin by challenging the fundamental premise of the critic. It turns out that this is not so difficult, as the critic’s conception of education reduces to training. Training takes a variety of forms, but the training most appropriate to Yale is the heightening of analytical intelligence. Of course, if Yale’s central function is to heighten analytic intelligence, then sport is a distraction. But education as training completely fails to encapsulate the complexity of the educational project.
Education is concerned with the initiation of the young into norms of action and identity in society. Insofar as the society prizes internal criticism and scientific rigor, the training of analytical intelligence is an important component of education — a component that will allow that society to challenge its own assumptions. But education is more fundamentally a process for the conservation of cultural values.
Perhaps two-year technical colleges have the isolated function of training that would justify the rejection of sport. But universities graduate most students with credentials rather than technical training. Universities constitute the final holding place of our educational system and, as such, have a responsibility to attend to the conservation and transmission of cultural values.
All that remains to be proved is the value of sport to American society as a whole. The conclusion follows naturally from an understanding of America as the bourgeois nation par excellence. The great spiritual threats to bourgeois society are apathy, enervation and acquiescence to mediocrity. Sport is uniquely suited to combat these evils, because it carves out a space for honor, excellence and the pursuit of glory.
At the same time, the modern form of sport subsumes the honor ethic under an institutional structure that does not consider the things of this world to be of ultimate significance. Sport thereby avoids the tribulations of pagan society in favor of the modern Protestant order. Religious devotion to a football team coexists with American Christianity because the fan knows that the former is temporary, but he awaits the eternal satisfaction promised by the latter. Sport is simultaneously an antidote to the worst of the bourgeois order, and a great bulwark thereof.
The supposed insignificance of sport to education is thus shattered. Sport is much more of an educational enterprise than the utopian dreaming of those obsessed with changing the world. Sport recognizes that a thing can possess excellence without possessing perfection, and that there is some good in its preservation.
Athletes of Yale, stand tall. You have the admiration of this second-string second baseman on the club baseball team. The wider student body will sip lattes, wear eclectic scarves, and disdain your allegiance to the institutions of the bourgeois order, but they are mere ingrates. For all the while, in a small way, you have been holding up civilization unawares.
Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.