Last week, the Internet worked itself into a fit after ESPN aired a segment on the lingering scandal at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill over fake classes the school created for athletes to boost their GPAs. As with most viral stories, this one included a killer image: a camera shot of a 146-word, grammar-challenged final “essay” on Rosa Parks that, it seemed, had earned one lucky jock an A-.
For those who would prefer not to squint, here’s the text.
On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the white people section on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. “Let me have those front seats” said the driver. She didn’t get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. “I’m going to have you arrested,” said the driver. “You may do that,” Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them “why do you all push us around?” The police officer replied and said “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.
The picture seemed to distill the entire UNC scandal to a single block of text. It also seemed to stand for the idea that many big-time college athletes are utterly unprepared for college work and are never really given the education they are promised in return for their skills on the field. I posted my own quick take—as did a wholeslewofothernewssites.
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Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
The story behind the essay, however, was more complicated than we thought. According to ESPN’s source, what the network’s cameras captured was not a paper from one of UNC’s fake classes. Nor was it necessarily a finished piece of work. It was most likely a draft of one piece of a take-home final for a legitimate introductory course. The student did not earn the A- for the paper specifically, but for the entire, completed class.
So instead of evidence of specific academic corruption, the image merely seems to be visual proof that UNC admitted athletes with grade-school-level writing skills and awarded them high marks.
In its feature, ESPN interviewed Mary Willingham, the UNC learning-specialist-turned-whistleblower who exposed the fake courses issue to the public. “I became aware of this paper class system, that students were taking classes that didn’t really exist,” Willingham told the cameras. “They were called independent studies at that time and they just had to write a paper.” Students, she noted, were not required to actually attend any classes.
Later in the feature, former UNC football player Deunta Williams explained that he believed the coaches were in on the scam. At that point, ESPN cut back to Willingham holding the now notorious paragraph. Here’s a transcript (the section starts at around 3 minutes).
Williams: I think the coaches knew enough to understand what was going on. I think they knew about the system itself. And if a guy was in trouble, the immediate response was why not put him in a paper class where he can receive help. Get an A or a B out of this class for writing a good paper.
[Camera cuts to Willingham holding out the one-paragraph paper]
Willingham: This is not even close to college work, yet this athlete was awarded an A-.
Though Willingham never explicitly says so, ESPN’s editing seemed to create the impression that the paper in question was actually from one of the fake courses. But after the essay began making the rounds on Twitter, Willingham clarified that was not the case.
After updating my story (and receiving more than one piece of angry email from UNC fans about my initial post), I contacted Willingham to get more details about the essay’s origins. Willingham told me that ESPN had asked her to show them some of the hundreds of writing samples she keeps on file from the athletes she worked with at UNC; she retrieved a pile of them. The Rosa Parks essay, which happened to be on top, was just one typical example of what students regularly showed her. She said she never told ESPN that it was from one of the fake courses.
Online commenters have noted that AFAM 41—the class name listed at the top of the essay—was a legitimate intro course in the African American studies department and would have required more than a single-paragraph essay to complete. Willingham said that was correct. She also told me that the paragraph was "probably part of a larger [take-home] test,” but that since she did not have a course syllabus, she could not say for sure.
Willingham also confirmed the paper was a draft, though she could not say what sort of edits the student might have made. When it came to graded assignments, she said, she personally could only offer general guidance to students and would not have gone and rewritten the essay herself. Willingham said that although she did not know what grade the student-athlete received on his final, she did know his class grade, because as a learning specialist, she was involved in clearing him for NCAA compliance.
“It’s an original document from an athlete for an essay—for a final. That’s all I know,” she told me, later adding, “That is the grade level the person was writing at. That’s the point.”
And that is a fairly powerful point. Perhaps this student had excellent class participation, or did well on a multiple-choice exam—we don’t know. But if Willingham is showing a legitimate sample of an athlete’s work, it suggests a student was awarded an A- in a college course despite only being able to write with grade-school aptitude. That is a scandal.
Since the details of this story have become more clear, I’ve been debating whether this was another example of a viral nugget being “too good to check.” And to some degree it was. On the one hand, ESPN, possibly through an accident of editing, seemed to imply that this essay was from one of the fake courses its segment focused on. On the other, the segment never explicitly stated that was the case. Web writers, myself included, did ultimately jump to conclusions based on that impression, rather than on hard, verified details. In the end, though, I don’t think the details change much of what this image stands for: a student-athlete who could not possibly have been receiving the education he came for.
Unlike student-athletes, who seem to sprout annually and effortlessly from the scholastic soil, scholar-athletes are a somewhat rarer hybrid. They are relatively scarce because the resources needed to succeed in one endeavor are demanded by the other as well. Moreover, scholars and athletes peak at different ages. Scholars, particularly in the humanities, mature slowly, not so much in technical skills as in canniness of judgment, sharpness of eye, and depth of understanding. Athletes, by contrast, realize their potential at relatively young ages, in most sports by their early-to-mid-twenties. So the range of ages when the two forms of mastery overlap is fairly narrow and dictated more by the athlete’s body than by the scholar’s mind.
The paucity of scholar-athletes is a function of the limitations of the 24-hour day, human energy, and our educational institutions. Training to excel in a sport and learning to master a scholarly discipline both require copious quantities of time, effort, focus, and motivation. Needless to say, it is difficult to maximize the development of both sets of skills in tandem without some personal sacrifices and major assistance in the mundanities of existence. For good reason, the home of the scholar-athlete is the college or university, where the rest of adulthood’s demands are put on hold and where vital services—food, shelter, laundry, library, and long hot showers—are provided.
Since most college upperclassmen in a major are only beginning to master a discipline, the best place to find the true scholar-athlete is in graduate school, where the neophyte must jump the dissertation hurdle to join the scholarly guild. But in American universities at least, postgraduate athletes are not eligible for college sports. Unless they can compete as members of amateur clubs or teams, they will have small opportunity to realize their athletic potential.
By the same token, the athlete who turns professional has unlimited scope for physical development but virtually no time, or incentive, to pursue a scholarly career. The extreme specialization, travel-time, and sheer physical energy needed to hone one’s athletic skills and to satisfy the team owner work against a balanced effort.
For these arid similar reasons, it is difficult for most people to name many scholar-athletes. Perhaps most names are conjured up from our own collegiate heydays or from media coverage of some later stage of the person’s career. Because I have long been a watcher of the species, I can call to mind Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, a football star at Kennedy’s Harvard; Ham Richardson, a Tulane tennis star who led the American Davis Cup team in the late ‘50’s; Pete Dawkins, West Point Ail-American in football; Senator Bill Bradley, Princeton’s All-American in basketball; Representative Tom McMillen, All-ACC basketball player from Maryland; and novelist John Edgar Wideman, All-Ivy round-bailer from Penn.
All of these men are memorable as scholar-athletes because they won Rhodes Scholarships for study—and play—at Oxford, where they maintained and even burnished their dual identities for at least two years. While preparing to teach at West Point, Dawkins was glorified by the American press and scrutinized by the British as he competed with Yankee enthusiasm in rugby, hockey, cricket, and crew. Wideman, one of the two first black Rhodes, read English literature toward a teaching career at Wyoming and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and made two of my winters miserable: I was assigned to guard him in several lopsided Oxford-Cambridge basketball games. And when in December 1964 I read that the 6′5″ Bradley had been selected as a Rhodes and was postponing his professional debut, I was mightily moved to complete my doctoral research and head home so I would not have to guard him the following season.
In recent years, as my own athletic past creaks toward oblivion, I’ve often wondered where these hybrid highflyers come from. Are they born or made? What are some of the costs and benefits of a dual identity? Do the two poles of that persona only repel one another or do they also attract and reinforce each other? Do scholar-athletes ever lose their bona fides or do they continue to draw sustenance from their young reputations and self-images?
To answer these questions, I’ve done no research and conducted no polls. I’ve only read a couple of sports biographies, talked with a few friends who used to fit the category, and dredged my failing memory. Having chosen to cannibalize my own lean experience as a scholar-jock, I’ve had to proceed in the vain belief that my experience is, in its essentials, not wildly different from that of many others. In their relative mediocrity, my credentials as an ex-scholar-athlete may speak more credibly for the species as a whole than would those of the rare talents who command the attention of the Rhodes Committees and the Fourth Estate.
As a scholar I was definitely a late bloomer. To judge by my freshman grades at Yale, I was destined for the groves of academe only as a picker or packer: my first-quarter average was a juicy 69 (a fact of great comfort to my college-bound sons). Only by dint of stark terror and overtime “grinding” did I eventually get the hang of it. After my junior year, a happy stint at the Oxford International Summer School and the discovery in the Bodleian of the author-annotated political treatise that would become the subject of my senior honors thesis seemed to confirm my nascent belief that I had been tapped by Clio for a scholarly life (though I had only the faintest notion of what that entailed).
