September 18, 2003

Welcoming the Walk-On

Time to stick my foot on a Swarthmore-specific (yet also nationally resonant) third rail, and talk a bit about football.

If you don’t already know, Swarthmore had a football team until fairly recently and then we got rid of it. This decision got a bit of national attention in the wake of a widening conversation about the impact of specialized athletic recruitment on college admissions and the role of athletics on college communities. Within Swarthmore, it ignited a pretty intense firestorm whose embers are still pretty hot today.

My feeling was that the local defenders of football made a few pretty legitimate points about the way we went about making this decision, though I think they didn’t understand fully that our belief that we could have a competitive football team and do everything else that we do without compromising everything is broadly typical at Swarthmore and other elite liberal-arts colleges: no one wants to be the first person to stand up and say, “No, we can’t do everything well: we have to choose what we want to do well and throw the rest overboard”. The clumsiness of the decision wasn’t any one person’s fault: it was just how we go about making decisions in general. Some alumni suggested that we had departed from Quaker consensualism in our decision to drop football: I thought the decision was a classic demonstration of the worst part of Quaker consensualism, which is its inability to make a forceful decision rapidly and efficiently at the best possible time for that decision. (We had a good chance to cut football two years before we did so, and basically the whole community blinked, afraid to say no.)

On balance, though, I think it was the right thing to do. William Bowen and Sarah Levin’s new study of college athletics, Reclaiming the Game, seems to emphasize why it was the right thing to do, and also the further nature of the challenge ahead of us and many other institutions. As reported in the New York Times, Bowen and Levin have found there is a widening social and academic gap on many campuses, including highly selective ones, between atheletes and non-athletes, which they attribute to many factors but especially to the degree to which colleges are seeking out students who have invested a significant amount of effort early in life in developing and practicing a particular sport in order to bolster the prospects of their teams. These athletes thus enter college pre-segregated from non-athletes, with a strong sense of exclusive ties to athletic endeavors and inward-looking sub-communities of athletes.

The local, very passionate defenders of football here at Swarthmore, many of them alumni, offered a lot of arguments on behalf of the sport. Some of these I thought were, to be perfectly honest, thin or bogus. The proposition, for example, that football helps train young people to fulfill leadership roles may be true enough, but it’s not a unique argument for football, really, just an argument for competitive sports in general. I can’t see how you can possibly argue that football alone or football distinctively trains young people to be effective leaders—and if you do, you are arguing then that only young men can be so trained.

However, following what I’ve called “the ethnographic two-step”, the more fundamental question that occurred to me from that passionate response is simply to wonder at the passion of it all. Dropping football made a certain kind of modest sense to me: it was a finanancially and administratively prudent thing to do. The vehemence of many alumni’s expressed ties to football made me realize that there was something at stake here that went way beyond football itself. Football was a container or stand-in for some deeper divide between older alumni and the contemporary Swarthmore, and between athletes and non-athletes, some more primal and unspoken source of divisiveness.

I think in part, this reaction comes from what Bowen and Levin have found, which is that the world of the walk-on athlete, the “good enough” first-year student who decides to try playing football or running or what have you just for the hell of it, is mostly gone and forgotten. In part, it comes from the fact that the older alumni of Swarthmore and many other liberal arts colleges attended in an era before college was a nearly universal option, before intensely competitive admissions, before the specialization of the academy, before selective colleges and middle-class professionalism were wedded so tightly together. For them, I think, football was one of their last points of communal connection to the college as it now exists. They don’t really recognize or know the students; the professoriate is very different in its temperment and make-up, the entire purpose and social feeling of the college has changed. The student body appear to many older alumni to be too intense, too intellectual, too hermetically distant from the world as it is. Football, whether or not current students went to games, was a recognizable link to the college as it once was; football was a sign of Swarthmore’s integration into the wider domains of American society rather than its distance from them.

The thing of it is, that it is for this precise reason that I think the alumni who most passionately criticized the decision to cut football should have welcomed that decision, and should push the college (and others like it) toward further changes. Not towards cutting more athletics, but towards meaningfully reviving college athletics as part of the general culture of the institution, as part of a real calling to the liberal arts. What that means is turning away from intercollegiate athletics where the main point is to win and towards interamural athletics where the main point is to play.

The lessons that many defenders of football most passionately attributed to the sport are lessons that can be learned in any kind of competitive athletics, at any level of competition. Leadership, self-betterment, focus, intensity, the joy of winning, the importance of respect for an opponent, the balance of healthy mind, healthy body, the relationship between physicality and internal states of mind, the balance of thinking and being: you name it, it comes from any competitive sport, beginning or advanced. In the day that older Swarthmore alumni played their sports, the walk-on athlete was no fading memory but the heart of the system.

This is consistent with what I think the best values of a liberal-arts community ought to be. We should not seek out or preferentially admit an athlete who has intensely specialized in one sport in order to improve the chances of our teams, or even because we regard such intense specialization as a notable mark of achievement which suits our ethos as an institution.

I was asked by one colleague who was critical of the decision to cut football if I felt that way about physics or history or any academic subject. The answer is yes. I don’t think we should preferentially admit a student who has invested 18 years of their life becoming a Ph.D physicist and nothing more before they ever get here, or an 18-year old prospective student who knows everything about the history of 18th Century England but nothing about anything else. This is not to say that those students are untalented or unworthy, but if what they want from college education is the mere continuance of a deeply trained specialization that they have already committed to, they should go to a large research university.

What we should want are people committed to being generalists, people committed to exploring the connections between themselves and others, people who will break down the barriers Bowen and Levin are describing. We should want walk-on athletes and walk-on physicists and walk-on historians, people who discover their abiding passions in midst of college and through an exploration of the highways and byways of knowledge and experience.

The people who had the most expertise with football told the college three years before we cut the program that you just can’t play football in that spirit in this day and age, that you’ll lose all the time and you’ll place the students who play in physical jeopardy, that it is too dangerous a sport to play casually against specialized, experienced competitors. To me, that meant it was imperative that we not play it, but I would feel the same about anything, academic or athletic, that was described in similar terms.

If, on the other hand, there was an intercollegiate conference where football was played entirely for fun, with a ruleset and mentality to match, I could easily see us playing it again. But in that sense, I still see no reason to prefer football over other games, and I would argue that we already play rugby, ultimate frisbee and other sports in that spirit.

Bowen and Levin’s work is affirmation, I think, that Swarthmore made the right decision about football, erring only in that we didn’t make that decision soon enough, before overpromising what we could not in the end deliver. The decision ought to be part of a more comprehensive reconsideration of not only athletics but academics as well. The result of that reconsideration, if I had my druthers, would be a college whose ethos as a whole was closer in key ways to the reigning spirit of the day when football was in its amateur, generalist, walk-on glory at a college like Swarthmore. For a Swarthmore alumnus/ae who feels alienated from a college without football, I would hope that this first step could actually be the beginning of a road back to deeper and richer connection, a way to embrace a once and future liberal arts education that looks to be more than just narrow scholasticism.