David Pargman, an emeritus professor of educational psychology at Florida State, recently published an editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "End the Charade: Let Athletes Major in Sports." He argues that many collegiate athletes really want to BE an athlete, just as many other students want to BE a doctor or accountant or diplomat. The difference is that our academic system doesn't necessarily allow that option for volleyball or basketball players. When they are introduced before a game, their name is usually followed by "majoring in business, or english, or chemistry". Pargman sees this as a charade, dismissive, and unsupportive of students, many of whom, will play sports professionally. Professionally.
He suggests a curriculum in "Sports Performance", the major classes being clustered in the junior and senior years (the first two years being spent on the core curricula common to all students: sciences, social sciences, humanities, etc). Some of the classes these students would take would be related to physiology; others to public speaking (!); business law. Overall, it sounds, to me, like an idea that deserves pretty serious consideration. And I suspect that graduates of such a program would serve our sports industry well.
But I'm not writing simply to give a "thumbs-up" to Pargman's idea. On a deeper level, he seems to suggest that we treat student athletes as being of a somewhat different(read "lesser") category than other students. And I often hear hints of that, both in the media and among my friends (both faculty/staff and students) in the Academy, so I don't think he's far off base.
And that reminded me of a light bulb that went off in my head some years back (and I may have mused on this a while ago). I heard a sportscaster (either British or Australian) describe a particular athlete's play in a game as "brilliant". I immediately bristled at the idea; "brilliance" was something of the mind, a desirable intellectual quality. (Indeed, in my computer's resident dictionary (the Oxford America Dictionaries), the secondary meaning of "brilliant" is: "exceptionally clever or talented: a brilliant young mathematician | a brilliant idea.• outstanding; impressive: his brilliant career at Harvard.") The primary meaning is: "(of light or color) very bright and radiant."
Then I recalled that "brilliant", for many non-American-English speakers is not so limited in scope. And I began to wonder about my prioritization of skills/abilities/trainings. Of course, I'm at a university, where an active "life of the mind" is prized. On the other hand, I am having a plumber do some extensive work on my house this weekend; I can't do it. And I was struck by what a police officer must know, and be capable of, as I drove past a parked patrol car this morning. And I marvel at what our student athletes can do -- both on and off the court.
Most of our religious traditions contain some sense of "vocation" -- that sense of an individual living into what he or she believes they are called to be. None of those traditions would suggest that everyone is called to be the same thing. The Christian apostle Paul writes, for example, about the need for many different offices/functions within the Church (Romans 12.6-8; 1 Corinthians 12.7-11); he also writes of the body's need for all of its parts in order to function effectively (1 Corinthians 12.14-26). He questions his readers: "Are all to be one thing or another?" "No."
Whether Mr Pargman's ideas take root at the University of Denver, or anywhere else, remains to be seen. On the other hand, I'm happy to begin to regard a aspiring scientist, philosopher, entrepreneur, or gymnast as equally "bright or radiant" -- simply in different fields. And I'm happy to help them all achieve their dreams, to fulfill their vocations. Brilliant!