So off I went to Trinity College, Cambridge to garner a Ph. D. (the D. Phil is Oxford’s concession to American credentialism). While writing my dissertation on John Locke, I prematurely launched my hoped-for scholarly career by publishing three short articles, two of which were Caesareaned from the dissertation; the other was the love child of a more innocent commencement-summer fling. By the time I left England with a first draft, my athletic career was also ready to enter a new phase; the hyphenated scholar-athlete was about to come unhinged.
The paperwork on the jock side of my vita is somewhat longer but no more breathtaking. There are no Olympic medals or world records on my walls. In a small upstate New York high school I was the captain of a winning basketball team; I even attended Bob Cousy’s summer camp to sharpen my skills (and played the lousiest ball of my life for a solid week). In track I was only an average sprinter but the first person in our region to broad-jump (as it was then called) 20 feet.
At Yale I switched my allegiance wholly to track, set the indoor long-jump record at 24′1 ¾″ (which my history advisee Calvin Hill, the future Dallas Cowboy star, cruelly smashed a few years later—off the wrong foot!) and the outdoor triple-jump record at 47′9½″ (which lasted an even shorter time). In the process I won a few Heptagonal (Ivy League plus Army and Navy) titles but always went nowhere in the IC4As, the big northeastern regionals.
As a graduate student at Cambridge, I won two Blues in track (“athletics”) and two half-Blues in basketball (a still-suspect American import). For the latter team, a global gallimaufry of rank amateurs, I was often the high scorer by default, except when we played Oxford; then I saw more of John Wideman’s hand than the rim. Since two players from each team had to be, a young Egyptian and I were selected (somewhat anomalously) for the All-England Junior Team. In track, before chilblains had time to form, I set the Cambridge record in the long jump and won the British Universities title. At the annual “Varsity” (Oxford-Cambridge) grudge match at White City Stadium in London, I won the long and triple jumps two years in a row.
The closest I ever came to celebrity—my 15 minutes in the Warholian sun—came in the first year, 1964, when I inadvertantly broke the forty-one-year-old longjump record held by Harold Abrahams, the former Olympic sprint champion who covered the meet for The Times. Unhappily, I did not attend the awards banquet and therefore missed receiving the medals from Abrahams himself because my wife was not permitted inside the exclusive men’s club where the dinner was held. But I don’t carry a grudge. On the contrary, whenever I hear the theme music from Chariots of Fire, the Emmy-winning film about Abrahams’ track triumphs, I snap to attention and experience a frisson of remembered delight. My kids find it all embarrassing.
Their derision always reminds me that the genesis of a scholar-athlete usually lies buried in the piebald past of junior or early high school, when a student-athlete first becomes conscious of his somewhat unusual combination of talents and determines to cultivate them against all odds. At first, he (or she) is only a quick, well-coordinated kid who can outrun, outjump, or outthrow his friends and actually enjoys the challenge of homework, tests, and answering teachers’ questions in class. But it begins to dawn on him—if it hadn’t already in grade school—that his playmates and the bright lights in his scholastic circle constitute two largely different, often antagonistic, peer groups, whose pressures upon him only confirm the mixed messages he receives from parents and teachers, coaches and counselors.
If he attends a school of any size or social complexity, numerous peer groups and adult lobbies will pull him in different—and not necessarily predictable—directions. Adults will not always root for studies and peers for sports. The pressures may be just the opposite: coaches and parents toward sports, a brainy set of friends and a real or potential girlfriend toward books. The same may be true for college plans: mothers, counselors, “academic” teachers, and peers may encourage him to shoot for the distant Ivy League or Stanford, debt-conscious fathers, teammates, phys.ed.teachers, and other loyal alumni to head for Proximate State U. Although I was ranked fourth or fifth in my high school class of a hundred, I was virtually alone in wanting me to go to Yale. The guidance counsellor particularly thought I was wasting my time and should concentrate my applications on acceptable state colleges. Obviously, she had given even less thought to my athletic ambitions or potential.
An all-around student-athlete who prefers or has the potential to excel in just one sport would often benefit from specializing. Yet “public” and coaches’ pressure may make such a decision difficult. After making a thin-thighed freshman effort to become a place-kicker on the high school football team, I opted for summer and fall devotion to basketball practice and writing up the football games for local newspapers. In the spring of my junior year I went out for track, largely to take a short breather from my year-round addiction to the roundball game. I also wanted to avoid the stereotypical trilogy of football/basketball/baseball to which most of my friends subscribed. Had we a tennis team at the time I might have chosen it over track. I was certainly being a conscious snob in eschewing football and baseball, the former because I thought it too crude and unimaginative a sport, the latter because it seemed too uneventful for most of the players and not much of a physical challenge. To my green mind, only basketball, tennis, and track qualified as a “thinking man’s” sports.
