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In higher education in general, participation in sport is a form of experiential education that receives inadequate attention or recognition. It is also rarely given comparative status with other forms of participatory engagement such as internships, volunteerism and so on. The stereotypical athlete or “jock” is a satirized figure -- dumb and ill-educated: a subject of fun, or worse, ridicule (often created by those with a sense of class superiority). Scandals associated with institutions who allow athletes to “pass” courses without real study are assumed, unreasonably, to represent the norm. Sport in higher education is frequently represented (mis-represented) through a combination of parody, prejudicial elitism, and thoughtless assumption.
Participation in sport deserves more serious theoretical consideration: as a mode of experiential education it teaches many of those skills we associate with ostensibly more prestigious models. Engagement in team sports (at least) has the potential to achieve a number of learning objectives more commonly associated with other forms of experiential education -- not least, personal time management, group cooperation and collective responsibility (an important counter to prevailing individualism), the necessity of listening rather than speaking and so on. At a very obvious level, sport involves the acquisition of such disciplines as individual responsibility to contribute to the team; and personal behavior qualities such as emotional control, time keeping, and respect for public standards.
Furthermore, sport teaches that not all conflict is necessarily bad; that there are circumstances in which it is possible to fail and that failure is neither permanent nor irretrievable. In short, you win some and you lose some: an attitude that is consistent with the life experiences of most of us. This is a valuable corrective to the kind of political correctness that protects young people from the realities of success and failure as if all achievements were of equal value and that all deserve equal recognition. Inculcating that delusion does the young no educational favors at all.
In the context of education aboard, a focus on sport as a subject of study is of particular relevance. Sport is an important signifier of national, social and political characteristics. In practice, the biggest events that most directly gain the attention of any given nation are, almost always, sport occasions. The Superbowl in the USA always has a huge live audience but that is the tip of an iceberg. Television audiences across the nation are transfixed. The same is true of major soccer events: The World Cup measures its audience in millions across all the continents of the globe. The media has transformed the significance of sport by democratizing access and creating trans-national audiences that exceed those for any other kind of shared phenomena.
While the reach of sport is global in scale, there are national particularities, even peculiarities, reflected in individual sports and their rituals. Who else but the English could have invented a game that, in its most noble form, can last for five days and end in a draw because there wasn’t enough time to finish (cricket, of course)? What does it say of American history, values and aspirations that a “draw” is not a result? As a consequence, America has the only national sport that in theory can last forever (baseball where, unless there is a winner, can continue across a terrible infinity).
A distinction between American and British attitudes might broadly be illustrated by two short extracts from some fine writing. The first is by Red Smith reporting on what came to be called the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff, the dramatic defeat of the Brooklyn Dodgers by the New York Giants, October 3, 1951:
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
The second piece of writing is from the London Evening Standard April 5, 2016, and describes the last-minute defeat of the English cricket team by the West Indies in dramatic, unanticipated fashion. Dan Jones approached the defeat through a metaphor:
Of all the people to have climbed Mount Everest, there are two who matter most. One is Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who got to the top first. The second is George Mallory, who didn’t get there at all but rather died while on his way in 1924, battling heroically against hostile elements and a task that overwhelmed him.
His route to conceptualizing this defeat is soon clear:
Many people believe that there is only one thing worth doing in sport: winning. In fact, there are two: winning and losing heroically…. the bitterness of defeat sustained a heartbeat from apparent triumph is one of the great feelings in sport.
The title is, of course, “Perfection can be found in … heroic World T20 final failure.”
Both pieces have something in common: the use of metaphor to raise the event above the mundane and rhetorical intensity. There is a distinction, however, that is immediately apparent. The collocation of heroic and failure seems almost uniquely British. We have become good at losing over a long time -- the American colonies, India, Africa --the odd cricket game is simply part of a long series of defeats (heroic or otherwise). The British have an inbuilt sympathy for losers, runners up, and embattled underdogs.
The study of sport, however, offers more than maudlin parochialism. Football (soccer), for example, is a global spectator sport that contains within its history microcosms of nationalism, class conflict, capitalism, socialism, exploitation, corruption, greed, suffering, beauty, passion, doomed desire, triumph and despair, quasi-spiritual aspiration, metaphorical Jesuses and multiple Judases…
Furthermore, as a guide to human foibles and complexities, sport is arguably unsurpassed. What is more illustrative (or funnier) of the process of decision making than the great Casey Stengel’s explanation: “I made up my mind but I made it up both ways”? Harvard Business School has nothing wiser than Mr Stengel’s insight into the secret of his inspirational management techniques:
Good management is about keeping those who hate you away from those who haven’t yet made up their minds.
As chaos swells around Portnoy in Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint he reaches back towards sport for simplicity and security in a plaintive doomed cry of anguish: “Oh to be a center-fielder! A center-fielder and nothing more”. Sport offers a metaphor for simpler, cleaner times in contrast to the tribulations and tides of complex experience.
In short, a study of sport gives access to literature and humor, poetry and wisdom, history and sociology, anthropology and psychology in contexts that are local, national, regional and global. It offers potential for multidisciplinary pedagogy; student engagement with diversity across many contexts; engagement with those universal dynamics that transcend difference. Conservative academics may resist this focus, but their arguments are ultimately discredited by the incisive insights of Yogi Berra: “There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell 'em.”