Questioning the place of sports in college: Character

Forget about the BCS for a moment. Forget Title IX. Forget conference re-alignment. In the post-Penn State scandal world, we’re seeing something that runs far deeper: People who aren’t sure colleges should be in the sports business at all.

They’re popping up a bit more at the Washington Post’s education page, where Jay Mathews bemoans the greater attention paid to the BCS than to a study showing a lack of analytical skills among college students. (Frankly, he should take that issue up with his editors rather than his readers.)

And The Chronicle of Higher Education has taken up the topic, today with a lengthy take on whether sports build character:

Do Sports Build Character or Damage It? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The piece hints at something I had drilled in my head by my father, a philosophy major and high school QB who went on to become a biochemist: Ancient Greeks believed strongly in developing mind and body. But the writer has a different take here, calling on Plato to bolster the argument that sports help warriors find an outlet for their aggression when they’re not at war.

In a civilization that doesn’t send many people to war (no disrepect to Iraq and Afghanistan vets — their numbers are simply far smaller than the entire generation sent to WWII), that argument suggest that we don’t need quite as many athletes. Maybe we should all be re-training our brains for gentler pursuits like deconstructing 19th century’s women’s literature through the lens of 17th century patriarchal hegemonic archetypes for a post-structuralist buzzwordist obscure-termist discourse, or whatever English departments are doing now while the entire country forgets how to speak English. But I digress.

It’s a funny coincidence — some might call it “ironic” — that people are questioning the idea of sports as character development while Title IX enforcers give a hard sell on the notion that sports are good for women. But it’s not such a bad idea to stop and take stock while the sports landscape is rapidly changing.

And while most questions on sports lead back to football, the most violent and warlike (but also the most complex) of our sports, we can’t forget how much these questions apply across the board. Grantland had a story this week about concussions in football, saying the risk in football was far more than the second-placed sport. But that second most dangerous sport was one that may surprise parents. It’s girls’ soccer.


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