If a student-athlete becomes truly outstanding in one sport or another, a new set of pressures will arise to affect his college selection. If he believes—or has been led to believe—that he could go “big time” in college and perhaps professionally, his choice of a college becomes supercharged with importance and perhaps a local or national media event. Signing a “letter of intent,” so far, is a phenomenon reserved for high school athletes, not computer whizzes or National Merit finalists. But for those teen-agers who are as good in the classroom as they are on the court, track, or field, as serious about their liberal education as they are about winning a spot on the varsity, the list of acceptable colleges will be considerably shortened by the quick elimination of gigantic “jock factories,” with their snake-oil recruiters conspicuously silent about honors programs, fine arts majors, and foreign study.
The obverse of the coin is the special problems that the recruitment of serious student-athletes poses for most college coaches, who by and large do not think first or easily about the intellectual development of their recruits. What can they hold out to entice these complicated youngsters? Mandatory study halls, “academic coordinators,” special tutors, early-warning systems to detect classroom trouble, pre-selected “gut” courses to ensure eligibility? All such crutches for marginal “scholarship” athletes would be more than mildly insulting to an “A” student who wanted to major in plasma physics, pre-med, or Russian studies.
And how much segregation and special privilege will a budding scholar-athlete accept? Will he want to live in a special athletic dorm with other jocks—Bear Bryant’s “Alabama Hilton”—and eat at a training table where the food is always better and in greater abundance than the other students can get in the dining hall or cafeteria? If he is expected to work for part of his scholarship, will he settle for a cushy or bogus job sweeping the stadium steps or polishing the trophies in the Athletic Department, rather than learning new skills in the library, the Career Counselling Office, or as a professor’s research assistant?
For the sake of an athletic scholarship, how many other tradeoffs and compromises is the student-athlete willing to make in his pursuit of academic excellence? Will he avoid certain lab courses and seminars because they conflict with afternoon practices? Will he forgo weekend fieldtrips in geology, botany, or art history because of games or meets? Will he feel free to skip practices occasionally because he has an exam to prepare for or a paper to write? Will he carry a reduced course load during the season because of a heavy travel schedule? Will he, in sum, demand to be treated like the serious student he is or allow himself to be coddled as a member of an athletic elite, whose privileges come at the expense of his classmates?
How he resolves these important dilemmas may often be forecast by how he decided a whole host of lesser issues during his gestation as a student-athlete. Deciding to pass through the social gauntlet of high school as a student-athlete, if I remember rightly, entails four years of delicate balances and sometimes tough decisions. At a time when peers play the biggest role they will ever play in one’s life, fashioning a self-image that is tolerably true to oneself is fraught with added angst when the image you seek is double, not single.
One of the first concerns of the student-athlete engaged in self-fashioning is fashion: what should he look like? What are the sartorial semiotics of student-athleticism? In high school particularly, I looked a bit like a six-foot-two praying mantis, well-coordinated perhaps, but all arms and legs. With tongues firmly in their cheeks, my classmates voted me the senior male with the “Handsomest Legs” (this was still in the dark ages of sexism, remember), mostly because I was virtually the only one to play two sports in short pants. I was overexposed in another way: with weekly newspaper coverage of our games and meets and the flash flood quality of school gossip, I was too well known for my athletic activities. Report cards and college ambitions were much more private. So I tried to correct the balance throughout high school by playing down my sports persona and accentuating my academic one. My goal was parity of presentation and, like most teen-agers, I went to great, self-conscious lengths to achieve it.
From the beginning of high school, I adopted a button-down image over anything discernibly sportif. On the days when the Varsity Club lettermen were to be photographed for the school yearbook, I had to borrow a white letter sweater from the graduated brother of a classmate; I refused to buy one, partly because I knew that it had a limited lifespan, mostly because I didn’t want to flaunt my athletic markings around school. For similar reasons, I never owned a high school or college letter jacket. Since demographically most jacket-wearers were football and baseball players, I tried to distance myself from their sports by not wearing one.
Naturally, I took keen pleasure in suddenly having to wear glasses for reading in my junior year of high school. I chose black-and-grey horn-rims to accentuate my studious mien, too naive to know that brown was the preferred color of true intellectuals. Since I couldn’t wear them for any other public appearances without risking collisions with unseen or blurry objects, I made frequent trips to the public library. To be seen hard at “scholarly” work was, in the student-athlete’s bifocal world, very heaven.
In the late ‘fifties, haircuts could also be implicated in the definition of a student-athlete. Crew cuts and flattops were very popular with many boys, especially jocks. I had one or the other until my senior year, when I got down to the serious business of applying to colleges. After researching the question in a few “back-to-college” issues of Esquire, Playboy, and such, I decided that a little more hair with a part would cut a more scholarly figure. So I grew my flattop out over my post-junior summer and tried valiantly to subdue a pair of fiercely independent cowlicks, fore and aft.
Not much else had to change to fashion a scholarly image for I was already wedded to the Ivy uniform of the day: khakis, loafers and cordovans (never sneakers off the court), button-down Oxford shirts (preferably with lightly frayed collars), and crew-neck sweaters. At that age I wasn’t sure that clothes didn’t make the man, so I affected the look of what currently passed for scholarly.
Once at Yale I had no difficulty managing the image of an Ivy League “scholar” because everyone dressed pretty much the same. Since ties and coats were required at lunch and dinner in those pre-coeducational, early-sixties days, and since I lived on the third-to-fifth floors of my respective residences, I elected to dress “up” for the day to avoid having to run up to my room and down, and to show a certain amount of respect for the professors, who constituted one moiety of my role models. The tie-and-coat routine lost some of its natty cachet at basketball and track practices, however, when tweed and challis had to be hung in cramped and humid (or worse) lockers. Doing up a tie after a hot workout and shower was a daily test of the jock’s resolve to pass as a junior egghead.
Even sports injuries could add a dashing note to one’s campus wardrobe. But they were double-edged badges of honor. Fellow athletes regarded them knowingly as pieces of ill luck, with a “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” wariness and finger-crossing. But a visible limp, a bulky wrap around a thigh or ankle, the camphorous smell of liniment or “atomic balm” (which sadistic trainers used to daub surreptitiously on bare buttocks before showers), or, worse, crutches told your fellow scholars that you had another life where you walked—even ran—on “the wild side,” lived dangerously or heroically for dear alma mater. But classmates were apt, as in most things, to be of two minds about them. While they might betray a trace-element of envy or quiet respect for your other life, they were as likely to be heavily ironic about your manifest clumsiness, lack of training, or participation in silly games for neckless wonders.
Looking the part of a student-athlete is usually a good deal easier than acting it, and involves fewer choices, some of them painful. For me, who liked and got along with all kinds of contemporaries, the social “necessity” of choosing close friends and associates—who to be (and be seen) with in school and in small-town society—was complicated by a kind of scholastic “class” system. It was fortunate, in our small school, that most of the best athletes were among the best students. This certainly made my social choices easier and eased my embryonic social conscience, which was increasingly sensitive to exclusiveness and its attendant pain for those left out. Yet I took some comfort from the fact that the criteria for inclusion were strictly meritocratic, and that the social boundaries around the group were fairly permeable. Most of the school day might be spent with the studious element, after-school hours with a mixed coterie of jocks at practices and goings-home.
For some of us, other choices were harder. In high school and even later, there were two supreme sacrifices that all athletes were expected to make: alcohol and sex. In the decalogue of most coaches, two commandments stood out: “Thou shalt not desecrate thy bodily temple with spirits” and “Thou shalt not spend thy vital forces the night before a game.” In a mad frenzy of sacrilege, a few of my teammates occasionally shared a can of beer in a shaded grove, and they seem to have escaped both addiction and divine retribution. I was the odd man out: we had an open, full-sized bar and backbar in our paneled “rumpus room” in the basement, where I took my last drink—a face-twisting shot of 7-Crown— with a daredevil friend in the seventh grade. Growing up with a quiet but consistently alcoholic father, I had even more reason to follow the coaches’ first commandment.
As for the affairs of Venus, I was a total tyro in high school and long after. At all-male Yale, I was so impecunious and starved for the mere company of the softer sex that I never bothered to determine whether my rare dates were drawn by my well-mounded muscles, my well-rounded mind, or just comparably acute loneliness. By the time I met my now-wife on a blind date at the beginning of my senior year, I no longer heard the second commandment ringing from the Athletic Office or believed in its sanctity.
The other love I found at Yale was history. By junior year, when I took superb seminars on Tudor-Stuart England and the American Revolution, I had decided that reading and writing history were not only the best possible way to spend the future but a feasible way to make a living. Everything thereafter was aimed at getting to England to study the English background of American colonial history.
But I set my sights on an English graduate program also because I knew that I could continue to play serious sports for the university teams in a pure spirit of amateur competition. To pursue simultaneously the mastery of a discipline and of one or more sports at Oxford or Cambridge struck me as the best of all possible ways to launch a scholarly career.
