Renewing the Ideal of the Scholar Athlete

By Daniel R. Porterfield | for Forbes.com

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On August 3, 1852, the Harvard and Yale rowing clubs raced on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee in the first American intercollegiate athletic competition. (Harvard prevailed, accepting the walnut trophy oars from Gen. Franklin Pierce). Thirty-two years later, the Lehigh and Lafayette football teams squared off on the gridiron to launch what has become the longest uninterrupted college rivalry series in the United States.

Iconic competitions like these catalyzed the American tradition of inter-collegiate athletics, now a defining part of our culture. They marked the beginning of the uniquely American ideal of the amateur scholar-athlete: The well-rounded student whose talents integrate multiple forms of excellence—mind and body, intellect and character, individual and team.

Think of former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, an All-American at Princeton, or Brown professor John Edgar Wideman, who played basketball at Penn.

Happily, since the advent of the gender equity law Title IX in 1972, America now ensures that young women can be scholar-athletes, too. Think of Franklin & Marshall College alumna Mary Schapiro, a two-sport star as a student in field hockey and lacrosse who chaired the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from 2009 to 2012.

It’s a deeply compelling and influential ideal. Parents raise their children to look up to a Mia Hamm or a Myron Rolle. Surveys show that employers value the leadership, resilience, discipline, and teamwork that college sports promote. Every year, thousands of American students choose their college based on the opportunity to keep playing a sport that has become part of their identity.

Today, however, the ideal of the scholar-athlete is slipping away among too many Division I schools—not surprising in an era of massive television contracts, arms races for top coaches, and relentless training, practice, and game schedules. The vast cheating scandal recently revealed at the University of North Carolina is just one example of an athletics culture that has sacrificed academic and amateur values on the altar of visibility, money, and victories.

At the Division III level, however, the ideal of the scholar-athlete has the potential to become stronger than ever. Many colleges and conferences—like the Centennial Conference where my institution competes—have recognized that quality athletics programs can add value to one’s learning and deeply complement a liberal arts education. This is an important theme to recognize at major gatherings, like the upcoming NCAA conference in San Antonio, Texas.

I see this alignment of values in many ways at Franklin & Marshall College. Many of our student athletes hold research fellowships with our faculty and leadership roles in our clubs while earning outstanding grades and going on to prestigious graduate programs. Among the last three winners of our Williamson Medal, the highest award we give at graduation, one student ran cross-country while another played football.

Then there’s the example of Allie Morey from Milton, Massachusetts. The goalie on Franklin & Marshall’s nationally ranked field hockey team, Allie graduated in 2015 and then secured an extremely competitive position in the Boston Bruins’ communications department.

As with dozens of her peers, college athletics enhanced Allie’s learning, rather than limiting it. Here’s how:

First, she played in a field hockey program that competed seriously but with perspective.

Allie’s coach, Missy Mariano, ran a highly-structured program, cultivating teamwork, discipline, agility, poise, and character, along with collaboration, communication, and commitment. She expected her team to project integrity on the field and in class, and to show great respect for their opponents and the sport itself.

Second, her academic experience was equally formative.

Allie came to college to learn fully, not just to play her sport. Initially she chose creative writing as a path to becoming a great teacher. In class she had to work hard and commit to improving, just like in field hockey. And then it all clicked and she realized that her twin loves of sport and storytelling might fuse. Reflecting upon the arc of her education, Allie once told me, “I truly believe I was able to succeed because of my combined liberal arts and field hockey experiences, both oriented toward growth.”

Third, she grew and gave back through campus activities and leadership.
Because DIII athletics sets limits on practice time and schedule, Allie had the freedom to join student organizations and spend time with non-athlete peers, challenging herself in new ways. And that led to a bold choice. In her junior year, she decided to step away from field hockey to devote more time and intensity to leading both her sorority and a student group that works to prevent high-risk drinking.

She was superb in both roles, drawing upon lessons learned in sport. But, as senior year approached, she also felt a void. She missed her teammates, her coaches, their shared goals and their struggles.

So, with great humility, she asked to come back to the team. This took a lot of courage. At win-first programs, the coach might have held a grudge. But Coach Mariano said yes—if she proved herself in practice.

Which leads to a fourth priceless value of Allie’s college education: She received superb mentoring from her coach.

Allie’s coach, Missy Mariano, possesses an educator’s sensibility, taking the long view and treating her students as the adults they will become. My college is full of coaches like Missy—mature adults, with balance in their lives, who teach with care for the individual, and know that defeat is not death but the chance to play again.

Indeed, at F&M we are celebrating the power of the teacher-coach to form scholar-athletes, as our longtime men’s basketball coach, Glenn Robinson, prepares to secure his 900th win—a record in Division III and fourth all time across all divisions. In over 40 years of coaching, all but three students to have played for him for four years have earned their F&M degrees.

Allie Morey’s experience may be exemplary, but it’s also representative of an American ideal that remains real and relevant. It’s a story of growth that we hope to foster in every scholar-athlete. This matters for individuals and for society, for the one and the many. We need to cultivate a whole range of abilities that our young people have, and college athletics—properly structured—can play a profound role.

Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D., is the 15th president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Follow him on Twitter@danporterfield.