I love March Madness. I love the Cinderella stories, the office pools and the fierceness with which the men and women play. Most of all, I love the fact that during these few weeks we celebrate not just the stars from big-name schools but also players whose names will never appear again on ESPN.
But as much as I love the nod toward students destined for something other than professional sports, March Madness also inevitably reminds me how warped our sense of athletes on campus really is. Much of this madness, as I see it, comes from an obsession with endings -- the Final Four, and the last game of most of the seniors’ competitive basketball careers.
This sense of finality for teams and seniors may be fully ingrained in intercollegiate athletics, but it is not, in fact, the experience of many of our athletes on campus. Consider, for example, students who are marathon runners or equestrians or weight lifters, most of whom compete not as part of a university team but as individuals or as members of teams unaffiliated with college athletics. Like our football and basketball players, a student training for an Ironman competition, for example, may easily spend thirty hours a week or more running, swimming, biking and strength training, but these students' athletic careers do not end in some grand intercollegiate tournament. Instead, many of them continue to compete long after graduation.
The same longevity is also true for many of the other athletes on campus, our faculty and staff. Richard L. Smith, a statistics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ran his eleventh Boston Marathon last year at the age of 61. My colleague and teammate, Shelly Frazier, a pathologist at the University of Missouri and a founding member of a competitive women’s power-lifting team called the OWOWs (Older Women on Weights), holds six world records in her age and weight class with the World Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation.
Emphatically, these faculty and staff challenge the deeply held assumptions that athletes are always young. Historically, colleges have done much to popularize sports in the U.S., but higher education’s role in that rise has come at a price. Constantly bombarded with images of youthful athletes -- images that so often originate on our campuses -- we often assume that youth and athletics are inextricably linked.
With a nation heavily burdened by preventable disease, the cost of these images is staggering. The United States has both highly developed sports programs for youth and some of the world’s most physically inactive adults. Stop by any sports field or local bar on a Saturday and you’ll find countless adults -- many of whom were involved in sports as youth -- spending their weekends as spectators, watching young people compete.
The sad reality is that this image of sport has been fueled, in large part, by events like March Madness. However unintentional, college sports reinforces the idea that athleticism is the realm of the young, of the specially gifted. Moreover, because we accept the idea that student athletes are fundamentally different from everyone else and that it is impossible to balance athletic pursuits with other responsibilities, we rarely consider the alternative view of sport as a lifelong activity that most, if not all, of us could enjoy.
The good news is that studies suggest that athletic abilities change as we age but do not inevitably disappear. What we often see as the natural effect of aging is, in fact, the result of inactivity.
Perhaps if we broke the collusion between athleticism and youth, we would be more successful in warding off the assumed natural effects of aging. If we had more images of athletes of all ages experiencing the joys and frustrations of competition, perhaps we could see athletics and sports as play, as something that brings joy and enriches our lives rather than as a chore to be endured in order to be healthy.
Masters athletes do not exist solely on campuses, of course, and one could argue that higher education has no special responsibility to address the rampant inactivity of U.S. adults. But the history of college athletics suggests that it can help change deeply held cultural beliefs -- Vassar College’s requirement, in 1865, that women be active in sports came more than a century before Title IX legislation.
It’s time to harness the potential of collegiate sports to address the nation’s crisis regarding health and wellness. Rather than spread the gospel of athleticism and youth, colleges and universities could be using their not inconsequential media strength to promote lifelong physical activity. Maybe in the midst of all this March Madness, it’s time to see all our athletes on campus.
Patricia Okker is professor of English and senior associate provost at the University of Missouri at Columbia.