Do Sports Build Character — Heisman Trophy Edition

December 6, 2013

“I think they handled it tremendous,” Fisher said of the team’s reaction to the Winston investigation. “I think it’s because they believe in each other. They trust in each other. They believe in what we’re doing here. They want to play for each other.”

That quotation is from Jimbo Fisher, coach of the Florida State Seminoles, about his team after the Florida Attorney General announced that no sexual assault charges would be filed against his star quarterback Jameis Winston. (A link to an ABC report containing the quotation is here; I saw a clip of Fisher saying this on ESPN’s Sports Center.) I’m struck by the double standard he voices in terms of what he expects from players on the field and off the field. And which do you think is the more important realm?

Put Fisher’s execrable grammar to one side. Fisher is praising his players’ commitment to one another: the respect they have for one another, and the trust they put in one another. To play well together as this Florida State team does (ranked number one in the polls), his players need to be committed to one another day in and day out. Fisher is praising his players for maintaining that attitude through the very public consideration of whether rape charges would be filed against Winston. And I take Fisher to be crediting the football program at FSU for instilling these values: that is “what we are doing here.”

But what about his players values off the field? Do they show respect for others? Are they steadfast in their commitments? Do they trust others and act in a trustworthy way?

We do not know what transpired between Winston and the unnamed young woman who made the accusation of rape. The Attorney General’s statement doesn’t clear Winston of responsibility; it simply says there was not sufficient evidence to have a high probability of finding him guilty in a court of law. Winston himself admits that there was a sexual encounter the night in question. He claims the encounter was “consensual.”

I have my doubts that “consensual” is the best term to characterize the encounter. The simple fact of her complaint makes that unlikely. But for the moment, let’s imagine that term as somehow appropriate. Let’s ask whether Jameis Winston showed respect for the young woman that night. Let’s ask whether he behaved in a trustworthy way. Let’s ask whether he showed commitment that can be expected to endure? These are the values Fisher wants to say his program is promoting in these young men. But to ask these questions is to answer them in the negative, each and every one.

So, again, I am struck at the complete disconnect in Jimbo Fisher’s mind. And his disconnection is just today’s exemplar of a disconnect that runs through big-time Division I athletics. Whatever the values ostensibly taught on the field, these character traits are not carried off the field.

In the next week, various sportswriters across the country will fill out ballots for this year’s Heisman Trophy winner, given each year through such voting to the best college football player in the nation. Jameis Winston has emerged as the odds-on favorite to win the award this year. Sports writers took it as axiomatic that if Winston had been charged with rape that he would not have won the Heisman. But now that he will not be charged, he appears again as the favorite.

Hasn’t done any serious crime for which he can be legally prosecuted: is that our measure of character? Or do we expect something more of young men and women when we single them out for honor?

Of course I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I wouldn’t vote for Jameis Winston to win the Heisman Trophy. Would you?

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Meanings: “Clinch”

October 30, 2013

clinker builtThe Red Sox can clinch the world championship tonight if they win tonight’s game. I’ve heard that via several news sources — print, TV, radio,web —  already this morning. Since they won their two recent World Series championships on the road, this would/will be the first they clinch at home in more than a century.

“Clinch” is a variant of “clench,” which comes from an Old English word meaning “hold fast.” From we have this:

clinch (v.) Look up clinch at

1560s, “clasp, interlock,” especially with a bent nail, variant of clench. The sense of “settle decisively” is first recorded 1716, from the notion of “clinching” the point of a nail to keep it fast. Boxing sense is from 1860. Related: Clinched; clinching.

Note the image of a bent nail: bent to make it hold fast. So in boat building, one speaks of a clinker-built boat. Sometimes you don’t want to bend a nail in driving it in, but sometimes you do, to make it hold even better.  Mentioned in the derivation is the boxing use, but not the use in other sports

During a regular season, in many sports, we speak of a team clinching the title when no other team can catch them by the end of the season: say a team has won two more games than its trailing opponent with only one to play. There will still be games played, but the team has clinched the title. They’ll have such a hold on the title that no one can wrest it from them, no matter what happens in the remaining games.

I’m not sure it is right to say that Boston might/will “clinch” the championship tonight. They might/will “win” it. But if they do, there will be no more games to play. “Clinching” makes sense when there are still more games to play, but not when they might/will walk off the field tonight as World Champions.

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The Heart and Soul of a School

October 28, 2103

From the final report of visiting committee to Germantown Friends School with regard to its re-accreditation by the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools:

The classroom is the heart and soul of Germantown Friends School, a place where passionate teachers engage their students to think critically, express themselves authentically, respect others’ truths and take responsibility for their own learning. That model is replicated in the Quaker decision-making process employed in the school, in which individual has a voice, issues are addressed critically but with respect for others and participants are expected to share responsibility for the outcome.”

I did not have the good fortune to be a student at Germantown Friends School, but I did serve a few years on its School Committee (board of directors) during the 1980s while I was a member of Germantown Friends Meeting. Every word of this praise seems accurate and deserved to me.

Wouldn’t we want to say the same of any other educational institution, Quaker or other-than-Quaker?

