Opening Day for most Americans this year means April 2, when the Chicago White Sox play the Cleveland Indians in major league baseball's first game of the season.
Opening Day for me was February 9, when the Rhodes College Lynx hosted the LeMoyne-Owen College Magicians, on the Rhodes campus in Memphis.
I am a professor of political science at Rhodes, but as soon as my 1:00 class let out that day I changed hats -- er, caps -- and took a seat in the stands as the Rhodes baseball team's Faculty Associate.
Rhodes launched its Faculty Associates program last year, borrowing an idea from Princeton University and Middlebury College that pairs each varsity team with one or more faculty members who serve it for a few years in an informal, advisory capacity. In 2002, when Bill Troutt, our president, appointed me to chair a collegewide task force on the future of intercollegiate athletics at Rhodes, I made inaugurating a Faculty Associates program my pet cause.
It seemed to me that for professors, coaches, and athletes alike, the program could only be win-win-win, at least at a school like Rhodes where, our task force found through surveys and interviews, all three groups agree that varsity sports exist to supplement rather than supplant the students’ academic experience. Happily, President Troutt and our athletics director, Mike Clary, agreed.
Professors who serve as Faculty Associates, we were convinced, would gain an opportunity to better understand the distinctive experience of the in-season varsity athlete, expanding our awareness of what membership on a team requires of students and how it affects them. (This would be reason enough to inaugurate the program, considering that more than one-fourth of all students play on at least one varsity team at Rhodes and many other Division III colleges.)
Athletes would also have a chance to get to know a professor outside the classroom, opening wide a door that might otherwise be hard for them to enter because of the time-devouring requirements of playing for a team. Finally, the program would increase communication between coaches and faculty members -- all of whom ought to be, and in most cases are, helping students to grow and flourish as human beings, but few of whom, in the course of things, spend much time talking with each other.
How would all this come about? One specific idea was for each Faculty Associate to meet with his or her team to talk about the care and feeding of professors, especially on the fraught subject of missed classes caused by travel to away games. Tell your professors face to face every time you will be gone, I urged the baseball team, and express your eagerness to make up any missed work. Even more important, when you’re in class, show the professor that you are there to learn. Just as you know how to position yourselves on the diamond, learn how to position yourself in the classroom -- front and center, preferably, and definitely not in the back corner of the room with a bunch of other athletes. Just as you use your eyes and set your body to get ready before every pitch, use your eyes and your posture in the classroom to let the professor know that you’re fully engaged with what’s going on there.
Another idea was to host the team at home for an informal social event, with the coaches supplying the food (that is, ordering the pizza). An ideal time to do this for the baseball players, I found, was during spring break, when the rest of the student body was gone but the team was still playing and practicing. It’s a week -- and virtually all teams end up similarly stranded during one college-wide break or another -- when team members may be missing their families especially hard and dorm life may seem especially grim. For young people away from home, just petting a dog or opening a refrigerator door and poking around can feel like a rare and wondrous thing.
Nothing I have done as a Faculty Associate gave me more pleasure or deeper insight into what being a varsity athlete entails than the third idea for what Faculty Associates can do: travel with the team on a weekend road trip. Between the 14 hours each way on the bus to Georgetown, Tex., meals together, and hanging around the motel pool, I got to know most of the players not just as good guys and serious athletes but also as hard working students trying their best to carry full course loads in the midst of a 20 to 30 hour weekly regimen of practice, travel and games.
Sitting in the stands, I visited with most of the large number of parents and siblings who had made their own trip to see the team play, none of them pressing a specific agenda but all apparently pleased that a professor was showing interest in their sons. I even talked with a couple recruits who were at the game. When the bus rolled back onto the Rhodes campus at 4:00 on Monday morning, the word to the players from Coach Jeff Cleanthes was, “Catch a couple hours of sleep, but be in every one of your classes.”
Something else I was able to do as a Faculty Associate last spring turned out even better than I had hoped. Rhodes is just a couple hours up the road from the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, which opened in November 2004. As a specialist in the American presidency, I’ve been urging all my students to pay a visit. Consequently, when the baseball team played a weekend series at Hendrix College in nearby Conway, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to suggest taking this group of Rhodes students to the library after they played their doubleheader on Saturday afternoon.
To be sure, it was a bit of a risk: Coach Cleanthes and I both wondered whether, after a full day of baseball and with a Sunday game looming, the team would want to spend more than a few minutes touring the library’s museum. As it turned out, after two hours the museum guards had to round up the players -- students -- and tell them, sorry, but they had to leave, it was closing time. The baseball team’s trip to the Clinton library may have been the first occasion in the history of the college when an academic event was woven into an athletics road trip. It won’t be the last.
Based on the Rhodes experience, I have some advice for colleges that decide to create their own Faculty Associate programs, both for the athletics directors and coaches who decide how the associates will be chosen and one for the associates themselves. Those choosing the associates need to do what Rhodes has done: namely, recruit from a broad pool of faculty. The temptation, of course, will be to choose professors who are already known to be strong supporters of varsity athletics. But in most cases they already know much of what most of their colleagues will learn only if they become Faculty Associates. What Coach Clary realized was that when more faculty members are closely exposed to the challenges students face balancing long hours on a team with a full academic load, they will communicate what they learn with their faculty friends and colleagues in informal conversation, expanding the scope of understanding.
As for my fellow professors, I found that my most unnatural act as a Faculty Associate was to put aside the presumption that any time I’m with a group of students, I’m the leading grownup in the room. That may be true in class and in my office, but it’s not true in the dugout or on the team bus. In those settings, the coach is the authority. He or she is setting the standards and doing the teaching. Some of the coach’s lessons concern things like how long a lead to take off first base or how to disguise a change-up. But a lot of them -- especially when the coach is as good as Coach Cleanthes -- are about teamwork, self-discipline, sacrifice, and character. These are lessons the players benefit from not just as athletes, but as students. And seeing them taught isn’t such a bad thing for their Faculty Associate, either.
Michael Nelson is the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College. His most recent articles and books concern the American presidency, Southern politics, C. S. Lewis and college sports.