Do Sports Build Character, Presidential Edition

December 8, 2011

On Monday, The Washington Post’s Dan DeViseturned over his blog to Alice P. Gast, President of Lehigh University, who enumerated “Five Things I learned from the Football Team.”  “From leadership lessons to life lessons, intercollegiate athletics can offer so much more of value than current headlines would have us believe,” she tells us, meaning especially the dreadful news from Penn State and Syracuse Universities about sexual abuse of boys by coaches.

Actually, President Gast means “five things I might have learned from the football team if I didn’t already know them.”  “Experiencing football strategy sessions, practice, game preparation and execution, she tells us, “is a great way to see strategic planning, implementation and readjustment unfold in real time.  Here are the five lessons:

Lesson one: Know the competition, and know your own strength.
Lesson two: Commit to the rigor of practicing the desired outcome. Be disciplined.
Lesson three: Contemplate and concentrate on the task ahead.
Lesson four: Be prepared to adjust your strategy as reality unfolds, anticipate the changing landscape and keep your weight balanced and ready to shift.
Lesson five: Keep a long-term view while concentrating on near-term execution.

Yes, one could learn those things, and I’m confidant that some young men do from their experience with football.  But I don’t think — and I wish she had acknowledged this — that there is nothing intrinsic to football or athletics that makes one more likely to learn these lessons in those activities.  Couldn’t one just as easily learn them from an outing club, a chorus, a theatre production or a science lab?  I think the lessons are best learned experientially and most likely learned better under the tutelage of an adult mentor, but they can be (and are) learned in a wide variety of activities.

No, Alice Gast doesn’t say that there is anything intrinsically effective about football in learning these lessons, but it feels to me as if her piece overreaches as a defense of football.  She suggests there is something special about football that we’re losing sight of.

There may be, but it isn’t the lessons that can be learned; it’s the motivational hook that football provides.  The case for a football program at Lehigh University or any other institution of higher education is that given what 18-year old boys are interested in as they begin college, football engages their attention in a compelling way so that they can learn these and other lessons.

I think that’s a sufficient reason, but let’s not romanticize football as a special learning laboratory.

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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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