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What Academia Can Learn From College Sports


With 13:16 to play in Sunday night’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament East Regional final, University of North Carolina senior Brice Johnson was called for a foul while trying to snag a rebound. Frustrated, he flipped the ball over his shoulder — a technical foul.

Notre Dame hit all four free throws and took possession with a one-point lead. Such sudden reversals of fortune can rattle inexperienced or poorly coached teams. UNC wasn’t rattled. After the game, Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey summarized the UNC response: “We took the one-point lead, and they responded like men, and we didn’t have much left.”

“The responded like men” is a phrase one can hardly imagine a professor daring to utter. The denunciations — from campus activists, colleagues, even the administration — would be swift and merciless. Dissertations and journal articles with titles like “The oppressive legacy of campus patriarchy” would fill bound volumes to sit, untouched, on dusty library shelves for generations.

Yet in the world of college sports, the biggest pariahs are the coaches who treat character and morality precisely the same way university presidents do — as irrelevancies that lay far beyond the scope of the institutions they run.

A Mission to Develop Character

Universities that once aspired to develop the student’s character as well as his mind have tossed the latter mission as a worthless relic of a darker, less enlightened era. The only place on most modern universities where one can find a systematic program to “mold men,” as some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century university administrators characterized their missions, is in the athletic department.

On most campuses they are the only places where instructors see themselves as morally bound to make their students more virtuous.

University athletics programs can be dens of exploitation and avarice. Yet on most campuses they are the only places where instructors see themselves as morally bound to make their students more virtuous, where boys are to be transformed into men, girls into women.

This was once a common mission of both public and private universities. In his report of the first meeting of the commissioners of the University of Virginia in 1818, Thomas Jefferson recorded one of the university’s goals as being “(t)o develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.”

Perhaps because of its Jeffersonian pedigree, the University of Virginia (whose men’s basketball team just missed the Final Four in a loss to Syracuse on Saturday) is unusual in retaining some semblance of a character-building aspiration in its mission statement. The university commits itself to an “unwavering support of a collaborative, diverse community bound together by distinctive foundational values of honor, integrity, trust, and respect.”

Where the Final Four Are Weak

Most universities long ago discarded such old-fashioned notions. A look at the mission statements of the universities that have teams in the upcoming Final Four is telling and depressing.

A look at the mission statements of the universities that have teams in the upcoming Final Four is telling and depressing.

Although UNC’s founding motto is “lux, libertas” (light and liberty), its current mission statement is an empty mishmash of talking points that commits the university to creating “leaders” while rejecting any obligation to teach character, honor, integrity, or the principles and behaviors that might secure and maintain either a public or private liberty.

Syracuse University’s mission statement focuses the university entirely on academics and diversity, leaving out leadership.

Oklahoma University’s mission statement is a single sentence: “The mission of the University of Oklahoma is to provide the best possible educational experience for our students through excellence in teaching, research and creative activity, and service to the state and society.” At least it is brief.

Villanova University, a Catholic institution, does not even hold that Catholicism is the truth. “Inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the University is grounded in the wisdom of the Catholic intellectual tradition and advances a deeper understanding of the relationship between faith and reason,” its mission statement asserts. Modern academia is so afraid of any commitment to or even acknowledgment of a universal truth that a Catholic university reduces the word of Christ as taught by the Catholic church to a mere “intellectual tradition.”

The Faded Ideal of a Virtuous Graduate

In higher education in the United States, the intellectual tradition is one of constant chaos and conflict. Even in the eighteenth century, academics and administrators fought over the proper role of the university. The University of Virginia’s first curriculum was criticized as too unguided, leaving students free to choose their own course of study although they might not have the wisdom or maturity to choose wisely.

Instruction in virtue was once considered an ideal component of many university missions.

In 1799, UNC students rioted after the administration expelled a popular student. Students reportedly “horsewhipped” the president and stoned professors. Samuel McCorkle, a minister and co-founder of the university, blamed the riot on the university’s too-enlightened, free-thinking curriculum.

But there often was a strong effort by administrations and academics to instill virtue or character in the students. Said UNC President Joseph Caldwell in his 1827 commencement address, “the great objects of education here are to treasure up knowledge in the mind, to expand and invigorate the faculties, to discipline it to a pertinent, skilful, and efficient use of them, and above all to attach it if possible, inseparably to virtue….”

What the Founders called “virtue,” later academic administrators called character. Although it would be inaccurate to portray every American university as originally dedicated to shaping virtuous students, instruction in virtue and later character were once considered ideal if not essential components of many university missions. Today, that mission has retreated almost exclusively into one corner of the American university — the athletics department.

‘It Is a Remarkably Amoral Institution’

On the modern university campus, non-athletes are adrift in a sea of choices, treated from the moment they arrive as the capable captains of their own moral and spiritual ships.

“There is a powerful bias at the University of Chicago against providing you with the truth about the important issues we study,” John Mearsheimer said in a famous 1997 speech titled “The Aims of Education.” “Instead, we aim to produce independent thinkers who can reach their own conclusions. To put the matter in slightly different terms, we expect you to figure out the truth, if there is one.”

Nowhere else on campus are students instructed in such virtues as charity, courage, humility, kindness, and magnanimity.

“Not only is there a powerful imperative at Chicago to stay away from teaching the truth, but the University also makes little effort to provide you with moral guidance,” he further explained. “Indeed, it is a remarkably amoral institution. I would say the same thing, by the way, about all other major colleges and universities in this country.”

For your average student, the only guidance in virtue, truth, and morality at most modern American universities is the indoctrination in whatever pieties of political correctness are fashionable at the moment. Otherwise, you’re on your own, kid.

That is not true for one select group of students: the athletes. In the athletics department, coaches still aspire to “mold men” (or women). In the classroom, virtues are to be understood in their historical, social, or political contexts. In the practice gym, they are taught. Nowhere else on campus are students instructed in — and expected to practice — such virtues as charity, courage, humility, kindness, and magnanimity.

Think About Spreading the Wealth

Only in athletics departments is it axiomatic that freshmen must be instructed morally as well as intellectually. That instruction can have a powerful affect. On UNC’s Senior Day this year, point guard Marcus Paige delivered a speech that left head coach Roy Williams and many others in tears.

American universities have largely abandoned the task of turning their students into better people, or even mature adults.

“I’ve started taking note of the ‘Thought of the Day’ every day in practice because it’s a lot of words of wisdom and I know one day I’m not going to be able to walk through this tunnel and meet with you at the beginning of practice every day,” Paige said to Williams. “And I’ve tried to be every bit the player you’ve wanted me to be. But you’ve made me a better man, and that’s the most important thing. I’m a ten times better man than when I got here.”

That was not by accident. Williams focuses on recruiting players of character and building that character through his program. “Character counts” is Williams’ No. 1 rule of leadership. (It is worth noting here that UNC’s recent academic scandal was a creature of the African-American Studies Department, not the Athletics Department, and Williams has not been implicated.)

If non-athletes become better human beings during their four (or five) years at university, it is purely by accident, not design. American universities have largely abandoned the task of turning their students into better people, or even mature adults. (Morehouse College is a notable exception.)

It is remarkable that the general public, and even university administrators, applaud athletics programs for instructing their athletes in ways that would be summarily rejected by every other university department. Being a college athlete confers many benefits, none more powerful or important than this. Yet it could easily be conferred upon all members of the student body if only the universities had not so completely lost their way.