Puget Sound sports: 'The sweatiest of the liberal arts'

I love the madness of March. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to know that “March madness” has become an annual ritual and part of our American vocabulary. Here at Puget Sound, we had our own double version of it this past year when both our men’s and women’s basketball teams went to post-season play, and we hosted two thrilling games in the national tournament. Cheered on by deafening, enthusiastic crowds, our teams advanced, respectively, to the quarterfinal and semifinal games, until each was finally eliminated by the team that went on to win the national championship.

It wasn’t March, exactly, but the last two Novembers have been pretty exciting as our women’s soccer teams in 2003 and 2004 hosted quarter- and semifinal national championships, winning this year, proceeding on to win the sectional finals, and then going to Greensboro, N.C., to win again and earn a spot in the final game for the national championship—the first time in Puget Sound history. (See page 8.) And then, last June, our women’s crew rowed in the finals of the national championship in Sacramento and came within a stroke of winning it. More recently we enjoyed (once again) the madness of college football as the Logger football program found its game and recorded only its second winning season in 18 years with a stunning 48-6 final-game victory over Lewis and Clark. At Homecoming this year a number of us lost our voices (and broke our hearts) in the packed grandstands of Baker Stadium during one of the greatest college football games I have ever seen, when the Loggers were narrowly beaten in double-overtime by PLU. We were, quite literally, within one step of overcoming a 16-year jinx against our historic cross-town rival.

I’ve always been a big college sports fan—admiring the level of competition and excitement, and the sense of team spirit. At Puget Sound we play in NCAA Division III, which lays out principles of emphasis that inspired one of my fellow college presidents to call it “the sweatiest of the liberal arts.” I like that characterization for several reasons:

First, we focus on the scholar athlete—and scholar comes first. While it’s true that we produce champion athletes at Puget Sound—eight of 22 Puget Sound intercollegiate teams went on to post-season play last year—many of those athletes carry GPAs that exceed the university average, and they graduate at a higher rate than the rest of our talented student body.

Second, almost 90 percent of our students receive scholarship aid, including our student athletes. We don’t give athletic scholarships, but we do award scholarships to academically qualified students who want to play college athletics.

Third, we emphasize participation over spectating, we are competitive, and we play to win—in the classroom, on the playing field, and (most important) in life after graduation. We see the field of play as another place where education happens, where leadership is taught, and where character is built.

I am proud of these principles because they encourage well-rounded, aware, committed student-athletes such as Hailey Noble ’04 and John Hines ’05. Hailey, a captain of the rowing team, is the 2004 NCAA Woman of the Year for the state of Washington. The distinction honors excellence in academics, athletics, and community leadership. And John, a lineman on the football team, was named to the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team for his positive contributions to the community and his commitment to service.

Nigel Spivey’s new book The Ancient Olympics reminds us that Plato’s school was set up next to a gymnasium called “The Academy,” and Aristotle’s school was established next to another called “The Lyceum.” These great patriarchs of modern philosophy, the promoters of the good life, the examined life, the rational life, Plato the idealist (on the one hand) and Aristotle the empiricist (on the other) were also never very far from the life of the athlete. The dialogues these philosophers conducted with their students often took place, in fact, as they walked around the gymnasia. The scholar, the athlete, and the dutiful citizen have a common origin for us in ancient Greece. They are in some ways the same thing.

I believe NCAA Division III sports is a smart choice for student athletes. Except for the month of March, there is no madness in it. Well, maybe in December and June. And October was pretty exciting this year. In any case, for me, the best way to spend every month and every day of college is at a great D-III college like Puget Sound, with a strong academic commitment and a competitive athletic program. Go Loggers!