Michigan, College Athletics and American Society

Mark Schlissel, Warde Manuel and Jim Harbaugh

I just watched the press conference announcing Warde Manuel as the new U-M Athletic Director, and it was a real Michigan love fest. Well worth watching for anyone with any affection for the University of Michigan and its student athletes.

Towards the end of the event, president Schlissel was asked about his evolving understanding of the importance of athletics to the University, and he gave a really remarkable, insightful answer, which I won’t try to quote or paraphrase here – just go watch the video.

His reply got me thinking, though, and helped to crystallize some of my thoughts on this topic that have been rumbling around in the back of my head for a while now.

Let me start by apparently getting as far away from the subject of college athletics as possible, and offering up a few principles that I think are absolutely fundamental to our American society.

  1. We all have an equal right to aspire to greatness, without regard for the accidents of our birth.

  2. We will all be judged solely on the basis of our actions and achievements, irrespective of our gender, the color of our skin, or the origins of our forebears.

  3. We recognize and celebrate individual greatness, but understand that our greatest achievements come when we work together as a team.

  4. We believe that open competition on a level playing field makes us all stronger, better – as individuals, as a team, and as a society.

  5. We accept that we are all on our own individual paths of growth, coming from somewhere, and on our way to somewhere else, but recognize that our leaders and teammates and institutions play crucial roles in both the speed and direction of those journeys.

  6. We understand that great leaders are those who assemble and develop great teams, and who help set a direction that will lead to their success.

Now I think these six principles are pretty important elements of our society as a whole. For example, if I look at the success of Apple over the last several decades – an American company that is now among the world’s largest and most successful, in terms of revenue, profits, and valuation – I can see all six of these principles at work. In fact, I would argue that there are few if any segments of our society where these principles are not playing a part.

Once we recognize and accept these principles, then I think it is a small step to see how our great public universities are a key enabler for all of them.

  • You don’t have to come from the right family to attend, and your parents don’t need to be wealthy.

  • Your educational achievements are limited only by your own potential and desire to succeed.

  • Students compete with each other, and universities compete with their peers, and the result is a stronger, more capable set of graduates ready to become constructive members of society each year.

  • Students and faculty and administration members learn to collaborate and leverage the strengths of others in order to expand the value of their contributions.

  • Professors and deans and college presidents, as well as roommates and friends, protect and nurture students and help to accelerate and shape their growth during a critical four-year period in their development.

This is what it means to attend a great public university like the one in Ann Arbor. This is what I experienced during my time there. And this is why I was happy to send my son there. All six of these principles are at work. And together, they help to support a critical mission for these institutions. Take away any one of these elements, and our society fails to function as it should. Diminish any one of these core values and we are no longer at our best.

So now, finally, let’s talk about college athletics, and the reason why such programs are not merely recreational and ornamental, but a crucial strand in the fabric of these institutions. Because, when done right, college athletics exemplify all six of these principles in a very public way that allows our entire community – students, alumni, parents, professors and administrative staff – to rally around these core values, to remind ourselves of their importance, and to renew our faith in them.

Listening to Warde Manuel and president Schlissel and others at the recent press conference, all of these elements were celebrated. It wasn’t a big deal. No one pointed them out as principles. But the entire proceedings were drenched in them.

And this is why college athletics are so important, and so vital to the life of an institution such as the University of Michigan – because when it comes to core values, we all learn best, not from academic lectures, but from shared stories, stories on display that we can all see, and return to again and again, and see played out anew and extended with each successive year, each new season.

That’s why, after I spoke with enthusiasm about the press conference to my wife and son this morning, my wife said, “Yes, your Dad’s been to church this morning!” Because, even before I could clearly articulate what I was feeling and why, all of these great chords of meaning were being sounded, and I was responding to them at some deep level that refreshed my sense of identity and purpose.

So yes, let us not confuse what happens on the playing field with what happens in the classrooms and in the laboratories. None of us went to college just to watch or play football, and none of us invested four years of our lives just to walk away from campus with some fond memories of sporting events.

But on the other hand, let’s give our student athletes, and their coaches, and everyone who supports their endeavors, our full measure of respect and appreciation. Because with every practice, every workout, every foray onto the playing field, they remind us all of who we are, and who we aspire to be – as individuals, as teams, and as a society.

– Herb Bowie, Jan 30, 2016