College football teaches what liberal arts don’t

by Chana Cox

Last year the Oregon Ducks lost the BCS Tournament.  At the time, it felt like a devastating loss. This year they won the Rose Bowl.  That victory has been ninety-five years in the making.  Football teaches us how to get up and keep going after we have been knocked down.  In football, as in life, we have to learn not to be defeated by our failures.

Some of my teaching colleagues think varsity sports get in the way of a liberal arts education.  They’re wrong.  Football teaches our students a great many things which often go untaught in today’s school system.

Football teaches that self-esteem cannot be given; it must be earned.  Football teaches that no matter how good you are, you can’t win alone.  You are part of a team.  It teaches you that often you have to continue working long after your mind and body are screaming at you to quit.  It teaches that no matter how talented you are, you can’t break the rules of the game and you darn well should not be allowed to break the laws of the land.

Football teaches you that as an adult you have the right to choose to do dangerous things, because football is dangerous and it is a choice. Some of the risks can be lessened, but players are injured and may even die playing football.   I worry about football injuries and it’s one of the reasons I prefer basketball.  I seldom recommend students join the football team because I am not sure the risks are worth it; but I firmly believe, in a free society, the choice is theirs and not mine.

In football there are winners and there are losers.  If everyone wins, no one wins.  But it’s OK because competition can be a very good thing.  It can bring out the best in you and in the game.  Football provides an equal playing field.  It doesn’t discriminate against you because of your race, your religion, your politics or your sexual orientation.  Still, if you are plump and top out at 5’2”, you had better enjoy the game as a fan and find some other way to excel.  Life is not fair, but football is fair unless the referees are crooked.

Athletes have been among my most academically gifted students, but whether the student-athletes in my class earned A’s or C’s, most of them have gone on to live rich and productive lives out there in the “real” world in part because of what they learned from football.

Chana Cox, U-Choose Education Forum, and Lewis and Clark faculty emerita

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  • 3H

    Take away a Sports program from a University, and it is likely to still thrive.  Take away the History or Economics department and people will question the quality, and seriousness, of the University.

    The amount of time and energy spent on professional college football is out of proportion to the benefits that the it provides.  Not everyone can join the football team.  In fact, very few can.  Everyone can decide to be History, English, Economics, Business or Physics majors.  It is elitist and players are frequently pampered in ways that no other students on campus are.   

    • JoelinPDX

      Uh, 3H, I hate to disagree with you, you know, but not everyone can be a History, English, Economics, Business or Physics major. There’s this little thing called grades. If you don’t get the grades then you don’t get the degree. In fact, if you don’t get the grades you get thrown out of school. It’s kind of like sports…if you can’t play the game you don’t make the team.

      Talk about elitist. Your nose is held so high in the air you’d drown in a drizzle.

      • 3H

        Actually, anyone can Joel.  You do have to make minimum grades to stay in college – but that applies to football players as well.  If your’e grades aren’t good enough, what you can’t do, is probably get into graduate school.  In fact, you can be any of those majors as long as you maintain good academic standing which is usually somewhere in the C average (it could be lower – might even be lower, like a “D” average).

        The point is, which evidently you missed, that anyone who goes to college can be a History major as long the University has a History department.  The only minimum standards, are the ones that are applied at admission – and presumably, to everyone.   You have to prove that you have some talent before you get on a  University football team.  Not anyone can join the team.  Care to elaborate on what I said that makes my nose “held so high in the air?”  Or, as usual, are you making stuff up and hope no one notices?

        • JoelinPDX

          You really could stamp VACANT across your forehead. Apparently you don’t understand the concept of grades.

          Not everyone can major, in say History, because not everyone can even get into college. If you don’t have the high school grades, no university will accept you…just as no college football team will accept you if you don’t have the talent.

          It’s truly a simple concept. If you weren’t being such a snob about college football, even a liberal like you could probably grasp it. But then if you weren’t being such a snob about college football you probably wouldn’t be a liberal.

