On College Athletics

11/18/2013 01:25 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Intercollegiate athletics may be traced to the founding of the Yale boat club in 1843. Harvard followed with its own boat club and eventually the two rowing teams competed. The ensuing years saw the creation of sports teams on college campuses because the idea of organized athletics, and contests to decide which student bodies would excel in competition, held strong appeal for academically inclined men (mostly men, then).

Intelligence is observed and measured in many ways on college campuses. The ability to retain, synthesize and critique information may be demonstrated through written expression, in laboratories, in research papers, in formal presentations. The ability to create may be measured in writing, on canvas, through the use of a musical instrument. We acknowledge in part the physical expression of creative intelligence in theatrical performance, but where we truly acknowledge it is in athletics. Coaches impart massive amounts of knowledge about the game, the use of the body, working with other bodies as a team and the employment of strategy to student athletes, who are asked to retain, synthesize and then literally embody this information in contests with others who've done the same.

I realized that athleticism is an expression of intelligence as a faculty member at a particular place and time. I was teaching a liberal arts freshman seminar which was required of all students at the institution. Twelve students enrolled, including two recruited football players, the new tuba player in the marching band, four young women intent on the same sorority -- and others whom I don't recall as vividly but who don't figure in this anecdote. Somehow, we had gotten on the topic of figurative language, and I asked the class if they knew what that meant. Did they know what a metaphor was, and what it was good for?

They said yes, but I suspected not. I asked them to go around the room and describe a football without using the word "football" and without using the words "like" or "as." One of the sorority pledge girls said a football was an egg. The football players laughed, which I asked them not to do. The new tuba player said a football was cylindrical, and no one liked that; I had to ask the football players not to guffaw, because a guffaw was "like" laughing. Then, one of the pledges seemed to get angry, and she challenged the larger of the two football players to do better.

The football players were lanky receivers from a rural area of the state, and they had attended high schools with few resources and abysmal graduation rates. We had worked a lot on grammar and sentence sequencing. I liked them, and worried about them completing their degrees because of how little preparation they had received for college-level work. But they were determined to succeed. They were always polite, they had tutors provided by the football team and they always sat near me at the round classroom table. Let's call the one who received the girl's challenge Luke. Luke looked at me, as if to say, can she make me do this? I wasn't going to let him off. "What do you have to say, Luke?"

Luke looked down at his hands. I had a moment of panic thinking I'd violated the strict rule in education against embarrassing a student. But that passed as both his head and his hands rose from beneath the table. He held them above the table, thumbs and fingers extended and just barely not touching. "A football," he said, "is the shape your hands make when you hold them this way."

The room fell silent. No one laughed. A few jaws may have dropped, figuratively. Clearly, the football was something Luke knew a lot about, and had thought about in ways the others had not. And equally clear was that the intelligence he possessed about the football was not by casual observation (the egg) or through a disciplinary lens (cylindrical), but was a physical intelligence, known by feel, by exertion, by touch. Like a craftsman turning a lathe, or a quilter stitching her cloth, Luke knew by physical sense what it meant, and where it was. And he was able to make others see. The class became a seminar at that moment, with all "seminarians" respecting the varied intelligence of the others.

As an educator, nothing thrills me more than to see students expressing their knowledge in creative ways, performing or displaying their artistic craft or competing in an athletic contest for which they have spent hours in preparation. When I am at an athletic event I see physical intelligence articulated, with the contest itself a kind of debate between contending points of view. Sometimes the argument is clear, sometime it's ambivalent; but it's more often than not preparation and frame of mind that determine the outcome.

The question is raised on occasion, why do we have college athletics? The answer is similar to the response we offer to those who ask why anyone would attend a liberal arts college, what can you do with a liberal arts degree? The answer is that we prepare students for a lifetime of careful thought, for vocations that require continuous learning, the synthesis of information, research and writing -- in short, for any task that requires thought. And why athletics? Because the need for physically intelligent members of our communities is greater now than ever. As we become more cerebral in our daily lives -- with technology taking on more and more of what we once did manually -- we continue to exist no less as physical beings. Obesity rates and declining physical fitness are markers of the present era. Whether causal or coincident, the era of technology is accompanied by an era of physical decline. Along with critical thinking, a liberal arts education should impart knowledge of the shape made by and on our bodies as we pass through the physical world.

An earlier version of this essay was published in the River Gazette