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Emily Layden Headshot

In Defense of the Student-Athlete

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We are the exception, not the rule. This is the response.

Two years ago, Katha Pollitt -- in the wake of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal -- published an article not about sexual abuse or corruption, but rather about banning wholesale college sports. College athletes, she wrote, "get indulgence for mediocre grades and low SAT scores." Note the unequivocal phrasing: She does not leave room for caveats, for "some athletes." In Katha Pollitt's world, all athletes are unilaterally dumber than the rest. Two years ago, I took my outrage to Twitter, where Pollitt was kind enough to engage, but ultimately unyielding. (I used SnapBird to review our conversation; it would seem Pollitt has expunged most of the tweets, but one of my retweets remains -- in which she references athletes' "dumbed-down" majors.) I am paraphrasing, but I remember her finding flaw in my argument for only calling upon Stanford athletes. Again: We are the exception, not the rule. We prove nothing.

Flash forward to last weekend -- and a thousand similar editorials later -- and we find Taylor Branch on Deadspin, decrying the "myth" of the "student-athlete." Branch's article is a fair criticism of the NCAA, but even in his piece, there it is:

That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers...

The popular rhetoric surrounding this dialogue -- that college sports are broken, that the money is too big, that the athletes are unprotected pawns and the colleges at the mercy of the football program -- too often gets around to this single, gross generalization: Athletes are not capable of the same academic achievement as their non-athlete counterparts. Athletes are "mediocre" students.

As a former student-athlete (I played lacrosse at Stanford), it is hard to come up with an eloquent response to this. There are parts of the conversation that are worthy. Pollitt was right to question the financially-motivated corruption and blindness at Penn State. Branch is right to question the legal, physical and financial protection of NCAA athletes. It is good that there is a serious, popular dialogue right now about pay-to-play, unionizing and profit-sharing. What is not good -- because it is never good -- are the ways these conversations include sweeping stereotypes about athletes. At most, we can hope for an asterisk or a caveat that reminds the reader the author is talking about "revenue sports" (football and basketball), using the comfort of a parenthetical to continue stereotyping. Even this rests uneasy: I don't want to claim that the argument obviously excludes female athletes and non-revenue sports, and thereby excuse widespread stereotyping of all football and basketball players. What about Andrew Luck, I want to say, with his 3.5 GPA?

I have had this conversation before, and each time, someone tells me that Stanford is "the exception, not the rule." Andrew Luck is the exception. Jason Castro (who returned to Stanford to finish his degree after and while playing for the Houston Astros) is the exception, not the rule. The two Stanford cross country standouts who were also named Rhodes Scholars are exceptions, not rules. This misses the point entirely. The point is not that Stanford student-athletes are "exceptions," but rather that they prove it is possible.

This gets at the humanness of the thing: It is possible. It is possible to be both brilliant and fast, or strong or acrobatic. It is possible to hold national records in the 5K while also carrying a 3.9 in Economics. It is possible to learn to write complex code while also training for the Olympics. It is possible to be as proud of your awards for researching nineteenth-century abortion politics as it is to be of your league championships. It is possible -- and we need to stop talking like it is unilaterally not.

Because the problem is not really the general insults -- I'm content to take my curmudgeon to Twitter and be done with it -- but rather the ideology, as it does a disservice to future generations and perpetuates our cultural preoccupation with specialization. It is not only that in broad strokes sports are good for children -- for fitness, for team-building, for confidence, for learning about pressure and failure and triumph -- nor is it not only that sports are particularly good for girls (who are more likely to graduate from high school, earn post-graduate degrees, and hold executive positions in business if they play sports during their education). In allowing this dialogue to go un-critiqued, we are saying there is a choice: We cannot be both smart and athletic; we cannot excel in both the humanities and STEM subjects; we cannot have families and be executives -- do you see the trickle-down effect yet? This is a country fast doing away with well-roundedness, one that believes in strategy more than play. To say that Stanford is "the exception" is symptomatic of this outlook.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: This language obviates any sense of aspiration. Somewhere on this path, we're losing the brand of exceptionalism that tells our children they may be small but they can be mighty; they may be girls, but they can be engineers; they may be anything they want to be. We can be funny and pretty. We can be smart and strong. This mutually exclusive language -- "athletes are mediocre" -- betrays all of that, and we deserve to hold ourselves to higher standards. They are achievable. It is possible.

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