          • 3H

            I’m sorry, let me back track: since we were talking about college, I was operating off the presumption that we were talking about people in…  wait for it… college!  We weren’t talking about people not in college.  You really need to track a little better Joel.  Perhaps read for context not just pick out words here or there.  I know this is probably a little too complicated for you to understand, I already forgive your next, incoherent, screed.   

            How am I being a snob about college football? That I think too much money and resources are spent on college sports makes me elitist?  Shoot me your address and I’ll mail you a dictionary.   

            Wouldn’t you think it’s actually more elitist supporting a program that allows only an “elite” few to participate?   Probably won’t make sense to you.

          • JoelinPDX

            Well actually, way back…way up there, you said everyone can be a History, English…major. Now you want to change things to say people already in college. Make up your limited mind.

            You are being a snob because you think college should be limited to people who want to be chemists or accountants or maybe even lawyers. College shouldn’t be the training ground for professional athletes…even though that’s what it is.

            By your “reasoning” college Honors Schools should be eliminated since only a very elite few get to participate in Honors Schools. In fact, I’d be willing to bet you that there are more athletes at the U of O than there are students in the Honors College.

            Actually, we should just open all schools to all comers…at least in your unclear vision. Can’t be limiting college to those who qualify academically, you know.

          • 3H

            Follow this Joel…  I’ll type real slow for you.  We  were   talking   about   college.   I    was    comparing    access   to   being   a   History   major    to    joining   a   Football    Team.   We   were   not   discussing people   outside   of    college.   Clear enough for you? 

            We do have college available to all comers.  It’s called Community College.   If you do reasonably well, you can transfer to a four year college if you want to.   And…  guess what again — major in History.

            Football does not advance the academic mission of a University – and that has always been the traditional mission.  Furthermore, frequently, Football Teams suck up resources (and I’m not talking about money) that could otherwise be spent on improving the academics of a University.  

            If, the lessons of teamwork are important as Chana has suggested, and I seem value in teaching teamwork, there are better, more cost effective ways to do it then having a program that reaches out to only a small, very small, percentage of the student body.  Why not intramural sports that are open to everyone?  Seem lessons are taught, at a fraction of the cost (I’m willing to bet).

            Again… anyone can be a History major (remember – we are talking about Colleges and Universities).  I’m also taking about the majority of colleges and universities – I’m sure someone can find one that doesn’t allow anyone (attending college Joel) to major in History if they want to.

            And actually, you may be correct – perhaps if they changed the curriculum to teach all students like they do Honors College students.  I’ve always felt that they should teach all students like TAG students — allowing them to concentrate on their areas of strength.  I think a discussion of the elitist implications of an Honors College or Honors program is warranted.

            I never said that college should be limited to….  That is a fabrication in your head.  Students don’t got to college and just play football.  They take classes, declare a major, etc…   In fact, I never said a single word about what people should, or should not major in.  I’m talking about Football teams.  Whether or not the costs justifies the benefits.  I don’t think they do.  Try again.  And this time, try and use something I actually said, not something you made up in your head.

      • David Appell

        Joel, are you saying that there are inherent differences among people? That not everyone has a 145 IQ — that an equal number have an IQ of 55? But doesn’t your political philosophy expect everyone to fend for themselves, the IQ 145 people as well as the the IQ 55 people? 

        Are you really saying, Joel, that the playing field isn’t flat? And those who are born with 55 IQs should therefore just suffer — too bad if they can’t compete with the big boys, too bad if they can’t get a job, or even a job with health insurance?

        Survival of the fittest, right Joel?

        • JoelinPDX

          See David, that’s your problem. You have preconceptions about conservatives that re totally without a base. From your liberal perspective you think you know all about what conservatives think. Only problem is…you haven’t a clue.

          I’ve never alleged that there aren’t inherent differences in all of us. Yet that’s the way you foolishly want to label me (and all conservatives.)

