Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Sports, the Rodney Dangerfield of Academia?

Sport is not considered art. Instead, it is invariably dismissed as something lesser — even something rather more vulgar — than the more traditional performance activities.

Now Gary Walters, the athletic director at Princeton, has spoken out that sport should be granted equal educational prestige with the likes of drama and art and music.

"Is it time," he asks, "for the educational-athletic experience on our playing fields be accorded the same ... academic respect as the arts?"

Walters validates his advocacy with unique credentials beyond the Ivy League. He went to the Final Four as playmaker on Bill Bradley's last team. He was chairman of the national Division I basketball committee this year, the maestro of March Madness. This is all to say that he brings the broadest perspective to college sports, and it mightily irritates Walters that sport is only considered a "distant cousin" to the arts.

Well, apart from simply being so sweaty, I think that sport has suffered in comparison with the arts — or should I say: the other arts — because it is founded on trying to win. Artists are not supposed to be competitive. They are expected to be above that. We always hear "art for art's sake." Nobody ever says "sport for sport's sake."

I also believe that sport has suffered because until recently, athletic performance could not be preserved. What we accepted as great art — whether the book, the script, the painting, the symphony — is that which could be saved and savored. But the performances of the athletic artists who ran and jumped and wrestled were gone with the wind.

Now, however, that we can study the grace of the athlete on film, a double play can be viewed as pretty as any pas de deux. Or, please: Is not what we saw Michael Jordan do every bit as artistic as what we saw Mikhail Baryshnikov do?

Of course, in the academic world, precisely that place where art is defined and certified, sport is its own worst enemy. Its corruption in college diminishes it so and makes it all seem so grubby. But just because so many ersatz students are shoe-horned into colleges as athletes and then kept eligible academically through various deceits, the intrinsic essence of the athlete playing his game should not be affected.

As Walters argues, "Athletic competition nourishes our collective souls and contributes to the holistic education of the total person in the same manner as the arts."

Certainly, there remains a huge double standard in college. Why can a young musician major in music, a young actor major in drama, but a young football player can't major in football? That not only strikes me as unfair, but it encourages the hypocrisy that contributes to the situation where those hidebound defenders of the artistic faith can take delight in looking down their noses at sport.

So, yes, Walters' argument makes for fair game: Is sport one of the arts? Or, just because you can bet on something, does that disqualify it as a thing of beauty?

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford