The Student-Athlete, a Gentleman and a Scholar

This is NCAA Division III Week, the first ever. It began Monday and runs through Sunday, April 15. Its purpose, in the words of an NCAA official, is “to call due attention to the activities and accomplishments of student-athletes.”

Almost by definition, a Division III school is not expected to be a powerhouse in any of the major sports. You could make the case that it enjoys a healthier balance between the two parts of the concept “student-athlete” than do the usual suspects among its Division I counterparts. In their promotional copy, the athletic departments of some small colleges insinuate as much.

It so happens that NCAA Division III Week follows closely on National Student-Athlete Day, which was April 6. Not surprisingly, though, given that April 6 was both Passover and Good Friday, the actual date of observance has varied from campus to campus. At one Division III school — Macalester, in St. Paul, Minn. — NSAD is scheduled for this Saturday, when it will coincide with events marking DIII Week. The two commemorations will be integrated, as both lend themselves to the larger cause of reminding the world that college athletics can be wholesome.

Of that, the world does have some need to be reminded. That so many college athletic programs enable college athletes to be students in name only is the besetting scandal of the NCAA. The most recent rash of editorializing on it followed the success of the University of Kentucky basketball team throughout March Madness.

John Calipari, the Wildcats’ coach, has been associated with controversies involving athletes’ cheating to meet academic requirements or taking money in ways that violate the NCAA’s definition of amateurism. For his many detractors, he has become the most recent poster boy for what’s wrong with college sports.

A few proposals for solving the problem are so long-standing that you can almost call them traditional.

#more#One is to enforce the rules.

Another is to change the rules to reflect the reality, or suspected reality, that players for high-profile Division I teams are essentially employees of their respective colleges or universities. If they want to enroll in classes and take advantage of the tuition exemption available to employees generally, fine. If they meet academic standards for matriculating in a given program, fine again. If they don’t, they don’t, and that’s fine too. They still play ball, but now without having to maintain the fiction that they’re students when they’re not.

A third proposal for dealing with college athletes who flail in the classroom is to recognize athletic performance as a category of academic performance. The student with low board scores and low grades but who excels in the dance program in the performing-arts department tends to meet with the guarded though sympathetic approval of those who value learning. There are different kinds of intelligence, we say. But how often do we say that about the kid with a combined SAT score of 400 and a 1.3 grade-point average who’s a genius on the basketball court? Or who can actually make contact with a curveball and hit it for extra bases?

The word academic has lost its meaning. It’s now used almost interchangeably with scholastic. Remember, the original academy, which was Plato’s, was located in the Academy, a gymnasium on the outskirts of Athens. Physical education was primary — that is, it came first. Cultivation of the mind was added on to cultivation of the body, not vice versa, and the two spheres overlapped and supported each other.

Mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body: It’s a classical ideal captured by our contemporary notion of the student-athlete. In an earlier age, to be called “a gentleman and a scholar” was the equivalent. It meant you knew how to read books and write poetry as well as ride horses and shoot.

Over time, that ideal lost out to intellectuals who were bad at sports. In Europe the word gymnasium was turned upside down and applied to institutions dedicated to strenuous study accompanied by bodily neglect. Henry Adams endured a German gymnasium for a brief stint in the 19th century. His classmates, pale and flabby, were “proofs of nearly all the evils that a bad educational system could give”:

They never breathed fresh air; they had never heard of a playground; in all Berlin not a cubic inch of oxygen was admitted in winter into an inhabited building. . . . With this, they were required to prepare daily lessons that would have quickly broken down strong men of a healthy habit, and which they could learn only because their minds were morbid.

For every college athlete who is an indifferent student, there are a hundred college students who are indifferent athletes. After a point, the argument that dumb jocks have no place in the academy begins to sound like the revenge of the nerds.