          So, no, I’m not saying the playing field isn’t flat…nor have I ever said anything like that. And, although I doubt anyone is BORN with an IQ of 55, those who are unfortunate enough to never develop an IQ above 55, those to whom life has truly dealt the short hand, should get government assistance.

          However, third and fourth generation welfare recipients should be ineligible for public assistance, as should be couples who are both able bodied.

          It is also ridiculous that government money…not so-called unemployment insurance…is being used to extend unemployment benefits to almost two years for people who have decided it’s easier not to work, while collecting government checks, than it would be to take a job flipping burgers.

          • valley person

            “However, third and fourth generation welfare recipients should be
            ineligible for public assistance, as should be couples who are
            both able bodied.”

            Joel, you may have missed the memo, but the Welfare Reform Act passed in the 90s under Clinton limited people to I think 5 years total AFDC. This broke the supposedly multi generational family welfare cycle.

            “Able bodied” has little meaning in an economy where most work is mental rather than physical, and where the private and public sectors have no economic need to employ everyone who wants to work. There are lots of “able bodied” carpenters and electricians out there who can’t find work.

  • Bob Clark

    I like the competitive theme sports provides, and wish more of our current governance appreciated the practicality of competition rather than trying to displace it by government fiat and over regulation. 

     I myself don’t care to pay the big ticket prices commanded even by college football and especially most pro sports.  I get as much fun watching lesser paid amateurs.  But at least I have the choice in someways to not pay for such over-priced entertainment.  Freedom of choice is another beautiful element of competitive markets (bordered by common law rather than government prescription).

  • Joseph

    I don’t imagine most college athletes see themselves as pre-professionals in those sports. They are competitors. A school without football is probably a school that creates a lot of pot-smoking academics – but few builders of society.

    One of those social benefits was covered in a fascinating article on football and the military in World War II. (

    • 3H

      Yeah, when Einstein left Germany he immediately headed over to Ohio State. 

      Because we know that athletes in college sports programs don’t smoke pot or binge drink at parties.  And once out of college, they are certainly not likely to abuse steroids.

      How many great “builders of society” do you figure came out of Berkeley versus, say, Ohio State University?  Do you have a sense for the numbers?  

      • Joseph

        Suggesting that *a* football/sports program is important is not the same thing as suggesting that a *top tier* program is thus more important.

        Berkelely has a football team and many other team sports. Something about Golden Bears. It ain’t Ohio State – but it still pairs a team, collaborative experience with competitive drive.
        I encounter in more and more places businesses that value athletes for exactly these attributes. Sure, there are worthless members of any group – but I’d think almost any members of the TrailBlazers character would make them a d*mned attractive candidate for all sorts of management roles. Successful or not – they are good *team.*

        Heck, Chana Cox taught at Lewis & Clark – they ain’t exactly Top 25.

        Oh, and Einstein went to Princeton. They had football there too. They were national champions in 1935 – four years before he arrived. Ohio State last one 10 years ago.

        • 3H

          That is true.  You’ll have to excuse my hyperbole, I was focusing more on the schools that practically run a professional sports franchise disguised as a college program: I was reacting to his “builders of society” comment.  

          Additionally, I’m willing to bet that most of our Nobel Laureates did not play football in college.   And, actually, I doubt that the presence, or lack of presence, of a sports program has little or nothing to do with the academic excellence of a University.  It may even take away from the energy and focus needed to make a university excel academically unless they are incredibly well endowed by donors (I’m thinking of Stanford and UCLA – which may be exceptions, rather than the rule).

          Think of the top Universities in the country, and most of them do not have large sports programs: UC Berekely, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, etc..

          • Joseph

            A University doesn’t have to be top tier to produce “builders of society”. As the phrase goes, schools teach A students to teach B students how to teach C students. Probably most Presidents, CEOs, Mayors and Generals weren’t A students. Their people skills, to which teams contribute, are far more important.

