The Exploited College Athlete and the Revenge of the Nerds

As Peter and I were reviving a series of old 80s college movies (most of which are terrible), we realized our son had missed out on life by never having seen Revenge of the Nerds or any of its sequels.

These days the people I like and hang out with are openly and happily nerdy. Whether it is that we were attracted to one another through mutual nerdy interests, the fact is that I now live is a world were one can be openly nerdy and not embarrassed about it. Since the successes of Silicon Valley and Route 128 (linked for my California friends – no, it’s not a new start-up), being smart and geeky is associated with wealth and success in a new exciting changing-the-world way. And in Neil’s lifetime, that’s expanded into pop culture, one he embraces by going to Comic Con and Maker Faire each year.

In Revenge of the Nerds, it’s the college athletes who are the big men on campus, and who denigrate the weak and unattractive nerds competing for girls and status. I’m not sure that was fair to student-athletes, but I went to a small liberal arts college, and the only athletes I ever met were football players from Williams College or Amherst College, where the sport was more of a fun extracurricular rather than the reason said scholar had matriculated at the school. (Nerdy fact: the Ivy League and Little Ivy League are a football leagues, though you’re unlikely to see their games nationally televised. Mount Holyoke’s rugby team was scarier than any of them.)

And these days, after seeing the documentary Schooled, I have sympathy for the athletes who are pressed to train and perform at their utmost for a full scholarship at a college, to the detriment of their education. According to the documentary, 98.5% of the college athletes won’t go on into pro sports, where the real money is. They will have had access to great scholars, great classes, great knowlege, and great contacts, in part due to the money their success brought into licensing their college’s brand and being spokespeople for it. But as one athlete pointed out, his regime consisted of getting up at 5:30 am to train until 9 am, going to classes for three hours, training further through the afternoon, getting personalized tutoring (needed if the athlete came in unprepared), and then doing homework until 11 pm at night.

Athleticism requires discipline and that’s something to be respected in athletes, and especially in athlete-scholars. But where is their room to develop rhetoric? It was what Neil’s homeschool education led to, and I’m so delighted he’s a poised young man with his own opinions and passions, as well as someone who can respect other’s points of view, and discuss ideas. If you’re a team athlete, you know you’ve been blessed with a great and healthy body and gifted with the ability to use it to its best ability in challenging competitions. There are other gifts athletes often demonstrate, such as an ability to present themselves confidently and to be able to read others (especially teammates and opponents) discretely and play a game based on that knowledge. Behind that, you need the ability to think critically, to be able to run numbers, and to have a core knowledge of the literature and history which underlies the present.

So in Schooled, the real argument is how much is that free tuition and board worth in exchange for the athletic skills the student-athlete brings to the college? If he or she is truly a scholar who’ll be able to put as much passion and effort into soaking up the knowledge and connections the college offers (and I suppose to my nerdy mind that requires nerds happily hanging with jocks, or better yet jocky nerds and nerdy jocks), it’s something that works for everyone. If the athlete can’t keep up with the classes, it’s not. Furthermore, the training and NCAA rules precluded the athletes from having a campus job, even one which would have fit in quite well with the athlete’s gifts, like say, getting a disabled student out onto a sports field, or modelling for an art class — and which would have kept the most destitute students who lacked spending money enough to cover their costs.

Overall, the documentary criticized the NCAA, which commercialized college athletics without letting any of the money trickle down to most athletic students. I would criticize the colleges for making big sports of importance beyond academic studies, so much so that they would prioritize accepting a talented athlete disproportionately to his academic skill. It might also call for us having more private minor leagues, where those looking for the next pro talent can find their next stars, exclusive of a college setting. Personally, for many years I enjoyed the San Jose Giants, a feeder baseball team into the big leagues, and that largely not for the talent of the athletes, but even more for the organization’s connection to our local community and its businesses.

Most of all, nerds and jocks need no longer be adversaries. Neither is more important that the other. The nerds can help the jocks get their proper due, and get the knowledge and skills that will help the jocks enjoy life even when their bodies begin to slow down. And the jocks can teach the nerds how to make the most of their physical bodies; as we become increasingly sedentary and fat, we should have those who teach us the joy of running and playing and catching things, and for challenging oneself, both physically and mentally, not just on a video screen but also in real life.

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