Dissent of the Day, Re: Athletics

March 8, 2011

Three weeks ago a piece I wrote was published on Dan deVise’s Washington Post blog, College, Inc.  He had solicited some idea from me and a dozen or two others in higher education about “how to fix higher education” for a print piece he was doing for the Washington Post Magazine.  You can read what I wrote here.  I didn’t expect Dan to post everything I sent to him; I thought I was just sending him some ideas to think about.  But I also know that everything you say or send to a journalist is fair game for quoting.  I was (surprise!) pretty candid, so when the whole piece appeared I knew it was likely I would have some explaining to do.  And I have.  First, I had an interchange about my remark that merit aid diverts money away from need-based aid.  Now, an Earlham student, JoBeth Buckley, has written about what I said about intercollegiate athletics.

Her rejoinder is below, and following that (just so you can see it) is what I wrote about intercollegiate athletics.  Tomorrow, I’ll post a response to JoBeth, but for today, the stage is hers.  I’ll just add that if Earlham can graduate people who write this persuasively and thoughtfully, we have to be be doing something right.

“Doug,

“I am writing you because I was deeply troubled by the comment you made in the Washington Post regarding intercollegiate athletics.  Since my first visit to Earlham during my junior year in high school (5 years ago), I have always felt loved, welcomed, and at home amongst Earlham’s community.  Since coming here, those feelings have only grown and I can add that I feel like a ‘valued’ member of the community.  In fact, the only time that I have felt unvalued, and unappreciated since my freshman year was directly after reading your comment in the Post.

“My name is Josephine Buckley.  I am a varsity athlete, a diligent student, a loyal friend, a humble leader, and a member of the Earlham community.  I am all of these things, and all of these things hold equal claim in making me who I am.  Being a member of a varsity team at Earlham has only bettered me as a person, and allowed me to contribute more substantially to the community of this school.  From play at the varsity level I’ve learned perseverance, respect for opponents as well as teammates, discipline in the face of temptations, and most of all I’ve learned the importance of a supportive community. I would not be the community member I am today had I not played a varsity sport, and my experience as an athlete would not have been the same without the support of the Earlham community.

“You state in the article, “Athletics take resources away from genuine mission activities and regularly risk corrupting the integrity of every process within the academy”.   Yet Earlham’s very own principals and practices concludes, “We strive to be a community of mutual support, responsibility, and accountability.  By our daily actions, each of us contributes to the health and vitality of our community”.  Based on the principals and practices, every member of the Earlham community, even the varsity athletes, contribute to the “health and vitality” of the community.  It also states that we are a “community of mutual support” meaning every one in the community supports everyone in the community.  As a mutual and equal member of the community I have to say, I did not feel supported by your comment, and I am sure many of the other student athletes (30% of the student body) involved in a varsity sport at Earlham also didn’t feel very supported by your blunt declaration.

“In addition, the college’s ‘Mission in Athletics and Wellness’ specifically states, “…we encourage our students to experience the disciplines and joys of athletic striving and competition”.  As well as, “The pursuit of excellence in athletics requires self-sacrifice, discipline, teamwork, and concentrated effort—qualities we wish to model for all our students”.  The mission states very clearly that Earlham believes that pursing athletics develops qualities in students that the college wishes to use as a model for the whole of the community.  This part of the mission is in direct opposition to your statement that, “Athletics…regularly risks corrupting the integrity of every process within the academy”.  How can you say that, when Earlham’s very own mission disagrees so strongly with it?

“Finally, to stick with the theme of ‘community’, I have personally found that a varsity team has the ability to bring the whole campus together.  The mission also agrees with me here in stating, “…victories bring all members of the community (including the alumni) together in a spirit of joy and community pride”.  When the women’s soccer team made it to the tournament finals so many members of the community came together in support of us and in the name of Earlham College.  Even you called a ‘snow day’ on its behalf to show your support.  So I guess, I feel as much bewildered as I do hurt and unvalued.  How can you just choose when to support us and when not to?  And when I say ‘us’ I don’t just mean the athletes.  Your comment single handedly undermined the careers of every individual working in the athletic department.  How are the coaches suppose to feel like they have any hope of developing and sustaining successful teams, when they know you don’t support them, and won’t support them if they are in need?

“You delivered another blow, with this comment, to the athletic department, as February is a hugely important month for recruiting in all sports.  Between the months of January and May, recruits are in the process of deciding what college to come to.  They are heavily weighing the pros and cons, and by February many have a shorts list and are deciding amongst just a few colleges.  I personally believe it is a goal of Earlham to attract ‘aware’ students who take the initiative to actually research each school they are looking at.  What are these prospective students going to think when they read your comment?  If I had read this when I was being recruited, I most likely would not have come to Earlham.  Don’t get me wrong, I did not decide to come to Earlham solely because I wanted to play soccer here but it was a major deciding factor.  Ultimately, the coach and the team I had met at Earlham tipped the scales in Earlham’s favor, and so here I sit writing this you this letter.

“Many students, parents, alumni and faculty look to you as a leader of this community.  We look to you to uphold the standard of mutual acceptance and support in the community.  To the academic world outside of the Earlham community, you represent Earlham in everything you do and say.  Instead of feeling respectfully represented, supported, and encouraged by your comments in the Post; I felt hurt, unappreciated, and thwarted by your statements.  Please understand, I do not in anyway wish to imply that you deliberately intended to cause such a reaction.  I only wish to make you aware of how you made many athletes, students, faculty and other members of this community feel after reading your opinions regarding intercollegiate athletics.”

*****

So that’s what JoBeth wrote.  Again, here’s what I wrote as one of my suggestions for “fixing higher education:”

C.  End Intercollegiate Athletics As We Know It.  I’ll be even briefer on this one:  the enterprise of intercollegiate athletics has ceased to be justifiable within even the broadest understanding of the mission of a college or university.  Athletics take resources away from genuine mission activities and regularly risk corrupting the integrity of every process within the academy.  It is time to end intercollegiate athletics as we know it.   End the tax exemption of the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association. A place to start would be to insist that the NCAA be treated as a for-profit entity engaged in the entertainment business.  I doubt this would be sufficient, but it might – just might – jump start a much-needed honest discussion about the incompatibility between intercollegiate athletics and the honest (learning, research, service) missions of universities.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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