Athletics & Academics: Building a Co-Curricular Future

Steven Volk, November 16, 2014

Division I Athletics have experienced a particularly thorough (and well deserved, in my opinion) thrashing of late. From bogus courses for athletes at the University of North Carolina, to the involvement of high profile athletes in (unpenalized) sexual assaults, to the NCAA’s recent granting of de facto autonomy to sports teams in the “Super Five” conferences, athletics as practiced in the most powerful Division I conferences continue to raise questions about why they are housed in institutions of (one hopes) higher education. If I don’t get upset by these revelations (and often I do), it’s only because I find it nearly impossible to draw comparisons between, say, the Ohio State football players just two hours down I-71 and the students in my classes. No criticism intended of particular Ohio State players, but we don’t seem to inhabit the same world of undergraduate education. And yet, of course, we do. So, what’s different about athletics and student athletes at Oberlin and other Division III, liberal arts colleges? And, more importantly, are we taking advantage of the differences?


Oberlin College Football Team, 1892 (Courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

Two books published by Princeton University Press in the early 2000’s brought the subject of athletics and academics at selective colleges and universities into wider discussion. The first was William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman’s The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001), and the second Bowen and Sarah A. Levin’s Reclaiming the Game (2003). Both considered the role and place of intercollegiate athletics, the latter’s relationship to liberal arts colleges’ educational mission, and the importance of evaluating athletes’ overall educational experience and contributions on our campuses. To be sure, these studies received their share of criticism. But what I see as the basic question raised by Reclaiming the Game, in particular, is whether we are showcasing athletics (and our student athletes) as one of the best examples of the kind of cross-domain, expansive learning that can happen at residential liberal arts colleges? (And here I’ll consider only the question of organized sports, both varsity and club, not necessarily the much larger question of wellness.)

I revisited that question when I came across an article by Craig Owens (“Bringing the Locker Room into the Classroom”), published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 7, 2014 which, in turn, led me to a September 9, 2014 interview on Iowa Public Radio with Owens and Sandy Hatfield Clubb. Clubb is the Athletics Director at Drake University and Owens a Professor of English there. It’s well worth the 20-minute listen.


John Henry Wise, Oberlin College 1892, the first Hawaiian to play college football in the United States (Courtesy Oberlin College Archives).

Quite briefly, Clubb considers the importance of creating an environment in which student athletes are getting more out of their sports than (only) an athletic experience, coaches are teaching to the whole person, not just the skill set needed in the sport or activity, and faculty are taking advantage of the skills and dispositions learned on the playing fields within their own classrooms.

Let me develop this last point a bit more. Intrigued by the question of how coaches approach teaching (an issue, by the way, developed brilliantly by Atul Gawande in a 2011 New Yorker article, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?”), Owens began to sit in on locker-room sessions and to talk with coaches and student athletes, something I’ve also tried, to great benefit. I think I understood more about my own learning in a one-hour coaching session with Constantine Ananiadis, our women’s tennis coach, than in reading countless books on the topic.

But, back to Owens. What he saw in the locker room were students who took responsibility for developing strategy and for determining how the game would be played. They were vocal and active learners, listening closely to critiques from their teammates and willing to share their comments in ways they felt could be heard most productively by other students. He found that the student athletes were taking the lead in directing themselves and one another. In particular, he came to the conclusion that student athletes were extremely skilled at dealing with critiques because they got a lot of them and, at least for a majority, they had learned how to build productively from the critiques. (The same skills are undoubtedly deeply engrained in the creative arts on campus: performance in music and theater, studio art, media production, and creative writing, and are also present in those areas such as game design in computer science which are “tested” in real time via the internet.) In short, what he found were the kinds of approaches and dispositions that he was looking to develop in all his students, approaches that were developed in these high-impact learning situations.


Spanish learning, Francisco Osorio (Flickr CC)

For her part, Clubb addressed the importance of coaches who were able to integrate leadership learning into their sports in an intentional and intensive way. She spoke of how sports teams that travel abroad to compete in “friendlies” used their leadership skills while abroad, and outside of the competitions, and how they could be transferred back to campus.

The word that came up the most in these interviews was intentionality, which I’ve used many times myself. At the end of the day, while our world of learning and athletics occupies a different universe from Division I, “Super Five” campuses, we can hardly claim a high ground if we don’t act in intentional ways to build a co-curricular approach to all aspects of learning on campus. Our students are continually integrating lessons from the various domains that they traverse on campus, from the classroom to the residential halls to the athletic fields. We need to provide the structures and conversations that can allow this to become more intentional and visible.

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