TURES COLUMN: The Super Bowl of academics

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, February 15, 2022

I jumped several feet in the air when our basketball player got the job done on Saturday. She didn’t make a winning shot, key rebound, or even a valuable assist or block. Instead, she had earned an acceptance two graduate schools in Washington, DC. It’s yet another example of the “Super Bowl of Academics” being played out in small colleges like ours.

She’s hardly the only one. At our United Methodist Church-affiliated college, our players are Division III. They don’t get the scholarships or limelight of their Division I counterparts. It’s likely the last years they’ll play the sport they’ve worked so hard for. They’ll give it their all on the court and field. And our small gyms and stands can get pretty boisterous. But more often than not, our players give it the same level of intensity in the classroom.

Roughly two out of three of our program’s political science students will go on to graduate school or law school (and we’re hardly the only program on our campus with such success). There, they prove themselves in many ways, earning honors, presenting at law conferences, making law review, making editor, and succeeding at the next level. Others could go there, but often make a business decision, jumping for a good opportunity in our economy. “Sorry Dr. T,” one football player told me. “But they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse!” I guess he remembered that Godfather analogy from class.

Yes, we get student government presidents, school debaters, theater actors and actresses and all kinds of scholars from high school.

But our program recruits all kinds of athletes to join our research team. Far from the stereotype of the “dumb jock,” we’ve found that the collegiate athlete is well suited to the academics of today.

“You know teamwork,” I tell these athletes. “You know about the value of statistics. And you know how to perform under pressure.”

And from football, basketball, baseball, softball, lacrosse, volleyball soccer, tennis, and cross-country, they join us.

Male and female, black and white, or Hispanic or Asian, conservative, liberal or moderate, these student-athletes help that competitive spirit rub off on our other scholars, even their professor (going to their games inspires me in my own running races).  The results speak for themselves. I get them to compete all the time, for presentations academic conferences, for internships, the ability to present before the State Capitol and even a U.S. Capitol virtual appearance. They also got to present before a State Senate Committee, about their class research and projects. They’ve won prestigious fellowships and awards since I came here 20 years ago or more. They’ve organized Model United Nations tournaments. Now these student-athletes are arguing cases before the Supreme Court against each other.

I don’t like standardized tests any more than our students do. But we’re required to take them.  So, I make it another competition. We look at prior tests on-line, look at the questions and think of ways to handle the tough critical thinking exercises in class. They now battle others to be the best among the best of our peer institutions.

If you’ve got a student-athlete who likes the idea of competition in the classroom and on the court or field, going all out in both endeavors, and enjoying the thrill of success upon graduation, then maybe it’s time to rethink skipping school after high school graduation or taking a “gap” year. It’s time to think about the future, and how both sets of skills can set you up for life.