Looking back on our time in Cambridge and all the scholarly-athletic preparation that led to it, I can now see a number of ways in which scholarship and sports mutually fed and reinforced each other, rather than pulling me in contrary directions. Many of those ways, I’m convinced by my desultory research, have contributed to the making of other scholar-athletes, however high they’ve flown.
One side of the equation is what the student and the scholar lent to the athlete. First, from “research” and reading my high-school jock persona received inspiration and then preparation. Like many teen-age athletes but certainly not all, I stocked my imagination and stoked my ambition with fictional and biographical stories of great athletes, primarily basketball players. Then, as I reached certain levels of play on raw ability and dogged if unsystematic practice, I sought the advice of big-time coaches, stars, and other experts in “how-to” articles in sports magazines and books. I threw myself into research on the foul shot and fakes and later the broad jump as wholeheartedly as I did for a social studies or English paper.
Having one eye always cocked toward a scholarly future also led me in part to choose sports that not only capitalized on my particular set of physical and mental attributes but came with coaches whose intellectual and moral qualities made them excellent teachers. In high school the varsity basketball coach had been my freshman math teacher rather than a stereotypical gym teacher. After a stint in the man-molding Army, he put his military mien and his own canny sports skills to good use by teaching a dozen individualists to play a hard-nosed, disciplined style of winning basketball. At Yale, where I was “recruited” (in Ivy League fashion, without money) to play basketball, I quickly realized that neither the freshman coach nor most of my first-string teammates were unduly serious about the cultivation of intellect, on or off the court. I also saw that almost daily three-hour scrimmages, while good for the soul, were incompatible with my need to make up for a spotty preparation for college studies. So before the end of the first semester I resigned from the freshman squad to rescue my unstellar grades in calculus and economics.
When I survived midyear exams, I went out for track. My reasons were at least in part “scholarly”: the track men I knew were a studious bunch, given to reading rather than roistering on bus trips, the total practice time for jumpers was only an hour-and-a-half if expedited, and the two coaches were both unusually learned—the field coach a Ph. D. in psychology, the head and running coach a magna cum laude from Holy Cross in classics and Thomistic philosophy. And I was perceptive enough to realize that in track I had plenty of room for improvement, whereas in basketball most of my potential had already been realized.
The scholar’s third contribution to the athlete was the efficient management of time. I quickly learned the value of fewer and shorter practices. With lots of challenging course work always ahead and a scholarship job, I could not afford the luxury of three-hour practices, leisurely showers, and training table off the beaten path. I have no doubt that the daily discipline of time-budgeting off the track reinforced the evolution of efficient routines on it. As Frank Shorter, another Yale trackman and a pre-med student, testified, “I think my adherence to the study ethic helped my running because I learned how much I had to put in to get what I wanted and at what point diminishing returns set in.”
Excellent coaching by my Yale mentors and the establishment of efficient training routines enabled me to participate in intercollegiate sports at Cambridge at a level equal to the best I had attained as an undergraduate, all while I was married, practicing less under adverse conditions with no coach, and writing a doctoral dissertation. Both Frank Ryan, my field coach, and Bob Giegengack, the running coach, were masters of their sport and master teachers. Gieg became the Olympic track coach in Tokyo in 1964 and was an expert member of the Technical Committee of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the worldwide governing body for track and field. Frank wrote books and articles and made training films on his events. (As a freshman I starred as the “before” to an Olympic champion’s “after” sequence in the triple-jump movie.) They not only knew but generously taught their charges the physical, tactical, and physiological principles of the sport. They were canny enough to realize, as Frank Shorter put it, that “you just couldn’t tell a Yale athlete to do something without explaining why to a certain degree. There aren’t many sheep there.” Like all master teachers, they held nothing back and taught to become dispensable.
What I learned from them became indispensable in Cambridge. The track was a good bike ride from the center of town and had no facilities for showering or changing. So you dressed for practice in “digs,” pedaled out, practiced (often alone), and pedaled back to shower, or rather bathe. Since our one coach was primarily a running coach, the field men had to know how to train when they “came up” to university or they floundered a great deal.
The basketball facilities (to which I returned) were even more primitive. The so-called university gymnasium looked like a turn-of-the-century health club for bluestockings. The basketball court was so short that jump shots were easy from midcourt, and lay-ups had to be terminated just inside the foul line to avoid smacking into the wall which arrived only inches after the backboard, an antique rectangular affair which no self-respecting high school in the States would have countenanced. Only the scheduled opportunity to play on regulation courts at American air bases, complete with fan-shaped Plexiglas backboards, kept the spoiled Americans on the team from taking up croquet or punting on the Cam.
