If, eight years ago, you’d have told me about the events of Nov. 6th—and the progress that we’d make in the intervening years—I wouldn’t have believed you; it was the triumph of a long narrative that began with the coming-of-age of the Civil Rights movement in America. Nov. 6 marked the beginning of the end of this Bildungsroman for our protagonist, Mr. Obama. More importantly, though, it cemented his legacy in the firmament of Black America.
These types of narrative are compelling—who doesn’t love a good story?—and one of our strengths as a country, I think, lies in our collective ability to mythologize just about anything1 (even our own transformation from colony to country).
Our other great strength, of course, is our unprecedented ability (and compulsive need) to jarringly reify our heroes: for every Barack Obama, there’s a David Petraeus; for every Dakota Fanning, there’s a Lindsay Lohan; for every Cam Newton, there’s a corresponding Patrick Witt.
Sport tends to lend itself to especially well to lore, which is the reason I bring up the latter pair of public figures. On the one hand, Cam Newton rose to national prominence with the Auburn Tigers for his quarterbacking ability, and has managed to stay in the good graces of the American public as a professional player for the Carolina Panthers. Pat Witt, on the other hand, has acted a slightly different role: his star winked into existence when he transferred from the Nebraska Cornhuskers to the Yale Bulldogs’ starting roster—the spotlight turned on him, though, as allegations of sexual assault surfaced. He hasn’t been heard from since. So where does that leave his legacy? It’s in question, at the very least.
College athletes in the Ivy League face a peculiar dilemma: they’re athletes, yes, but they’re also part of institutions that are mostly concerned with less physical pursuits. Thus the question: should the Ivies invest in those narratives?
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t invest in athletes themselves.
I’m of the opinion that athletics is at least as enriching for the people who play as Model UN is for its student delegates—why not invest in both? If the primary function of a university is to provide opportunities for education and personal growth, doesn’t it make sense to invest in those programs that achieve that goal?
Sports narratives, though, don’t really fulfill the same role. They’re nothing more than a mythology that, at times, distracts from the point of a university education.
That’s not to say that we don’t need heroes—it’s just that we should invest in them differently.
1(Infamy, naturally, is another favorite form of American myth.)