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Sports, competition and society – athletic and academic competition seen as outcome of a competitive society

Sixty-four teams from historically Black colleges and universities competed on the basis of their knowledge at the Honda Campus All-Star Classic in Orlando FL. The final four competition was as intense as the basketball classic, and Black America’s best and brightest strutted their intellectual stuff as confidently as star basketball players strut their gamesmanship.

Along with Dr. Na’im Akbar and Dr. Bertice Berry, I was pleased to speak and listen at a forum for these stellar students. Afterwards, many asked why their academic prowess is not as recognized as the athletic skills of their classmates. To be sure, academic prowess and athletic ability are not mutually exclusive, as the scholar-athletes featured in these pages so aptly illustrate. But unfortunately, campus sports programs are more likely to draw dollars than honors programs Many scholar-athletes are scholars despite, not because of, athletics.

Unfortunately, sports has too strong a claim on both university and our nation’s resources. Every major city covets the revenue-drawing power of a team; most cities are willing to mortgage their financial futures to pay for the costly new stadiums teams demand as a condition of their presence in a city. Campuses, too, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars recruiting athletes, but much less recruiting scholars.

I understand the reasons for the imbalance. Sports teaches, we are told, life lessons about competition, resilience and tenacity. People enjoy sports, I am told, in a way that people do not enjoy battles of the wits, and the economics reflect that. People will pay to watch athletes but they won’t necessarily pay to watch debates.

Why, then, has the television version of a wit battle. Jeopardy, been able to attract advertisers and ratings over the years? I think that we simply haven’t tried packaging, selling, and even supporting intellectual endeavors in the same ways that we package, sell and support sports. It is true that in a competitive society it is useful for people to learn lessons about competition. But sports isn’t the only way that people can compete. The NAACP’s ACTSO (academic, culture, technical and scientific olympics) program is an example of competition on a non-sports basis. The young people who compete through ACTSO are intense, committed, and crave victory as hungrily as any team in a physical contest. The All Star classics have the added advantage of teaching the team lessons so many say are important byproducts of sports play–lessons in complimentary working together and supporting others.

Gender plays a role in both academic and athletic competitions. In athletics, women’s sports have often been ignored, but are now earning slow recognition. Women’s sports are still less likely to be covered by the media and women athletes do not have the array of post-graduation options that men have. When they play for pay the purses are smaller, reflecting the lesser regard that our society has for women. Thanks to Title IX, though, there are more women featured among Black Issues’ scholar athletes than there were when we began recognizing these students.

In academic competitions, it was stunning to note that while the enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities is more female than male, the composition of the academic teams at the Honda All-Star Classic was mostly male. While some will celebrate any arena in which Black men excel, given the societal demonization of African American men, I wonder why women are underrepresented among the academic competitors. Women are clearly as capable scholars as men, and are often more likely to excel academically than their male counterparts. Are women less willing to put their brains on the line in an academic competition? Are they less able to deal with the rough and tumble rush to push a buzzer and blurt out an answer?

The absence of women reminded me of the book, “Games Mother Never Taught You” which purports to teach women how to negotiate the mostly-male corporation through golf and talk of sports. Are men better suited to compete than women? Or are women simply catching up?

Those who study leadership styles suggest that women are more likely to be “collective” leaders, while men tend to be hierarchical. Those who study language suggest that men and women have different communication styles, with the focus on collaborative versus competitive talk. Yet we live in a society that highlights competition, that relishes the contest and reveres the winners, which perhaps explains the American obsession with football, baseball, basketball and hockey. We are supposed to learn life lessons through sports competition, but the life lessons can come through competition that is based on academic and intellectual prowess as well.

Still, the clash between the collective and the competitive speaks volumes about the nature of our society. Our obsession with sports and competition gives us the opportunity to consider the possibilities of a more collaborative society.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics