Spring 2010: Letter from the President

President James Wagner

President James Wagner taking in a game with Swoop, Emory’s mascot.

Kay Hinton

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

By James W. Wagner

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks suggested that despite frequent laments about costs and scandals, big-time collegiate athletics serves a few worthy social purposes. Over against the usual burdens of “BTA” (big-time athletics)—burdens measured in ethics violations—Brooks weighed the possible advantages of community-formation. Regardless of our race, economic standing, gender, religious affiliation, or political preferences, we can all fill a stadium together, paint ourselves blue and gold, and cheer for the Eagles. In this view, BTA even fosters certain virtues, including teamwork and sacrifice among athletes, and loyalty and a sense of connection among fans.

Brooks may have a point, especially where the fans are concerned. Where do we, as community members, come together in numbers greater than, say, a thousand, regardless of the many identity markers that could divide us? Political rallies tend to gather relatively like-minded people. Religious gatherings—which sometimes do in fact fill stadiums—generally call together people of the same faith. Rock concerts may be it—the occasion for gathering people of all ages, stripes, and outlooks for a feel-good bonding moment. (Last summer in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park Paul McCartney performed a free concert in pouring rain to an audience of forty thousand and provided a common emotional touchstone for everyone who had been there: “I went on Sunday . . .”—“Hey, me too . . .”—“Wasn’t it fantastic?!”)

Still, even in a time of plenty, let alone a budget-constraining day like our own, it is worth asking whether the resources required for this kind of community experience are well spent in view of a university’s mission. Perhaps at large, state-supported institutions the cost is justified by bringing shared identity to a vast student body of, say, thirty or forty thousand. Perhaps the state institution, intended explicitly to serve the aims of a more local community—the citizens of a particular state or a particular part of a state—has more purpose in serving this community-building function through BTA. It is a rare private university, though, that can do athletics very well while also maintaining academic excellence. Among the top twenty-five universities, only a couple seem to manage it consistently in Division I.

For Emory, the value of retaining any program in a penny-pinching time comes down to whether it fits in the category of either “essential” or “excellent.” Hardly anyone would argue that intercollegiate athletics is essential for a university in the way, for instance, a mathematics department or the teaching of history is essential. A university can be great without BTA (see Johns Hopkins, Chicago, and the Sorbonne). We can say, however, that Emory’s athletics program is consistently excellent, from its national championship teams in recent years to its remarkably large participation rate in intramurals. Not only are these programs excellent by various objective measures (win-loss records, trophies in the display case, conference championship banners on the wall), but they excel in providing leadership to the rest of higher education. Just within the past two weeks I have heard leaders of two highly ranked private universities with Division I athletics remark that they wished their universities could move to the Emory model.

The only debate—and it is a real debate—is how to define “excellence” in Division III. For some, the measure lies in the number of students participating in varsity sports: the more varsity athletes, the better the program. We at Emory would not necessarily disagree. But we also make no excuse for wanting to win, and for saying that excellence includes rising above the pack by trouncing the pack on the tennis court or in the swimming pool.

One more measure of excellence is the degree to which the Emory athlete approaches the old ideal of mens sana in corpore sano—“a healthy mind in a healthy body.” In that sense, Emory athletics is excellent indeed, attracting students who excel in the classroom and laboratory every bit as much as on the playing field and court. When the GPA of varsity athletes exceeds that of the rest of the student body, as is true at Emory, something good is afoot. If David Brooks wanted to list the virtues instilled by athletics, at Emory he would have to note the virtues of time-management, clear-headedness, and the physical vigor necessary for the life of the mind. This is not a bad three-legged stool on which to rest an excellent athletics program.

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