Wednesday was the NCAA’s National Signing Day, and I was so pleased to join our Upper School students and faculty to honor the 20 seniors who, in unison on the Brauer Auditorium stage that morning, signed National Letters of Intent to compete as college athletes. As I watched these young men and women celebrate with their friends and families, I was reminded of a question posed to me by an alumnus when I visited New York in September: “Do you support a strong athletics program at MICDS?”
Schools have been fielding athletic teams for well over a hundred years. Writing in 1900, Theodore Roosevelt contended that “during the last few decades there certainly have been some notable changes for good in boy life. The great growth in the love of athletic sports, for instance, while fraught with danger if it becomes one-sided and unhealthy, has beyond all question had an excellent effect.”
By “one-sided and unhealthy,” Roosevelt would have meant something like our word “obsessive,” which was not in common use at that time. He cautioned against carrying “to an unhealthy extreme the sports and pastimes which would be healthy if indulged in with moderation,” against conceiving of athletics as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. “When a man so far confuses ends and means as to think that foot-ball, or whatever else the sport may be, is to be itself taken as the end, instead of as the mere means of preparation to do work that counts when the time arises — why, that man had better abandon sport altogether.”
In considering school athletics programs today – as, for example, colleges and universities continue to navigate the wake of the “Varsity Blues” scandal – it is apparent that “one-sided and unhealthy” means something very different than it did in 1900. The well-documented long-shot odds against college athletic scholarships notwithstanding, far too many parents and students regard participation in sports through a transactional lens. They do not play the game so much as the game plays them.
I would suggest, with an advantage of hindsight unavailable to Teddy Roosevelt, that “foot-ball, or whatever else the sport may be” is, indeed, an educational end in itself. I was taught as much on a daily basis, in fact, by the inscription on the mural in the lobby of the Barbee Center field house at my alma mater, Woodberry Forest School, that I would read as I made my way to practice: “Effort in sport is a matter of character rather than reward. It is an end in itself and not a means to an end.”
Back to that New York alumni event in September. “The only reason we offer an athletics program at MICDS,” I said, “is that there are educational opportunities afforded through participation in athletics that are not available through any other experiences at our school. We do not field teams so that we can have winning seasons or beat Burroughs or prepare our students to compete in college. These are all the happy accidents of a strong athletics program. They are not the mission of that program. We are committed to an educational mission at MICDS, and participation in athletics is an education.”
The songwriter Melissa Manchester once took a class with Paul Simon at New York University. “Somebody asked him the first day, ‘Paul, how does one write a song?’” she recalled once in an interview. “And he said, ‘Oh? What makes you want to write a song?’”
Paul Simon – one of the most successful musicians of all time who nevertheless believes that he has never “done anything greater” than steal home at a high school baseball game in 1958 – has much to teach us about the love of sport. “How do I become a great player?” is only a means to an end. “Why do you want to play?” is an end in itself.
I am very proud of our 20 MICDS seniors who will continue to play in the years ahead. An extraordinary education awaits them.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you a wonderful weekend with your families.
Head of School