          • 3H

            And you can show a correlation between playing football and “builders of society” — whatever that is?  That their “people” skills are necessarily better?  Oh, as long as we’re being picky — care to elaborate on pot-smoking academics?? 

            LOL.. I don’t consider most Generals to be “builders of society”. But maybe we have different definitions.

        • 3H

          But, you have to admit, that for the big Universities, the importance is limited because only a very small fraction of the student body is eligible.   Physical qualities and hand/eye coordination are the most important – not necessarily ones that make for good leadership, teamwork/building or society building.

          Given the value of those qualities, do you think it’s cost effective to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, at the largest universities to train such a small group of people?

          Academic departments educate a much great number of students, at most likely much less cost, than the sports programs.  Smaller universities, and ones with smaller sports programs, may have a better balance.

          The Athletic programs at universities do provide that same sort of training in team-work, etc…, for all students in the various physical education programs. Yes?  Why spend so much money and energy on a few privileged sports? 

  • Lvander

    So true. Today’s political overseers try to protect people from their own behavior while forcing everyone else to subsidize or tolerate its effects. You can’t do that in sports. That world is closer to a meritocracy where the harder working and the more prepared measurably perform better. I hope we can eventually extend that meritocracy to the real world. 

  • valley person

    The best football player on our high school team was a fearsome middle linebacker. Very skilled, strong, quick, and mean as a Turkish prison guard. He made all state. He also used his physical skills (and meanness) to forge a career as a debt collector for his own bookie operation. When you owed him, you paid baby. One way or the other. After inflicting a lot of misery on others, he died in prison before he was 50.

    • Chana Cox

      Valley Person,

      What can I say?  We both know some pretty tough guys.  Some of them were athletes, some were not.  There are real mean guys out there and a great many of them will probably die before they are 50.  Most of the bookies I have known (I haven’t known many) did not prepare for their career by playing on football teams.  I do know of at least one big basketball player who, for the sheer joy of it, rolled over everyone in college, until everyone on his own team ganged together and rolled over him.  That ankle hasn’t healed yet.   

      • valley person

        What I can say from experience Chana, is that while the story I relayed is not something typical, the best athletes I have known over the years (and I played multiple sports through college and on into late middle age) were not coincident with the best students, the best leaders, the most humanitarian, the most creative, and so forth. They were basically the biggest, strongest, and fastest, and those among them with the most athletic success also had good work ethics within their field….sports.

        Very few were able to translate athletic success into success in other fields. To the extent one might have success elsewhere (in law or economics for example) it was because they also had intellectual gifts applicable to those fields. It had nothing to do with their athletic background.

        • Chana Cox

          As a non-athlete scholar, I certainly believe that domain specific knowledge is essential for success in life.  I believe, however, that it is often not sufficient for success — and I don’t simply mean material success.  As an academic, I would like to believe otherwise, but I know that my very real academic skills did not prepare me for many of life’s challenges.  An athlete who did not get a good liberal arts education is at a great disadvantage and has probably wasted a great deal of his/her four years at school, but there is some truth in that old saying about A students, B students, and C students. 

  • Dicko

    The game of Football can teach great lessons for life, however; the ‘grand emphasis’ on Football in any Institution of higher education can be disastrous ie Penn State.
    I attended a small University in Virginia during the early 1950’s.We were playing Duke, Maryland, UVA etc. in our football program, we were a student body of less than 1100 (including Law School). A ‘cheating scandal’ was brought to light during my first semester. The University had a strict Honor Code, we lost the majority of our subsidized Varsity Football Team. The Trustees at the time elected to continue Football at a deemphasised level, leaving the game open to those who merely enjoyed playing the game. The University has continued playing to our current time and they are winning their Divisions albeit at a lower level. The Game continues on————–Dick

    • Chana Cox


      The sorts of benefits I am advocating here are far more likely to occur at your small school than at Penn State or even U of O. 

