Making the most of college sports: courts, diamonds & gridirons

The real value of spectator sports.

Appears in Fall 2007 Issue: Making the most of college (second annual)
September 1 st 2007

Spectator sports are a part of campus life. Even the most hardened cynic will have to allow that attending a residential college or university involves a student in far more experiences than just attending class. The mere selection of a housing option—residence hall, fraternity and sorority, or off-campus housing—entails an array of experiences that differs dramatically from those of a high school student. On top of that, universities offer a dizzying menu of cultural, recreational, and social activities quite apart from competitive athletics. To avoid this cornucopia of enrichments altogether accuses the uninvolved student, more than the institution, of negligence.

But isn't college supposed to be all about learning? Valuing academic over physical excellence is a form of Platonic dualism. While the modern university exists to improve the minds of its students, to ignore the body altogether is an Enlightenment error that smacks of an unwarranted valuing of the mental over the material realm. We are gradually unlearning this dualism, which helps explain why nearly every North American college has a student recreation centre: to encourage the wholesome engagement of the body in the educational process. But getting physical exercise is one thing—what about watching other people exercise? Can that have any value?

Poetry is motion

Dance is one of the most beautiful of the arts. At its best, watching a dance performance gives us a fresh appreciation of the gifts of our humanity: our wonderful bodies, our ability to move, grace, balance and coordination. Dancers sometimes move in unison, creating beautiful patterns of human form that enlarge our spirits. Sports are dance in another medium. All the preceding descriptions of dance apply also to sporting events. It is a cliché of sports journalism to call an amazing play "balletic." A cliché, but not inaccurate.

To watch an athletic contest at the collegiate level is to watch highly skilled athletes, some of whom will have the opportunity to perform as professionals in a matter of a year or two. The skill level of college athletics is not just better than high school, it is an order of magnitude better. In cases of sports for which there are no professional leagues as with swimming or gymnastics, college athletes are the best there are. Not to be moved by the sheer beauty of athletes' bodies in motion, is to be numb to one of God's greatest endowments on humankind. It is, not to stretch the point, a sin: the sin of ingratitude.

One criticism of college sports is that the athletes involved are freakishly tall or freakishly large, and freakishly talented. While not denying the point, it should be remembered that both size and talent are gifts from God. Universities also have freakishly talented students studying physics, without the benefit of a cheering crowd. At bottom, this is what bothers us about sports. But to denigrate the extraordinary talent of college athletes is again to fall into the trap of dualism, saying that the gifts of physical grace are somehow less than the gifts of the intellect.

Talent alone does not equal success in college sports. In college, I was on the track and field team with an enormously talented high jumper who had cleared seven feet as a schoolboy. Indifference to practice and dislike of hard work not only failed to develop his talent, but ultimately resulted in his losing an athletic scholarship.

The misperception that college athletes are only talented is a slander against a group of God's image-bearers. Athletics require many virtues beyond talent: discipline, dedication, and teamwork, among others. No one—but no one—succeeds in collegiate sports without hard work. We should honour the work of athletes just as we honour all other forms of work. It could be argued that in perfecting their athletic skills, along with carrying even a modest load of coursework and average grades, student athletes work much harder than the average college student, or even the above-average student. An athlete's work load is comparable to that of a student who, lacking financial means, manages to put herself through college by working full-time while attending classes.

Athletic discipline is a model—but not a substitute—for spiritual discipline. The Apostle Paul uses athletic metaphors in his letters, exhorting hearers to "pummel [their] bodies" like an athlete (1 Corinthians 9). I do not intend to spiritualize sports by appealing to the Apostle, but only to point out that Paul's athletic metaphors are apt because they point to real disciplines which produce real results.

Student athletes are also held to higher standards than other students. Athletes don't "skip" practices the way ordinary students skip class, whenever the mood strikes. They often work over holidays and on weekends, and have to fit what amounts to a full-time job (their sport) into their class schedule, making up coursework and exams along the way—not to mention the distractions of being in the spotlight on campus, about which I'll say more later on. And, of course, in most sports, athletes must learn to play as a team, a skill in which many of their more deskbound collegiate brethren could use a great deal more experience.

Additionally, intercollegiate sports provide a safe context for competition and aggression. The will to dominate is very human, partly as part of God's original design (to have dominion), and partly as a result of the Fall (to dominate and oppress one another). Sports provide a safe way for colleges and universities to determine a certain kind of pecking order without resorting to armed conflict. If this point seems absurd, consider that in the Bible, going to war was as seasonal as "March Madness" or the kick-off of football season. I for one am thankful that when one reads of a "warrior" on the sports page, one is reading about a fierce competitor with a ball instead of a weapon.

A model for worship?

On campus, sports events provide a unique group experience. While some Christians complain that sports in the Western world is a substitute for religion, it might be more fitting to consider whether spectator sports could serve as a model for worship. If sports are more appealing than church services to the average person, the blame is with boring worship, not with sports. Sports provide access to what I will call ecstatic community: a peculiar kind of group experience that should be, but seldom is, characteristic of worship. Spectators at sports events get excited, get stimulated, and become very vocal in their admiration for great plays. With the possible exception of certain charismatic sects and the Promise Keepers movement, contemporary worship seldom approaches this level of excitement. Like so many other pursuits in our post-Enlightenment age, worship has become an almost entirely intellectual activity. Not so spectator sports.

At a sports event, when the home team is succeeding, people leap to their feet (without prompting), raise their hands in the air (without prompting), and embrace total strangers nearby (without prompting). Attendance at such events, even when the outcome is a loss, can give students the sensation of having been in community with their fellows. In fact, apart from commencement and the odd convocation, sports events are the only time when a secular college campus is truly in community. The fact that the entire student body or faculty is not present no more disproves this point than the fact that only a portion of a church's membership is in attendance on any given Sunday disproves the existence of a religious community.

Is there anything specifically redemptive about spectator sports (I mean, besides the guy in the rainbow wig with the "John 3:16" sign)? The spirited underdog overcoming adversity to triumph against a vaunted opposing team, a standard trope of nearly every sports movie, can feel redemptive, but usually this has more to do with self-discipline and self-reliance than redemption in the Davidic or biblical sense. And although athletes at times give lip service or make visual references to God, one senses that no one in the locker room really believes that God gave these athletes the victory over an unbeatable foe.

One other aspect of sports which can be redemptive is their appeal to justice. While Christians are grateful to receive mercy rather than justice, every human has an innate sense of fairness that is violated in any number of ways almost daily. Absent rampant cheating, sports provides at least the hope of a fair competition between the lines, officiated by (it is hoped) impartial judges. And the sense that one has witnessed a fair contest between two well-matched opponents is a soul-satisfying activity.

So to answer my own question, spectator sports' redemptive qualities have more to do with gaining appreciation for the marvelous gifts God has given humanity which are so in evidence on the playing field, seeing justice triumph, and for the fellow-feeling that can result from ecstatic community at sports events. Apart from these benefits, it would be "reaching" to ascribe more redemptive qualities to spectator sports.

The dark side

In fairness, there are some negative aspects to collegiate sports which should be examined. For one, collegiate athletes are exploited by their schools, the media, and the public. Athletes bring millions of dollars in cash, millions more in donations, and untold millions more in free publicity to their schools with no compensation beyond tuition, room and board, which for most colleges adds up to a fairly paltry salary. Rules against paying athletes are strict and strictly enforced, and we all know that the few who go on to make millions as professionals are a tiny minority of all student athletes. So colleges profit tremendously from the athletes' unpaid labor, which is unfair.

Do athletes sometimes exploit the schools that pay their tuition? Without question, although I argue that the college suffers far less than the athlete. At worst, a college is out the cost of tuition and housing for the lackadaisical scholar athlete with no intention of graduating (or in extreme cases, of even attending classes). That seems to me less onerous than the lack of access to potentially rich rewards schools can reap from successful teams and players. The argument that unmotivated student athletes "take up space," that could be used by serious students, seems to me to be without merit in most instances. Except for highly selective schools, classroom space is not that scarce.

