First are the little reasons. Intercollegiate sport provides students, faculty, and the community a common sense of identity. It affords an opportunity for people who might never commingle – say, the chemistry professor who heads a department, and the guy who runs the sandwich shop near campus – to meet and share a common interest.
Intercollegiate sport also helps knit together diverse communities and regions of America into a composite whole. When athletes and fans from the University of California at Berkeley, for example, journey to Tucson, Arizona, to play a basketball game, it reinforces the awareness that Americans share values, culture, and common interests.
A school's sports programs help establish public awareness of the institution, which can be important to graduates. I'd bet not many people have heard of Oberlin College in Ohio. But I'll bet everybody has heard of The Ohio State University.
Say your resume lists a B.A. in English Literature from Oberlin. It's hard to top that – if the employer is familiar with Oberlin. But the resume that lists The Ohio State University establishes instant credibility because most everyone has heard of it. See the difference? (Oberlin does have an athletics program, and they do play Division III football.)
Want another example? What if that resume lists a degree from Appalachian State College in North Carolina? Until a couple of years ago, that might not have been an attention-getter. But a single football game in 2008 makes it one today.
Athletics emphasizes health and physical fitness, the importance of regular exercise and good diet. And there is the entertainment, rest and recreation value. Going to a game can break the tedium of study, and a little playtime is necessary to keep the mind sharp.
So, those are the little reasons. Here are the bigger ones.
Sport is important to college life because it is important to American life. Millions follow their favorite teams and athletes, be it in football, basketball, baseball, golf, tennis, hockey – the list goes on and on. Sport generates jobs, wealth, and often contributes to advances in our science and technology. Would the health risks posed by concussions be so appreciated if attention had not been focused on the issue by football?
Every aspect of human activity is included in some way in college and university studies and research. Economics, chemistry, geology, biology, anthropology, political science, journalism, literature, mathematics – the breadth of study and learning at our colleges and universities is simply awesome. No curriculum would be complete if sport were not included.
But sport is more than simply an area of study. It is vital to one's education. Some things just cannot be taught in a classroom, learned from a book, or demonstrated in a laboratory.
We all face challenge and disappointment in our lives, just as athletes and teams do in sport. The ability to persevere through tough times, to conduct oneself with dignity in good times, to maintain one's composure under pressure – all are essential to the development of a mature, well-rounded adult prepared for the challenges and opportunities which lie ahead. Nowhere on campus are these lessons so readily demonstrated as in sport.
Sport illustrates the necessity of training and self-discipline, of dedication and commitment. Talent and ability will only get you so far. It is the development of that talent and ability that separates champions from mere competitors. That's an important lesson to the student who needs to raise that B to an A to get into medical school.
The importance of teamwork and self-sacrifice are nowhere better illustrated than in sport. A point-guard who passes the basketball gives up the chance to score, but contributes to collective achievement by enhancing the team's ability to win. A star running back is going nowhere without teammates to clear his path.
These aspects of athletics are so important that their study ought to be required at college. Really – every student should be required to spend a semester following the intercollegiate team of their choice, chronicling its successes and failures, observing the athletes' training regimens, the role of coaches, and essaying their observations.
Most persuasively, I think, sport is important to colleges and universities because it is important to the success and well-being of the nation.
Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, helped challenge the then widely-held and socially debilitating myth of white superiority.
When heavyweight legend Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling at old Yankee Stadium in 1938, it was more than a boxing match. At stake were rival social systems, pitting America's democracy against the "Aryan superiority" of Nazi Germany. Louis knew it, too, saying later, ". . . the whole damned country was depending on me."
Schmeling had beaten Louis in 1936, so Louis' victory two years later exemplifies the importance of overcoming setbacks, trying again, and not giving up until we have achieved success!
Baseball was considered so important to American morale during World War II that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent his famous "Green Light Letter" to Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, ensuring the national pastime would not be cancelled during the war.
Jackie Robinson helped change America for the better, becoming an American idol in the process, by breaking baseball's color barrier.
San Jose State's own Tommie Smith and John Carlos furthered that cause by raising their fists in protest as they stood on the medal stand in Mexico City at the 1968 Olympic Games. Widely and roundly criticized at the time, they are now considered American heroes, and have their own statue on the SJSU campus.
The simple game of ping-pong helped change the world. Exhibition matches played in the early 1970s between American and Chinese teams relaxed tensions between the two countries. "Ping-pong diplomacy" thus paved the way for then-President Richard M. Nixon's surprise visit to Beijing in 1972, normalizing relations between the two countries.
No adult American who witnessed it (and most of us did, on television) can possibly forget the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," when the U. S. ice hockey team defeated the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Olympics. Like Louis vs. Schmeling before, the contest had grown into an allegorical battle between the World's two rival political and economic systems. The Soviet Union, at the pinnacle of its power and influence, was heavily favored. But the U. S., led by many collegiate players, shocked the Russians with a come-from-behind, 4 – 3 victory before going on to win the gold medal.
That single hockey match perfectly illustrates the priceless lesson that you can never give up. I still get chills recalling it as a proud a moment for America, comparable to Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon in 1968. It unified the nation, even if just briefly.
U. S. athletes who participate in professional sport, the International Olympics, and other competition, come largely from America's colleges and universities. Just as our institutions of higher learning educate and train Tomorrow's teachers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers and others, they also provide the environment and opportunity for student-athletes to develop their skills and abilities. Those opportunities can not be provided in any other practical way.
So athletics is important to the University. When our nation is faced by an implacable foe, or seemingly insurmountable challenges – as it is today; or when as individuals we must overcome hardship or disappointment, the knowledge and lessons gained from sport can inspire us to victory and success.
I have heard that SJSU President Jon Whitmore, and his wife Jennifer, made themselves available to meet prospective athletes and their parents during the just-concluded football recruiting season. This demonstrates the president knows the importance of athletics to his university, which ought to greatly please every Spartan fan. It certainly pleases me.
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R. P. Cotta, Jr., is an Associate Editor for Inside Sparta. You may contact R.P with any questions, comments, or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org
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