No matter how many unseemly acts are committed in the name of sport, we continue to defend it, continue to urge our youth to participate in it. Why? Because deep down we believe it's good for kids, that it will mold them into strong, well-rounded adults. And while we deplore the dumb jock, the straight-A student whose only interest is his schoolwork also makes us uneasy. The bookworm, we tell ourselves, is one-dimensional, even unmanly. Ah, but the scholar-athlete, he's a different breed; he has, to borrow from Tom Wolfe, the right stuff.
The notion that sports are a valuable educational tool can be traced to two sources, ancient Greece and 19th-century England. To the Greeks, athletics were as crucial to the development of a healthy citizen and a healthy state as a cultivated mind. The guiding principle behind Greek education was that man must strive to achieve a sense of harmony and proportion between the exertions of the intellect and the body. Otherwise, wrote Plato, "The mere athlete becomes too much of a savage and the musician [or intellectual] is melted and softened beyond what is good for him."
Olympic competitors were frequently required to write poems or play a musical instrument, and Plato himself practiced what he preached. When not engaged in heady dialogue, he often wrestled; in fact, the nickname Plato—no one is certain what his real name was—is derived from the Greek word for "wide" and is believed to refer to his muscular prowess in the sport.
To the Greek idea that participation in athletics was a requisite for becoming well rounded, the English added the concept of character-building. According to this view, sports, especially team games, instill in the participant competitiveness, discipline, loyalty, leadership and perseverance in the face of adversity. Thus: "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton."
Although the Duke of Wellington has been given credit for first uttering this most famous of all encomiums to sport, his biographers are convinced he never said anything of the kind. One points out that when Wellington left Eton in 1784, his character could hardly have been formed on the playing fields because the "playing fields were hardly formed themselves."
According to the most recent study of the duke's life, Elizabeth Longford's Wellington: The Years of the Sword, the closest thing to Wellington's purported statement was uttered by one Count de Montalembert, a French parliamentarian, who during a visit to Eton in 1855 said, "C'est ici qu'a èrè gagnèe la bataille de Waterloo."
Two factors in particular were responsible for the surge of interest in athletics in 19th-century England. Between 1850 and 1870 the rules of many games were codified. When that happened, these sports assumed an immense importance at prestigious schools like Eton, Harrow and Rugby. And, in 1857, Thomas Hughes wrote a very influential and successful novel about a boy at Rugby, Tom Brown's School Days. It depicts a Rugby in which games are the heart of school life, in which sports, not the faculty, are the indispensable teachers. Cricket, soccer and the school's namesake are described as nothing less than an "institution...the birthright of British boys old and young, as habeas corpus and trial by jury are of British men."
One legacy of England's devotion to the enduring qualities of sport is the Rhodes scholarship. In his will Cecil Rhodes stipulated that the fellowships were not to be awarded to "merely bookworms." Along with scholastic achievement, courage and moral fiber, candidates should have "a fondness for and success in manly outdoor sports." Again, the best and the brightest were those who had been tested on playing fields. During the heyday of British imperialism (Rhodes died in 1902, in the final stages of the Boer War), these were precisely the kind of men who saw to it that the Empire was well represented and well protected.
We no longer expect so much from Rhodes scholars, who, say some selectors, are being chosen almost exclusively for their academic attainment these days. Perhaps it has become impossible to come by truly outstanding scholar-athletes, candidates with credentials to rival those of Supreme Court Justice Byron (Whizzer) White, Army Colonel Pete Dawkins and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley. White was a Phi Beta Kappa and a consensus All-America at Colorado in 1937. Three years later, following his stint at Oxford, he was No. 1 in the NFL in rushing and among the top students in his class at Yale Law School.
Given the nature of the changes in pro and major-college football over the past 40 years, such an achievement would now be impossible, even for a White. That alone should tell us all we need to know about those changes. It also should tell us just how far sport in America has drifted from the Greek and English ideals we are so fond of drawing upon to defend it.
The Duke of Wellington by Goya.