Athletes are coddled, but it could be argued that the services available to student athletes are available to all students. Athletes are more often compelled to submit to tutoring, test preparation, and take-home tests by the demands of their sports. They are also coddled in how they are treated in admissions, without question. But as was pointed out above, this coddling is paltry compensation for the money and publicity that athletes generate for their schools. And as any admissions officer will admit, a stellar bassoonist is likely to be given similar incautious scrutiny as a star point guard at many schools.

Is it possible to be coddled and exploited at the same time? In college sports, the answer is clearly, yes. While they enjoy plane rides and special meals and the adoration of fans, collegiate athletes also labour in a system where others make the rules, others reap most of the benefits, and the athlete's only bargaining tool is to quit the sport. This odd combination of pampering and exploitation may help explain why athletes at times evince a remarkable lack of maturity.

As noted above, college athletes do not always honour the academic side of the equation. One of the scandals of collegiate sports is chronically low graduation rates, particularly in marquee sports like football and basketball. (Did you ever notice how seldom the women's volleyball team is cited for low graduation rates?) This problem signifies cynicism on both sides: schools willing to tolerate academic non-performance in exchange for athletic prowess, and athletes willing to tolerate going to class just enough to stay eligible until their senior year when the charade can be dropped altogether. There is no counter argument, except to point out that graduation rates among all college freshmen are not exactly stellar, and that athletes are given the opportunity to graduate, which is the most that can be given any student.

A school's identity can become wrapped up in athletic achievement. Would you be aware of Duke University apart from their success in basketball? Or the University of Oklahoma, absent football? Probably not. The problem is not with publicity, which schools love, but with proportion. One old joke has a trustee saying that he hoped they'd hired a president the football coach could be proud of. This joke hints at a lack of a sense of proportion on the part of the board, a problem which I'm sure exists on some campuses. But it is not as widespread a problem as some critics suspect. Universities are grateful for the promotional spots they get to use to boast about their academic prowess during televised sports events.

Another criticism is that sports compete—perhaps with an unfair advantage—for campus resources with other worthy pursuits. Sports is more glamorous than, say, biochemistry. So, critics of college sports complain of money being denied to biochemists to pay for lavish sports facilities and programs. This argument, however, is specious, much like Judas's argument that Mary Magdalene's perfume should have been sold for alms. The reality is that glamorous sports programs attract more money to universities overall, and that dollars donated to sports were never headed toward biochemistry in the first place. To forcibly reallocate resources away from athletics toward academic needs would undoubtedly result in lower overall levels of support. It can be argued further that high levels of athletic donor support correlate to high levels of overall donor support, instead of the inverse.

The bottom line

All the complaints against collegiate sports can be combined into one unified theory: an issue of proportion—or lack of it. While some sports draw enormous crowds, attendance at performing arts events can be scant. Students majoring, even excelling, in most academic disciplines seldom have any audience at all. And while donations flow to all areas of a university, they unquestionably flow more easily to sports teams.

Is sports overvalued on campus relative to many other student pursuits? Perhaps. But to avoid attending sports events because of this possibility is the worst kind of sour grapes reasoning. The Bible makes clear that there will always be people both richer and poorer than you. The same could be said of academic departments in a university. To avoid appreciating the beauty and community that sports provides is a tragic waste of time in the rich setting that university provides. Even taking into account the realities of unfortunate distortions, athletics provides a richness to campus life that, if eliminated, would impoverish the college experience.

Topics: Education

David Greusel has worked as an architect for more than thirty years with several Midwestern firms of varying sizes. He is founding principal of Convergence Design, a Kansas City-based practice specializing in places where people gather. While with another firm, he was lead designer for two major league ballparks: Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 2009, David was named a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects.