Monday, November 13, 2006

Team players

TeammatesFrom Moneyball to The Blind Side:

The educational gospel according to Michael Lewis

A MoneyLaw series
Before embarking on this series' detailed examination of Michael Lewis's sports writing (particularly Moneyball and The Blind Side) and its relationship to higher education, I'd like address a small but important preliminary issue. To what extent does personal participation in team sports prepare someone for a career in higher education or educational administration?

I happen to think that participation in team sports, however modest, is an extremely valuable experience for a future professor, dean, or university president. This is not to say that the absence of team sports in one's background is disqualifying. My claim is much simpler and gentler. If you learn at an early age that cooperating with others is the only way to win as a team and -- even more pointedly -- that winning as a team sometimes requires you to sacrifice individual goals, you are more likely as an adult to advance collective goals, even (or especially) when these goals conflict with your personal agenda.

Three disclaimers are appropriate at this point:
  1. I am no jock. Quite the contrary. Throughout my life I have persisted in playing low-level (i.e., always club, never varsity) team sports even though I might have been, and usually was, the last kid chosen.

  2. If I had but one day left to me, I would spend a good deal of it at Milam Park, playing second base for the home team. With the game on the line in the seventh -- teams in the Clarkston Baptist Church Baseball League played no more than seven innings -- I'd turn a double play to end the top half of the inning and hit the walk-off home run in the bottom half. When I was in sixth grade, I could have died happy doing this. Three decades later, I still feel the same way.

  3. One of the first and most enduring aspects of my friendship with Alex Johnson, former dean here at Minnesota, was our common love of baseball. The working relationship rested on far more, of course, but a shared passion for the national pastime gave us a common vocabulary. Baseball gave us insights into about academia and its management, so much so that this series is aptly described as partial (and wholly insufficient) homage to Alex Johnson.
Jason Dunham
Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, American hero
Other life experiences, of course, match or exceed team sports in instilling a sense of teamwork, commitment, and sacrifice. On this forum, Nancy Rapoport rightly extols the virtues of the United States Marine Corps. By way of Joint Strike Weasel, a student blog here at Minnesota, I've learned of this story of a Marine who saved his squadmates by covering a live grenade with his helmet. (Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham will receive a posthumous Medal of Honor.) In a society whose most elite members have no military experience, participation in team sports serves as the best civilian surrogate for a stint in the armed forces. It's borderline obscene to mention anything in juxtaposition with the Marine Corps and heroes like Jason Dunham, let alone the virtues of youth sports, but this is academia, and in all honesty this may be the best we can offer by comparison.

TeammatesFor me, the bottom line is simple: When looking for clues to a future colleague or dean's character, I like to get past the academic particulars of a curriculum vitae. Military experience or some admittedly inadequate civilian surrogate such as participation in team sports may shed light on an academic's willingness to sacrifice personal gain for the good of his or her institution. Any correlation that exists is probably weak at best, but I suspect that the correlation between youth sports and adult teamwork is at least as strong as the correlation between any elite credential you care to name (clerkship, law review editorship, class rank, law school rank, Ph.D.) and ultimate success in academia.

One final point is warranted. I should identify another reason for starting this series with a post on the value of sports team experience in the abstract. Though organized baseball and football, the subjects of Michael Lewis's recent work, are limited (by and large) to men, team sports of all sorts are open to men and to women. Over the years I have heard, with varying degrees of condescension and/or resentment, that the use of sports analogies is inherently sexist (presumably because men "waste" more of their time on sports, especially as spectators). I couldn't make a stronger case for Title IX. The entire case for gender equity in sports hinges on the prevalence (and perniciousness) of the assumption that sports are a predominantly male pursuit.

The photo at the top of this post depicts the 2005-06 Flagler College women's basketball team. Never heard of Flagler? That's the point. The Lady Saints had a losing season in 2005-06; they play far from the national spotlight. These players, as the NCAA likes to say of the vast majority of its athletes, will be going pro in something besides sports. But women's teams, for the most part, come closer to the cooperative ideal that makes team sports, without regard to level or the label on the locker room, superb training venues for future team players in any game.


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