Response to Dantzler: sports and the final cause of academics


This column continues the discussion of balancing the demands of athletics and academics at King's.

"The defects of American college athletics are two: commercialism, [sic] and a negligent attitude toward the educational opportunity for which the college exists." - 1929 Carnegie Commission Report

Is the walk in between the holes “essential” to the game of golf?

In the case of PGA Tour v. Martin, the Supreme Court decided (7 - 2) that Casey Martin, a disabled golfer, must be allowed to use a cart to traverse the course. Prior to the ruling, the PGA Tour had maintained that walking was an “important aspect” of the game.

Justice Scalia dissented, citing the Kurt Vonnegut story in which all successful individuals are handicapped for universal equality. But Scalia’s complaint is ancillary; the decision rests upon what it means to be a golfer. Much of the coming debate on athletics at King’s will center around the "final cause" argument--what it means to be a student and what the purpose of a college is.

David Dantzler, captain of the basketball team and president of the House of Reagan, argues in the EST article "Making sport of athletics" that the current attendance policy "kills student participation in anything but academics." This statement begs an important question: is that bad?

It’s an important question, and one that is not settled. Toward the end of the piece, Dantzler remarks sarcastically on the “final cause” question:

There’s nothing to be learned from sports, and certainly no gain to the college to participate in any conferences. Just ask any classical bastion of academic excellence: Harvard, Duke, Princeton—they all forgo Division-I athletics to focus on academics, right? Right? And certainly the ancient Greeks, our intellectual predecessors, didn’t stress achieving the excellence of the physical body, or laud their athletes and warriors, or create any worldwide competitions of physical trial and carnal celebration named after the dwelling place of the very gods they worshiped the traditional quadrennial celebration of which still lasts in the modern world. That would be crazy-talk.

Dave is right--the Greeks did stress excellence in the physical body, primarily the male body; in fact, pederasty was also integral to education. The point is that the Greeks were rigorous in sports, but even more rigorous in education. Plato believed that the gymnasium would breed fatigue and thereby “incapacitate” students from studies. He argued that the sports and academics should not be pursued at the same time. Plutarch argued that the primary purpose of athletics should be preparations for war: “I am anxious to say that which is of greater importance than all the rest: it is for the contests of war that boys must be practised, by exercising themselves in throwing the javelin, shooting with the bow, and in hunting.”

Then we have Harvard, Duke and Princeton, where in the wake of numerous cheating scandals sports teams are coming under fire. William E. Kirwan, co-director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, told the New York Times, "There is certainly a national conversation going on now that I can’t ever recall taking place... We’ve reached a point where big-time intercollegiate athletics is undermining the integrity of our institutions, diverting presidents and institutions from their main purpose."

James L. Shulman and William G. Bowden argue in their book The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values that increased focus on sports has undermined academics by lowering standards and sapping precious resources. The schools they find most at risk include ivy leagues and small private liberal arts schools. Their findings--from an exhaustive study of 90,000 students over 40--are unequivocal, namely that these tendencies have become more pronounced and pervasive over time: "[A]cademic under-perfomance is now found among women athletes as well as men, among those who play the Lower Profile sports as well as those on football and basketball teams, and among athletes playing at the Division III level  of competition as well as those playing in bowl games and competing for national championships."

There’s some confusing rhetoric in Dantzler’s article. For instance, he calls the administration paternalistic for not allowing students to shirk their class time, but then calls upon the same administration to “require professors allow make-up work for athletics and other school-related but extramural functions.” Of course, such a decision would and should raise questions about favoritism and the possibility of cheating, neither of which are addressed.

Dantzler criticizes the school for not distinguishing between excused and unexcused absences. But this ignores the “final cause” of attendance. The attendance policy isn’t arbitrary, nor is it set up to penalize needlessly students who aren’t at class. We’re students, and we’re here to learn. Ultimately, the reason you miss classes, however serious and legitimate, is irrelevant; you are missing the lectures--the purpose of your education. In fact, the school is incredibly lenient here, allowing students to miss a whopping 25 percent of in-class material each year. Of the about 30 hours of lectures for each class each semester, the school requires students to attend only 22 of them. Multiply that by five, and you have 110 hours of required class time, or about 10 hours a week--hardly an onerous burden. If the school required any less, it would be shirking its obligation to us: to ensure a good education, which is, after all, the final cause of the school.

I’m not saying the school shouldn’t accommodate student athletes, but I am saying it shouldn’t be the professor’s job. Rather, at an academic institution, aimed at promoting intellectual development, coaches should bend to the professors. During midterms and finals, practices could be scaled back, and they should be planned so as not to interfere with classes. Students have six allowed absences, so coaches should make sure not to schedule more than say, three tournaments that require athletes being absent (although none would be preferable). If professors want to allow student athletes to take quizzes at different times, they may, but this decision is not made in a vacuum. Other concerns (fairness, burden to the professor) may lead a professor to choose not to. It’s their choice.

Dantzler's article strikes me as facile; there are a lot of really important things we do during our academic career. I wrote, debated, played baseball and took on internships--and I only attended the school for two years. But whenever I thought that these extracurricular activities were cutting into my academics, I had to forfeit something (time with friends, etc). That’s another thing Brenberg talks about in Intro to Economics--opportunity costs. I didn’t miss that class.

Sean McElwee graduated from King's in 2012 with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.