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Our Far-Flung Alumni: Doug Cleland

September 7, 2013

Doug ClelandDoug Cleland, an early 1970s graduate of Earlham with a major in Economics has announced he will retire as Lower Merion (PA) Township Manager at the end of January, 2014.  Cleland has served Lower Merion, a suburb of Philaldelphia, for 29 years, more than 20 of them as Township Manager.  One of Lower Merion’s elected Commissioners referred to him as a “superstar.” At the meeting where he announced his retirement, the President of the Board of Commissioners praised his  “significant and valuable service to the community.”

The full story from the Main Line Times can be found here.

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Meanings: “Upshot”

August 24, 2013

I recently wrote up some minutes from a meeting and used the word “upshot” to refer to the conclusion reached after a long discussion. Another member of the committee noted that “upshot” has its origin in archery, and first recorded use (says the OED) is from 1531.

But how did we get from archery to a result or a conclusion? Here is Take Our Word For It on the etymology:


Have you heard of “scope creep”?  Well, what we have here is “definition creep”.  Originally upshot, first recorded in 1531, referred to the final shot in an archery match.  Then it came to figuratively refer to any “parting shot”.  By 1591 Edmund Spenser used it to mean “a mark or end aimed for” — still that archery connection.  At the same time the general meaning of “an end, conclusion, or termination” also arose.  Just a few years later, Shakespeare, in his Hamlet, used the word to mean “result, issue, or conclusion of some course of action”.  And in 1639, in a translation of Balzac’s Letters, the word is used to mean “the conclusion resulting from the premises of an argument”.  So, while the overall “conclusory” sense remains throughout, the meaning shifted from one of archery to one of arguments.


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Meanings: “Crayon”

July 9, 2013

The etymology is straightforward, from the French for “pencil,” which originally meant a chalk pencil.  We graduate from crayons as we become adults, don’t we? Only children use them, or children occasionally assisted by their parents. The names of crayons (think “burnt sienna,” think “silver”) bring back memories:

crayon for adultsh/t: Tastefully Offensive

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Liberal Arts Versus Technical/Career Education

June 29, 2013

A recent New York Times column by Verlyn Klinkenborg lamenting the decline of English majors has reignited a long smouldering disagreement about what students should study in college. The disagreement has various faces but is usually posed as one between “the liberal arts” as a focus of study versus a view that urges a more technical or career focused education.

Periodically we read urgings that more young people should think about their job future when they pick a major. In 2011, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott urged the state stop funding the liberal arts and social sciences because “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”  On the other hand, the liberal arts have their sturdy proponents, and the case is ably marshaled by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which relentlessly demonstrates that employers really want students who have the reading, writing and critical thinking that a liberal arts education engenders.

Against Klinkenborg’s lament, Nate Silver, the NYT’s skilled and resourceful blogger about politics (and formerly baseball) rejoins–as he often does in arguments–that Klinkenborg has misread the data: that there really isn’t any decline in English majors; it is only that more students are going to college.  I enjoy reading both Silver and Klinkenborg, and discussion between them is a rare treat.

Silver also takes Klinkenborg to task in part for paying too much attention to what is happening at a small number of prestigious, highly selective colleges and universities.  Hurray! I want to say. The higher education press (such as it is) always pays  too much attention to what happens at Harvard, Yale and its ilk; but what happens at these places bears no relationship whatsoever to what is happening at other colleges and universities.  None whatsoever.

Silver mounts his argument by computing how many students major in various fields relative to the number of total students or total potential students. (The federal government collects such data.) But this doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter, I want to say. It is not the title of the major that makes a field of student part of the liberal arts. It is the approach to education. To come back to Gov. Scott’s nemesis, an anthropology major might be taught in a fashion that made it a proper part of the liberal arts, or it might be taught in a more technical, narrow, career-preparing manner.

When I was Provost at Reed College, I came across an old admissions poster for Reed as “a college of liberal sciences and arts. “Sciences and arts” — a reversal of the usual order, “arts and sciences.” I think Reed was trying to emphasize that the sciences are fully a part of their education, which is certainly on the “liberal arts” side of the debate. When this debate catches fire, people are usually forgetting that mathematics, biology, chemistry, geology and physics are all majors to be found at nearly all liberal arts colleges.

When I was an American Council on Education Fellow in 1987-88, I was fortunate to have David Fraser, then President of Swarthmore as a mentor. David is a superb epidemiologist: at the Center for Disease Control he led the 1976 team that rapidly found the cause of Legionnaire’s Disease, for example. While at Swarthmore, he published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled Epidemiology as a Liberal Art.He makes the case, but he makes the case as a ‘for instrance’ rather than as a stand alone case for the inclusion of one field of study.

This paragraph from the conclusion is worth quoting:

Perhaps there is no subject that cannot be fit material for liberal arts study. But surely that does not mean that selection is unimportant in designing an undergraduate program. The perspective from which the discipline is taught is important. A skilled teacher not only introduces students to the content and methods of a discipline, but also fosters in those students an inclination to use those methods to go further. Under a good teacher, students progress from simply taking in knowledge to questioning assumptions and arguments (their own or others’).

That’s the point: “the perspective from which the discipline is taught is important.”  Fraser makes case for both breadth and depth, and adds,

A student should study deeply enough in one area to develop real competence. Such depth gives a student an important sense of the construction of human knowledge and how to add to it. It opens to students the possibility of intellectual leadership.

“The possibility of intellectual leadership:” I like that way of putting it.

Klinkenborg wants students to read well, write clearly, and think critically. So do wise employers. Both should look deeper than the label on a major to find out whether a student has learned these things.

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