      U of O may have better football, but the benefits of varsity support for the liberal arts student do not depend on winning big, or even perhaps winning at all.  The Greeks understood that every (upper class) young man should train in gymnastics and in music because it was good for their character development to do so.  The same Greeks were totally opposed to their boys becoming professional musicians.

      The school where I taught does not have a strong football team.  Fortunately we have had some strong teams in other sports.  Women’s soccer is one example.  But all members of all the varsity teams learned a great deal from their athletic programs.

    • 3H

      And that’s the point.. there are ways to teach those skills, through intramural sports for instance, that don’t rely on the corruption that seems to be a serious problem in higher level college sports.  That don’t take up the resources and time of the administration – which can sometimes lead to the Academic standards of the University slipping in order to maintain the Sports program.

  • I love this article, in fact I would go so far as to say it is Platonic. 

    • 3H

      You mean the ideal of a sports program is more important than the pale reflection of an actual Sports Program?

      • Book III of the Republic not Book VII – I’m sure Chana got it.

        • 3H

          Ooohhhh..  smack down!  LOL.. I must have hit a nerve somewhere.

  • David Appell

    Chana, do you really get a salary for writing things like this? Really??

    • Steve Buckstein

      David, payment for Catalyst posts and comments are based on merit. Sorry you haven’t gotten any checks yet.

      • 3H

        Wow!  Don’t feel bad David, evidently no one gets paid.  😉

  • Benchwarmer

    College sports are great! These athletes seldom are pampered and they do learn many lessons of life. One thing they learn is that you can get a college degree for free and without learning anything. Another is that you can sell your little gold pins and stuff and get $ for a great tat job. Another thing they learn is that you can drink, party hearty, and bed the babes without any repercussions. You can fight, steal, hurt, maim, and still play in the big game. In fact, if it is a bowl game there is not much you can do, short of getting arrested and actually being in jail, that would keep you from playing.
    The coaches have learned that they can lie, cover up, mislead, misdirect, etc. and still make more than the college president and the state’s governor combined while doing so.
    Your fine article is a reminder to all that college sports are pure, good, and helpful to all. Without them what would we do on weekends?
    I say make them more a part of the college scene. And let’s start paying these athletes, too, so they won’t have to lie and cheat and steal. I think about $3000 per game is fair.
    Thanks again for your amazing insight into the great game we call college athletics.

  • 3H

    What else can we learn from Varsity Football?

    If you are injured, you will receive immediate care.  There is no cost to you, and is not dependent upon you being the best, most talented, member of the team.

    Rewards come from the knowledge that you tried your best.  You do not get “paid” any more, or any less, than any other member of the team.  

    If you’re having a bad game, while disappointing, does not get you kicked off the team.  There are others on the team that can make up for your temporary lapse.  What is asked, is that you give it your all.

    If you’re not the best, that’s OK.  You may only get a few minutes playing every so often, but, you’re still a valued member of the team.  If your team wins a championship, you are an integral part of that victory even if you didn’t block a field goal or score a touch down.  

    Clothing and equipment is provided on an equitable basis.  There is no significant difference between your equipment and the equipment of the star (except what is necessary for the job).

    Kinda sounds like, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

  • 3H

    Athletes have been among my most academically gifted students, but whether the student-athletes in my class earned A’s or C’s, most of them have gone on to live rich and productive lives out there in the “real” world in part because of what they learned from football. 

    Would you say that then went on to live, qualitatively or objectively, richer and more productive lives than students who hadn’t played football (or any sports)?

    • Thomas

      How does she know? Does she actually keep in touch with former students? I doubt it very much. Very, very much.

      • None

        Thomas, Ms. Cox implied that she’s kept in touch with her former students when she wrote “most of them have gone on to live rich and productive lives out there in the “real” world in part because of what they learned from football.”

  • Rhodesscholar

    I think emerita translates to clueless.

  • Jocksupporter

    Here is my thought. What would happen to U of O if it did not have these teams??? Just imagine.

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