Intercollegiate Athletics and the Aims of Education
Note: I wrote this column before the recent incident in which a softball recruit was treated at the hospital for alcohol overdose. My confidence in our intercollegiate athletics program remains strong. To read a letter regarding the incident, which I sent to friends of the University, including members of advisory boards and alums, please go to www.csuchico.edu/prs.
The Chico Enterprise-Record recently asked me to contribute to its annual “Outlook” issue (February 28, 2006), which this year focused on imagining our university and its relationship to our host city in the year 2025. This was great fun to compose, and I happily imagined the consequences of our present initiatives and directions, including becoming the distinctive “green” campus in California, strengthening our academic reputation and North State stewardship, establishing our Greek system as a model of civic engagement and leadership development, and fulfilling the ambitious goals of our 2005 Master Plan.
The highlights of our achievements 20 years hence also included this observation:
“With a string of national championships across the range of the men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletic programs, coupled with the strong academic record of the University’s student-athletes, Chico State is regarded as the nation’s premier NCAA Division II program.”
This may have been my least bold prediction, for the simple truth of the matter is that we may already be there.
As I write this column, our baseball team is ranked No. 3 in the nation, and the women’s basketball team, having won its second consecutive conference championship and completed the most successful regular season record (24–3) in school history, is headed to the NCAA national championship tournament as the second-ranked team in the West Regional. Earlier this fall, the men’s and women’s cross-country teams continued their dominance of the West, winning the regional championships before finishing, again, in the top 10 nationally. And women’s soccer made it to the postseason, as well.
This kind of success—also extending to men’s soccer and basketball, outdoor track, softball, and men’s golf in recent years—has enabled Chico State to reach the highest echelons of NCAA Division II for the overall competitive quality of our programs. Last year, for example, we finished third in the nation among nearly three hundred colleges and universities for the Director’s Cup, which is awarded to the most successful D-II program in the nation. We are on a path to repeat that success, even though we are competing against some institutions which offer a far greater number of intercollegiate sports than we do.
Our athletes also succeed as students. Across the full spectrum of academic majors, their graduation rates and GPAs, in fact, slightly exceed that of the student body as a whole, a performance which is consistent with all NCAA student-athletes. Recognizing the importance of this achievement, the University Foundation Board of Governors recently established an annual award to honor the men’s and women’s teams with the highest collective GPAs. This award will be presented each fall for the honored teams of the previous academic year.
What all this adds up to, at least at Chico State, is that the basic assumptions underscoring the place and role of intercollegiate athletics hold true. These are three. First, student-athletes attend college to become educated and to pursue the opportunity of participating in a competitive athletics environment. Second, colleges and universities recruit athletes to develop successful—that is, winning—sports programs that favorably reflect upon their institutions. Third, and certainly the most problematic, there is a compatible relationship between the first two.
The validity of these assumptions constitutes much of the debate about the value of intercollegiate athletics, especially in a world where stereotypes (for example, dumb jock, football factory, majoring in eligibility) are impossible to avoid and hard to overcome. Further, excesses in recruiting, the search for victory at any cost, suspect academic programs, double-standard (or no standard) admissions policies, and other continuing plagues on the integrity of intercollegiate athletics compel vigilance and reform.
But an important understanding guides intercollegiate athletics at Chico State that sets us, as it does the most respected programs nationally, apart. Our coaches, teachers, and athletics administration recognize that at the heart of athletic competition (and this is true, too, for the approximately four hundred students who compete in club sports) is a fundamental goal that connects to one of the larger aims of education—self-discovery. Finding out about ourselves, a process that is as much an act of discovery as an expression of will, occurs in many ways. Whether through reading, thinking, making friends, meditating, or exploring foreign cultures or unfamiliar experiences, we are caused to look at ourselves in different ways. No less so, observing how we do in moments of stress when we have been pushed to our mental and physical limits reveals much about who we are.
Sport provides an infinite variety of these moments. Down by a point with only a few seconds on the clock, the outcome of a basketball game rides on your pick or pass or shot. Seeking to extend the deciding set, you’re hitting your second serve at 30–40. A match all square on the 18th green, you face a slippery, side hill, four-foot putt to halve.
Can you keep your mind functioning clearly enough so that you can perform at your best in these tense moments? That is a real learning experience, a lesson in self-discovery and self-mastery, for every contest is as much about overcoming oneself as an opponent. The ultimate adversary is within. If one of the reasons we play sports is to help us find out what kind of person we are, another is to help us become the kind of person we choose to be. Sports participation is both revelation and rehearsal.
The success of our student-athletes both in competition and in the classroom is the stuff of pride and good example for all of us. They offer important lessons in teamwork, too. For the real joy of teamwork occurs during those iridescent moments when the existential loneliness of our fate is transcended by 11, or nine, or five, or even two individuals who have subordinated their personalities to achieve a common goal. They work not only for victory, but also to chip away at the wall that separates individuals from one another.
In the postglory world of touch football, half-court basketball, golf, tennis, and other activities that allow adults to maintain some contact with competitive athletics, there is not much call for a crisp trap block in making a real estate deal, and “reading the defense” takes on new meaning as a prosecuting attorney. But there is enduring educational value even in the more limited competitive arena to which all intercollegiate athletes will eventually graduate. It accrues through the benefits of fair, hard play and the success of colleges and universities to teach this lesson well. If these lessons do not always produce championship seasons and all-star performances, they should foster respect for opponents and integrity in the conduct of the game. There is no firmer basis for a life of continued self-discovery and meaning, or a surer purpose of the academy. Our intercollegiate athletics program is aligned with these values, and we are a better university as a result.
—Paul J. Zingg