Athletics: Is Winning an Earlham Way?

March 13, 2011

A week or so ago I wrote several hundred friends of Earlham athletics to tell them about some recent changes, and to seek their assistance in helping us find three new coaches (men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball).  The letter talked about a number of things we value in Earlham athletics, one of them being competition to win.  I heard back from a number of those I wrote, especially about the issue of winning, and I just sent them a collective response.  It’s below:

I am writing this e-mail to a number of Earlhamites who wrote in response to my recent letter about athletics at Earlham.  You expressed (all thoughtfully) a variety of points of view, and that’s one reason I am responding to you collectively.  Within the Earlham family there are divergent understandings of what we should try to accomplish – and how – in athletics.

“Your emphasis on winning is disgusting,” one of you wrote.  Wrote another, “As a former participant in Earlham Cross-Country (and a very competitive person myself), I appreciate the update on intercollegiate athletics. But I strongly – even vigorously – disagree with the fundamental premise underlying this entire communication: that all participants/teams must play to win.”   On the other hand, one of you wrote, “I was thrilled to receive this email and just want to say… BRAVO!!”  Said another, “Great Email!  Good luck with this.  I am always rooting for Earlham to be on the winning side.”  And a third, “I have just read your statement on athletics and I think it is superb and right on for Earlham.”

During my fourteen years as Earlham’s President, I have lived in the midst of these divergent ideas about athletics.  As we came to build a Wellness Program about a dozen years ago, that complexity became even more pronounced.  That led us to write a comprehensive statement of Athletics and Wellness at Earlham College.   Written in 2005, it emphasizes that Wellness is an expectation for everyone at Earlham:  it says we expect students “to learn about their bodies and to develop habits of wellness.”  That statement also says that we provide opportunities for those choose to dedicate unusual effort to the pursuit of excellence in competitive sports.  Again: wellness for all; competitive athletics for those who seek such pursuit of excellence.  Living up to both is hard.  We have more we need to accomplish in our Wellness Program, but the recent steps I announced have to do with intercollegiate athletics.

This paragraph in my letter seemed especially troubling to those of you who urge that we not stress winning:  “We expect that Earlham athletic teams will have a realistic chance to be competitive in most of the athletic contests in which they compete.  In a four year period we expect that an athlete will be on a team that wins at least as many contests as it loses; and, at least once, will be on a team that competes for a conference championship.  When a team struggles one year, we will look to see improvement in competitiveness in following years.”  That is an expectation we adopted about 25 years ago.

It proved difficult to use in evaluating coaches, however, because we knew that we wanted to value things other than winning in evaluating:  teaching of the sport, teaching wellness courses, teaching life values, and recruiting and retaining students.  Our new statement on the “Evaluation of AWPE Faculty (Coaches)” is a good statement, I believe, because it values winning, and it values these other things.

Should we value winning at all?  When I speak with Earlham student-athletes, I never sense that they want anything less than to play to win.  In asking them to represent us in competition, I believe the college owes them the support of affirming that playing to win is important.  I especially like the way our statement on “Athletics and Wellness at Earlham College” puts it:

“Victory is sweet and defeat is bitter. We celebrate victories, all of us feeling lifted by these accomplishments. In addition, victories bring all members of the community (including the alumni) together in a spirit of joy and community pride. Perhaps best of all, victories bring feelings of deep satisfaction to the athletes themselves. Victories become life-long memories — but so do defeats. We experience with our athletes the frustrations and disappointments of defeat. For teams that have tried their best and treated each other with respect and affection, all memories become good ones.”

Again, I appreciate your writing to me.


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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