The last legacy of scholarship to my erstwhile sports career, and perhaps the most valuable, was a saving dose of perspective: the conviction that while sports, especially team sports, were important parts of life and learning, they were not the alpha or the omega of becoming an adult. So upon finishing the first draft of my dissertation and coming home from Cambridge, I appeared in a regional AAU meet in my home town and promptly put away my track spikes forever. With a postdoctoral fellowship and job-hunting ahead, I was, rather surprisingly, not even tempted to look back at the halcyon days of amateur athletics. I had no need to, because at 23 I knew that I had received as much benefit from sports as I was capable of absorbing and putting to good use. It was now time to throw my whole self into making a scholarly career.
Conversely, participation in athletics made several contributions to my scholarship. The first was that from basketball, one of the quintessential team sports, I learned something about the functional importance and aesthetic beauty of teamwork, the pulling together and subordination of self for the good of the whole. I also learned, sometimes painfully, that long-range success—the winning of a game at the end of 40 minutes of play or a championship season—is the product of steady, patient, incremental, coordinated effort, not of Technicolor bursts of individual heroics. From blending into a sports team, I instinctively knew the meaning, and was partial to the ethos, of the “community of scholars” when I made its acquaintance at Yale.
Intercollegiate track taught a slightly different lesson but one equally valuable for participation in the scholarly community. While track is a team sport, except for the relays the events are separate and individualized. One’s contribution to the team is usually made in lone competition against a handful of opponents and teammates and the tape measure or stopwatch. The analogy to scholarship is rather exact. While scholars work for the cumulative, long-range good of their international community by advancing knowledge and understanding, they do so largely alone, teaching students and publishing books and articles under a single name. Only their acknowledgments pages reveal the magnitude of the help they have received from “teammates” and their purest purpose for “playing the game.”
Another scholarly application I brought from athletics was that I at least realized the need, from facing a variety of superior opponents, to mask or sublimate my intense competitiveness. The object was three-fold: to gain some psychological advantage over the opponent on the principle that a secret (or at least quiet) nemesis is harder to handle than a known one, to focus my mental and physical energy upon the task rather than the person at hand, and, not least, to provide a quiet escape in the event of failure. Since scholarly opposition tends to be rather public, the first reason to mute one’s competitiveness carries little cogency in the community of scholars. But the other two have a good deal of utility. If scholarship is to remain disinterested and focused on the communal search for truth, it must stay above personalities and personal animus (an ideal that scholars, no less than other competitive people, often honor in the breach). And in a world inhabited by legions of people blessed with sharper minds, more energy, more fertile imaginations, and swifter pens (or word-processors) than ours, an acquired gift for rationalization, particularly of failure, is, as Ben Franklin knew, one of the thinking man’s biggest assets.
In one important way competition in scholarship differs from athletic competition. The search for personal excellence in humanistic scholarship (as opposed to scientific research, perhaps) does not take the overtly competitive form of athletics. This is not to say that scholarship doesn’t have its publicly competitive side, but the search for knowledge tends to be much more muted than the physical contests of sport. The major difference is that excellence in athletics is usually measured during the performance by objective standards—times run, distances jumped, strike-outs, birdies, aces—although a few sports, such as diving and gymnastics, are highly evaluative (and therefore subjective and political). Excellence in scholarship, on the other hand, is measured almost entirely by the subjective judgments of peers over much longer periods.
There are, to be sure, some public awards and rewards in scholarship, the publicity for which has the effect of cozening us into believing that they were made by objective judges applying objective standards. Anyone who has served on a selection panel or prize committee knows how fraudulent such an interpretation must be. But most media consumers, even scholars and teachers who should know better, are easily taken in by the superficial resemblance between a literary prize, an endowed chair, or a fellowship award and the outcome of a sports event. In athletics, particularly team sports, there are losers and winners at the end of each contest. But in humanistic scholarship, there are only occasional “winners” and no outright losers because the standard of measurement is suitably inexact and the goal is the same as the process, namely, to augment understanding and to increase knowledge through long-range, cooperative effort by the whole community of scholars. In scholarship, “how you play the game” is everything; “who wins” is meaningless in a communal sense except as public awards serve sporadically to inspire the toilers in the vineyard, all searching for the perfect vintage but knowing full well that the annual round of digging, nurturing, and pruning is and must be its own reward.
