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.
I’ve worked in higher education for 23 years, 4 months and 6 days. If you add college and grad school to the mix, I’ve been associated with universities for (let’s see... carry the five... plus two… equals) a long time.
So I’ve had plenty of opportunities to ponder our peculiar industry and consider why things are the way they are.
People always ask me that very question. Really -- they just come up to me at parties, shrug their shoulders and say, “Why?” I try not to think it’s some kind of existential query or it’s because I’m wearing a plaid jacket with a striped shirt and a polka dot tie. I might develop a complex or something.
No, I think we simply have more questions than answers. To wit:
Why does our year end in June (or July, for some) when the rest of the world thinks in terms of, you know, January to December?
Why, when we’re considering change of any sort, is the most frequently uttered phrase, “Because we’ve always done it that way”?
Why, when communicating externally, do we use jargon and buzzwords only we understand?
Why do we aim to obfuscate and befuddle in the Orwellian tradition?
Why do some believe academic freedom extends beyond the normal boundaries of free speech and, for that matter, decorum?
Why do we assume academic freedom doesn’t exist absent tenure?
Why do we think the public understands tuition discounting and won’t have sticker shock?
Why do birds suddenly appear…?
Why don’t TV crews follow athletes from the field to the library after Saturday night’s big game to show that academic ability and athletic prowess can live in true harmony?
Why does every campus community in America complain about parking as if it’s their own private hell?
Why don’t we conclude that if it takes 10 months to fill an important administrative vacancy and the place doesn’t fold in the meantime, then perhaps we could do without it?
Why are there no classes on Fridays?
Why are there classes at 8 a.m.?
Why does the Big 12 have 10 members?
Why does the Big Ten have 14?
Why does the Atlantic Coast Conference think the coast extends to South Bend, Ind.?
Why does the Big East consider Chicago east?
Why are résumés 2 pages and vitae 30?
Why do no decisions get made and no work gets done during the six weeks known as “the holidays”?
Why are we no longer permitted to utter the word “Christmas”?
Why do we hire experienced experts whose first order of business is to hire consultants?
Why do fools fall in love?
Why can’t I find SEC hockey on ESPNU?
Why do adjuncts adjunct under such conditions?
Why does the media pay so much attention to universities that collectively enroll less than 1 percent of our nation’s students?
Why don’t they pay more attention to systemic issues such as those adjuncts?
Why do students never read the syllabus until something goes wrong?
Why do employees never read the employee manual until something goes wrong?
Why do all mission statements sound the same and yet say nothing?
Why aren’t there more bowling scholarships?
Why do we still value seat time over competencies?
Why do we conflate administrative experience with ability?
Why do we need 22 assistant directors of admissions?
Why is an appendix more valuable to a book than to a human body?
Why can’t we be friends?
Why do textbooks cost more than my first car?
Why do textbooks depreciate faster than cars?
Why do people post what they had for lunch on Facebook?
Why do we respond?
Why isn’t college baseball more popular?
Why do we continue blaming rising costs on external regulations?
Why do we need climbing walls?
Why do we celebrate snow days like we’re in middle school?
Why don’t we have more snow days?
Why are the paved pathways across the quad never the shortest route?
Why don’t we do it in the road?
Why do people confuse deciding with doing?
Why do we fuss with the various Latin declensions of “alumni” when it’s easier to say “graduates”?
Why do we all say we recognize charismatic leadership when we see it but can’t seem to define charisma?
Why ask why?
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.