Feed on

Category Archive for 'Sports'

Back From Leave

My leave is over.  It ended on July 1, and the fact that I’ve waited this long to post anything here could be taken to mean that I wish I were still on leave.   But that’s not entirely true since I made good headway on my project—good meaning that I now have a finished manuscript that I can play with in the coming months.  I am also happy to be back—happy meaning that while I am grateful to have had time to work on this project, I also enjoy administrative work.   Administrative work sometimes gets a bad rap in the academy, and I am halfway tempted to go on about the glories of bureaucracy.  However, I promised back in February that I would say something about how I spent these last six months, so any thoughts on that will have to wait until my next post.

As for my leave, I used the time to wrap up a family history of Ivy League football that I have been working on for the past five years or so.   The quick take on the project looks something like this: my grandfather played football at Dartmouth, where he earned All-American honors (as a guard), and then went on to a twenty-five year Hall-of-Fame career as a college football coach; my father went to Yale in the early 1950s, and was captain of the football team there (he played fullback and linebacker); and I attended Yale in the 1970s and likewise played football (I was an offensive guard).  In tracing this intergenerational history, I focus on the relation between football and higher education, trying to get at what the males in my family learned from playing football.  I also look at how the game was passed down from father to son, an emphasis that gives the project a personal dimension and has nudged the manuscript more in the direction of memoir.  Ranging over almost a century of football history, the chapters about my family members—titled “Coach,” “Captain,” and “Legacy”—describe the three different ways in which my grandfather, father, and I played the game.

My first try at connecting family and sports history was an essay I wrote about Bronko Nagurski, whom my grandfather coached at the University of Minnesota in the late 1920s.  My friend Elliott Gorn had asked me if I wanted to write something for a volume on Chicago sports that he was editing, and I figured this would be a good opportunity to wade into family history as well.  Moving from this essay to a book-length treatment of my family’s involvement in football has posed a variety of challenges, not the least of which was getting over my initial worry that writing about my family (and myself) was self-indulgent.  Although we live in the age of memoir and reality television, doing “me-search” and writing first-person history struck me as unseemly.  On the other hand, as I considered the scope of the project, I persuaded myself that I had an interesting if not unusual angle on a much discussed (and debated) topic: the role of intercollegiate sports in higher education, or what William Bowen has called “The Game of Life.” So I moved forward.

To give you a sense of the kind of issues I’ve been writing about, I am including below the captain’s portrait taken of my father in 1951.  It is customary at Yale to photograph captains on a replica of the Yale fence and against the backdrop of nineteenth-century New Haven.  The fence is a vestige of old Yale, and a symbol of the student world that was both separate from and connected to the official college.  Athletic captains were important leaders in this “extracurriculum,” which gathered steam in the early twentieth century, and so the portraits captured the “Yale man” in a particularly ritualized manner.   Of course, since 1969, when Yale went co-ed, captains of women’s teams have been photographed on this fence as well.

This photograph also had a more personal meaning in my family, not just because it hung on our basement wall with other family memorabilia, but also because my father contracted polio several years after graduating from Yale and subsequently walked with a limp (and often a brace).  So when I was a child this portrait—and others—brought into focus an aspect of my father’s life that had slipped from sight.

While this example is specific to my own family, it provides a glimpse, I think, of how imbedded sports are in our culture.

Deconstructing Jocks

There was an interesting piece in Insider Higher Ed last month describing research on why athletes at liberal arts colleges sometimes underperform in the classroom.  Since the publication of William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman’s 2001 influential study, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, educators have debated the proper role of intercollegiate athletics at colleges like Middlebury.  This debate was hotter six or seven years ago than it is now, but there is no doubt that Bowen and Shulman’s book and their follow-up study, Reclaiming the Game, which focuses on NESCAC schools, had a profound impact on higher ed.  The Division III section of the NCAA formally took up the question of “integration”—based on the concern that sports programs were drifting away from the general academic mission of liberal arts education—colleges recalibrated admissions standards for recruited athletes, and additional research initiatives followed in the wake of The Game of Life.  The most important of these initiatives, the Mellon-sponsored College Sports Project, is involved in assessing a vast database of scores and grades in an effort to understand how athletes’ academic performances relate to their non-athletic peers’.  In fact, our own John Emerson, Professor of Mathematics and former Secretary of the College, is a principal investigator on this project.

But the research highlighted in the Inside Higher Ed article is worth noting for its difference from the thinking that has marked this debate in the past.  Whereas Bowen, Shulman, and others have suggested that athletes tend to underperform because their academic credentials are weaker coming in (they get an edge in admissions) or because they are rooted in an “athletic culture” and don’t care as much as they should about their academic work, Thomas S. Dee, an economist at Swarthmore, is now arguing that college athletes are vulnerable to “stereotype threat.” As Dee explains, stereotype threat “refers to the perceived risk of confirming, through one’s behavior or outcomes, negative stereotypes that are held about one’s social identity.  More specifically, its key conjecture is that the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype can create an anxiety that disrupts cognitive performance and influences outcomes and behaviors.”   In other words, student athletes who are anxious about being perceived as “dumb jocks” may unwittingly confirm that image when they are under pressure to perform well on tests or other academic assignments.  But tell them that the exam they are about to take is just as often aced by athletes as by non-athletes—blunt the threat of stereotype—and they do fine.

The glib response to this study is hard to resist: if we all banished the image of the dumb jock from our minds and stopped examining the phenomenon of athletes’ underperformance, then maybe the problem would just go away.  Of course, this simple solution is far more complex than it might seem.  Changing attitudes is no easy thing, and in this case, the athletes themselves internalize the stereotype; it is a matter of culture.  Then, too, there are other compelling explanations for the so-called underperformance of athletes at elite liberal arts colleges (and here I should note that some researchers have argued that the problem of underperformance is not as pronounced as some have argued it is), beginning with the relatively weaker academic credentials that athletic recruits may bring to college.

But the idea that stereotypes can negatively influence the attitudes of individuals who are targets of stereotypical thinking is a powerful concept.  In fact, the scholar most responsible for pioneering this concept, Claude Steele, was on campus in September talking about how stereotype threats can hamper the intellectual performance of minorities and women.  To think of athletes in this way, as having to overcome some of the same obstacles that these groups confront, is provocative to say the least.

Sites DOT MiddleburyThe Middlebury site network.