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Balancing top academics with top athletics
Universities with exceptional academic reputations can also be a force in the world of sports
What do Condoleezza Rice, John Elway, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Jim Plunkett all share in common? All four showed up for Stanford’s Orange Bowl to support the Cardinal in its 40-12 dismantling of Virginia Tech on Jan. 3 in Miami.
The Cardinal’s romp was impressive in its own right, ignoring the impressive list of names roaming the sidelines. Andrew Luck, Stanford’s redshirt sophomore quarterback and the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country heading into the NFL draft this April, put on a clinic. Luck completed 18 of 23 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns in leading his team to 27 unanswered points in the second half. Fourth-year head coach Jim Harbaugh completed his turnaround of the school’s once woebegone football program. The Cardinal, who went 12-1 this year, finished 1-11 in 2006, the year before Harbaugh took over the reigns.
For me, though, the most striking part of the game did not take place on the field. As the action winded down on the field, Stanford began to flex its muscles as an all-around institution off of it. The school showed there is no sliding scale between academics and athletics, a lesson that critics of big-time college sports at the nation’s top universities—including Columbia—would do well to heed.
Midway through the second half, with Stanford comfortably in control of the game, the ESPN cameras started to wander the sidelines. Standing near the corner of the end zone was Condoleezza Rice talking to John Elway. The former Secretary of State and the Hall of Fame quarterback were laughing, enjoying the cool Miami breeze and the impressive show by the Cardinal football team.
The ESPN commentators began to list famous Stanford alumni, including retired Supreme Court Justice O’Connor and Super-Bowl-winning quarterback Plunkett, who were at the game. The list kept going, though, as you would expect from a school of Stanford’s caliber.
As the cameras switched back and forth from Plunkett to Elway and Rice, the message was clear: Not only was Stanford dominating a major college football game on a national broadcast, but it was a pretty good school too. It was a remarkable visual example of athletics and academics harmoniously coexisting. Rice is not a Stanford alumna but is a former provost and current faculty member. As viewers watched her chat amicably with Elway while ESPN continued to divert attention away from a sluggish game and towards the Cardinal’s alumni, Stanford’s prowess as a force in the classroom and on the athletic fields was evident.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize major collegiate athletics. Allegations of NCAA sanctions against this football star or that basketball recruit at some big-time program seem to occupy a permanent place amongst the headlines on SportsCenter. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, along with four teammates, was suspended for the first five games of next season after it was found that he sold, among other things, his Big Ten championship ring. Heisman winner Cam Newton’s father tried to convince Mississippi State boosters to pay him $180,000 to enroll his prodigiously talented son at their school.
Yet the images of Elway, Rice, Plunkett, and O’Connor embodied the other side of that argument. While some may criticize the eye-popping price tags that come with state-of-the-art athletics facilities and big-named coaches, major college sports do showcase schools in a way that no other medium can. You could not help but be impressed by Stanford’s show of athletic dominance placed alongside a list of its alumni’s accomplishments—graduating the first female astronaut sticks in my mind as one of those mentioned on air.
At the same time, please do not think I am lobbying for Columbia to try to emulate Stanford. The two schools are not alike, nor should they be. The Lions compete within the Ivy League and its unique set of rules while the Cardinal plays in the Pac-10 alongside huge state institutions from all over the West Coast. The Light Blue is not even eligible to play in the Orange Bowl that the Cardinal received so much attention for winning—the Ivy League plays in the Football Championship Subdivision of Division I while Stanford’s Pac-10 conference competes in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
That said, Columbia does compete in the same division as other big schools in every other sport aside from football. You can find big-name schools on most Lions’ schedules. Basketball played at Syracuse last year and Duke several years prior. The baseball team travels across the nation lining up top-25 competition. Women’s soccer travelled to Washington state to play Portland, one of the national powerhouses, in 2009. Multiple Ivy League competitors are regularly in the top 10 nationally in sports like men’s soccer and women’s lacrosse.
And so while Columbia may not consider itself an athletic powerhouse, the Lions line up against the big boys in most sports. Student-athletes—just like most students at Columbia—are balancing all kinds of commitments, including rigorous academics off the field. Once on it, though, they are competing with the very best in the country.
Stanford’s success this year in football—a sport dominated by larger schools that do not have to deal with the strict admissions standards that Stanford and Ivy league schools do—proves that student-athletes and their schools do not have to compromise their academic integrity to achieve success in even the biggest and most commercialized of college sports.
Just imagine turning on ESPN to see Barack Obama chatting up a former Columbia student-athlete on the sidelines of a big-time college basketball game featuring the Light Blue. Not only would it be a testament to the athletic achievements of the players on the court, it would highlight every aspect of our esteemed institution in the same way Elway and Rice’s conversation did for Stanford at the Orange Bowl.
And it would be very, very cool.
Zach Glubiak is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. He is a member of the varsity men’s soccer team.
Balancing top academics with top athletics
By Zach Glubiak, The Columbia Spectator