Guest Post: An open letter to Principal Woolf: Sport and the Idea of a University

(QUFA is pleased to publish the following post from George Clark.)

In the belief that the document, “Charting a Course of Excellence,” on athletics and recreation (May 2007) composed by Bob Crawford and Janice Deakin had been quietly dropped, I have not written on this matter before. Now I hear that their proposals may still be under active consideration.

For the Crawford-Deakin report, I rely on the text given at:

The larger policy framework behind this proposal springs from former Principal Hitchcock’s belief (based on her experience in the States) that to attract the students we want, Queen’s needs both first-rate facilities for physical education and sporting events and winning teams. The construction of the requisite facility (or part of it) for this campaign has, along with the stock market crash, brought Queen’s into a financial misfortune for which we will be paying over several decades.

Although the document begins with the benefits participation in sport has for students, it subsequently calls for those students to spend more time as spectators or fans (as did the Queen’s Journal last year when set out the desideratum “more bums in seats”). The document notes (p. 11) that in Canadian high schools fans are few and adds regretfully that this cultural practice persists in the universities, and specifically at Queen’s. The report notes that some athletes and coaches claim that winning teams bring fans. This seems doubtful; I have attended some rugby games, especially when students of mine were on the team, but despite a long record of winning—probably the best of any sport at Queen’s—the spectators were few and most seemed, like me, to be friends of individual players. That winning teams will attract great students seems implausible given this cultural difference between the US and Canada, but the Hitchcock premise may not be true of the US either.

Students cannot study or exercise with their “bums in seats,” hence fanship contributes nothing to our intellectual enterprise and has no health benefits for the spectators. The report’s idealistic prologue should rule out the creation of a special class of students to do the student body’s exercise for it.

The Crawford-Deakin proposal errs in linking academic and athletic excellence, the latter being defined, despite some hedging—see page 18—as winning, especially National Championships (p. 12). Some undergraduate journalists insisted last year, Queen’s should excel in sports just as it does in academics. An imbalance between sporting and academic excellence (especially in highly commercialized big team sports) marks many universities—consider Harvard vs. Oklahoma State, Princeton vs. Butler, Yale vs. Wake Forest. The Ivy League excels in the breadth of opportunities in competitive athletics offered its students and competes successfully in fencing, soccer, lacrosse, squash, and rowing for some examples.

The document’s proposal for athletics at Queen’s has virtually nothing to do with that laudable goal set out in “Health and Wellness” (p. 5) but aims at winning a “fair share” of national championships. The document reckons that “With over 50 CIS schools and 19 championships, some simple math says that, on average, any one institution should win a CIS championship about every three years. Queen’s University is significantly below that pace.” The arithmetic is simplistic. Some of those 50 institutions have four or five times the undergraduate enrolment that Queen’s has—they may be counted as four or five competitors. How does a small or medium sized institution compete with giants like UBC or Toronto or Alberta? If an institution the size of Queen’s overweights its admission of undergraduates in favour of gifted athletes (who are not consistently academically gifted), it will distort the composition its student body toward brawn and physical skill and away from intellectual ability and its exercise.

If Queen’s must reduce the number of competitive teams it fields, those sports that the graduate can continue as an amateur deserve a high priority (basketball, yes; football, no for two examples). But if Queen’s must choose between a few winners or many players, I prefer the latter.

The US model has created pseudo-student athletes, large expenditures on highly professional coaches, and scholarships for athletes who would not qualify for them on academic merit and economic need. This model shows us what should be avoided: the quest for winning football teams has distorted the budget of Rutgers University to the detriment of its academics and its other sports; the quest for winning basketball teams has brought the State University of New York at Binghamton into a very dubious situation.

And here the pursuit of more CIS championships than a medium-sized institution should expect or hope for prompts suggestions that some or many of our few scholarships be devoted to athletes rather than students who deserve admission but cannot risk going deeply into debt for an education, and that some or many of the university’s part time jobs be reserved for athletes. These measures would subvert the intellectual goals of a university.

If our competitors choose to adopt the US system of highly professionalized sport, rather than taking part in an athletic arms race, we should seek another league, not follow a model inconsistent with our intellectual purposes and with the ideal of mens sana in corpore sano.

Yours sincerely
George Clark
Professor Emeritus

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