Reforming American Universities: The Place of Varsity Athletics
In one of the better of the 8 billion pieces about reforming American universities, Peter Brooks in the New York Review of Books (hey, that rhymes!) runs down what’s wrong with many of the well-known critiques. We’ve been through some of these arguments before at PhD Octopus, so I won’t rehash them here now. Instead, I’d like to point to one sentence that struck me in Brooks’ piece, when discussing Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’ contribution to the discussion, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–And What We Can Do About It. Brooks notes:
They want universities to… abolish varsity athletics (good again, but even William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who has studied this subject more deeply than anyone I know of, has given up on that reasonable but impossible task).
This passage hit home, especially since I just witnessed, in person, one of the greatest sporting moments I’ve ever experienced: the Harvard Crimson men’s basketball team defeating the evil Princeton Tigers for at least a share of this year’s Ivy League title (see Kyle Casey‘s wicked dunk above).
You see, I’m a big sports fan. I grew up living and dying with the Montreal Expos (mostly dying), fell in love with professional boxing, and have tended to enjoy most sporting events, always rooting for the underdog. At Harvard, I rooted for the Crimson, and also covered sports for The Crimson, our daily paper. I covered a variety of sports, though my main beats were wrestling and women’s hockey. In my sophomore year I travelled to Duluth, Minnesota where the women’s hockey team, staffed with several Canadian and American Olympians, lost in overtime in the National Championship game to the hometown University of Minnesota-Duluth. Despite the devastating loss, it was a great experience.
As time went on, however, I became a bit disillusioned with varsity athletics. I came to disdain the athlete worship I detected on campus, and felt that Harvard and other elite schools were compromising too much of their academic standards in admitting some star recruits. I read William Bowen’s The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, and Bowen’s follow-up, with Sarah Levin, Reclaiming the Game, and I sympathized with their arguments that the intercollegiate athletics rendered university admissions too biased, and had a pernicious effect on college academics and campus life.
And yet, when I stormed the court last night following Harvard’s win, when I congratulated freshman guard and St. Bruno, Quebec native Laurent Rivard in French (Rivard took a key charge in the waning moments of the game), I felt one of those sports-euphoria moments that made me forget the institutional criticisms of Bowen’s books. College sports, at their best, provide a sense of school spirit and camaraderie that professional sports can rarely match.
I haven’t made up my mind on this issue. It will probably depend on my mood, and on the circumstances. But last night, I was definitely in favour of keeping varsity sports around. And I still am this morning.