A career in sports also gave me a somewhat accelerated education in human nature through observing the behavior of people under pressure, handling success and failure on a regular basis, and having to motivate themselves day after day to train hard, suffer a certain amount of pain in the process, and neglect a whole raft of alternative ways to spend their time. I saw many well-muscled embodiments of that old cliche about quitters never winning and winners never quitting. Perseverance has as much value in scholarship as in sports. Frequently in our business, writing lots is the best revenge.
I also observed at Yale two master motivators at work. Frank Ryan, a psychologist, wasted none of his discipline in applying its principles to his student-charges who were not self-starters. His authority was not diminished by his Irish gift of gab and his imposing physique, which formerly threw the hammer and put the shot at championship distances. Bob Giegengack got more out of his runners than any coach I have ever seen, partly because it was well known that he always had. Not given to light banter or sophomoric nonsense (I remember being pulverized in an ethics debate in his car en route to a meet at Cornell), Gieg motivated his teams by the force of his knowledge of and the seriousness of his commitment to the sport. His mordant wit and withering sense of irony, accented with the peculiar lilt of Brooklyn, added to his authority, as did his ubiquitous whistle.
I got to study the human condition (in its largely collegiate manifestations) also by traveling with the team to a variety of cites, countries, and campuses. The best experiences came from being selected to compete with Harvard’s best against our British counterparts, the combined Oxford-Cambridge select team. By virtue of scheduling (the meets were held every other year) and a bit of luck, I competed as a sophomore in the United States, as a senior in Great Britain, and again for Oxbridge as a second-year graduate student back in the States. In the first meet in 1961 I encountered a pungent piece of academic one-upsmanship in the person of Adrian Metcalfe, a member of Magdalen College, Oxford, who at 19 had run the year’s fastest 400 meters in the world. When Arizona State College, then one of America’s premier track factories, tried to recruit him, he delivered a withering riposte. “I have written that I am at a university,” he told the press, “which was founded when their ancestors were in the trees. I have no idea what they might suggest I should study. It’s probably handwriting.” Two years later, as an adopted limey, I roomed with sprinter Jeffrey Archer, who hadn’t yet written any novels or served in Parliament but had served as president of Oxfam, the international relief organization, while still an undergraduate.
What I enjoyed most about the English teams was their intellectual seriousness, their maturity, and their earnest amateur spirit. Several members were active graduate students, as I was. Most were visibly older than their American counterparts and thought nothing of recovering from practice with a pipe and a pint of stout. Their one coach was relatively unobtrusive and certainly not interested in making nightly bed-checks. The club spirit reigned and provided a refreshing contrast with the semiprofessional feel of many American college teams.
Athletics abetted my scholarship in another way: they made me, in spite of my early academic record, a plausible candidate for a Rhodes and other scholarships for study abroad. Unfortunately, I was too dull-witted or tongue-tied in the final interviews to win a Rhodes. But reaching the finals in a tough region apparently did me no harm when the Yale faculty awarded two fellowships for graduate study a couple of anxious months later. These took us to Cambridge for two years. Winning a Rhodes would have put a handsome cap on my dual career, but some disappointments work out for the best. As Peter Dawkins had discovered a couple of years before, only third-year Rhodes were allowed to marry. And, although I planned to write a dissertation on Locke, whose papers were in the Bodleian in Oxford, I wanted to work in Cambridge with Peter Laslett, the foreman of the “Locke factory,” and to live in Cambridge’s more bucolic precincts.
Perhaps the most important legacy I received from athletics was a basic reservoir of confidence which would continue to sustain me as I tried to gain my footing in the slippery new arena of scholarship. Having held my own against athletic rivals in two sports on two continents (however small the pieces), I was emboldened to try my hand at a different, more serious, kind of competition in the big league of international scholarship. That sustaining core of confidence came, I like to think, as much from knowing how to lose with some grace, from learning that losing and disappointment are not (in the long run) fatal and can even be salutary if they lead to regrouping and redoubling of effort, as from having triumphed now and again. Nonathletes are simply not inured to losing as publicly or as often as athletes are.
The key role that confidence has played in my scholarly life has been to give me the kamikaze courage to commit myself to print, to stick my neck out before the judgment of peers and superiors, on a regular basis. Obviously, confidence can come from many sources—loving parents, good looks, success in school, love, or any number of endeavors, perhaps even a gentle gene on the double helix. But much of whatever confidence I have—and, I would bet, that of a substantial number of scholar-athletes as well—came from having competed strenuously and with some success in sports. Ironically, the strongest measure of that legacy may be this uncharacteristically familiar essay, which, while it took a quarter of a century to be written, never would have been without the excavation that it entailed of largely pleasant memories from my athletic attic.
James Axtell is a professor of history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.