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Dumb jocks?

May 1st, 2007

bballmortarboard-copy.jpgBY DAN PETERSON

The “dumb jock” stereotype has existed for as long as I can remember and I’m seventy-one and started coaching basketball at age fifteen. Are there some dumb jocks? Of course. But I think the subject has to be examined from several points of view and only after setting down some premises. Blanket statements or percentages or numbers are not going to do the trick. Where to start?

Let’s take American women. I live in Italy, and when Italian (and European) women go to the USA, they are amazed at what they perceive as a lack of true femininity in American women. They will say, “Your women have physical beauty in many cases but they lack sophistication.” Just another way of saying someone has athletic talent but does not have intellectual training.

Staying with women for a moment, there is a place in New York City that teaches a course called The French Woman, to teach American women this charm and sophistication. Its ads say, “The French woman doesn’t walk, she glides.” So, the U.S. women in NYC go to study this. My wife is half-French, so I tell her, “Hey, are you going to stop gliding around or what?” She loves this.

Back to jocks. Are all smart people non-athletes? Hardly. If that were the case, the Ivy League would not field football teams or teams in most sports. In fact, most Ivy League schools have teams in about thirty different sports, for both men and women. Same with the service academies and power academic schools like Cal, Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, and a slew of others.

I could flip off any number of examples. Bill Bradley, NCAA Basketball Player of the Year in 1964-65, was a Rhodes Scholar. Another Rhodes Scholar was Tom McMillen, All-American in basketball at Maryland, 1970-74, who later played for me at Virtus Bologna, 1974-75, while a Rhodes Scholar. He was a brilliant guy, both on and off the court.

When I coached in Bologna, I also had John Roche, now a lawyer in Denver, and Terry Driscoll, an honor student at Boston College and new AD at William & Mary. In Milan I had Joe Barry Carroll, honor student at Purdue and a guy who read Shakespeare, and Mike D’Antoni, an honor student in pre-med at Marshall and now head coach of the Phoenix Suns and NBA Coach of the Year in 2004-05, a very bright guy.

But that’s beside the point. The point is this: The guy that succeeds in the classroom and on standardized tests is what we call “school bright.” That is, he has adapted to the school environment and a classic learning situation. The jock often dedicates too much time to his sport and loses out at that end. He develops what we might call, for lack of a better term, “street smarts.”

Sticking with “street smarts” for a moment, I understand there is also a course in New York City for just that, where guys with MBAs can go to learn how to apply their stored knowledge to real-life situations.

Let’s apply that to sports and coin the term “sports bright.” Isn’t it odd that the sports that require little creative genius and a lot of repetition, like golf, swimming, diving, gymnastics, and such have athletes whom we consider “bright?” Actually, they need virtually no intellect whatsever to play those sports, only a lot of dedication to perfecting a swing or a gesture or a routine. They are machines, not geniuses.

But what about guys in the NFL? Let’s forget the quarterbacks, who digest quantities of data every week that would choke a computer at the CIA. What about the other players, who learn entire offenses and defenses every single week? What about NBA players, who must perfect intricate schemes on offense and inhale scouting reports on other teams like oxygen? Those are smart guys.

Let’s move on to “athletic genius.” Larry Bird and Magic Johnson probably did not set the world on fire in the college classrooms. But they had true “athletic genius.” In a millionth of a second (maybe even less), they could compute billions of pieces of data and come up with the correct response to a situation and make it look like they had practiced it countless times.

Baseball is often called the “sport for intellectuals.” There are reasons for this. First, it is, by far, the single most quantifiable sport ever invented with regard to stats and analysis of stats. Then, it has pauses, which allow for reflection. Most great sports literature has revolved around baseball, with boxing second — the two most loved sports of the legendary sports writer Red Smith.

I now want to move into ESP, mental telepathy, if you will. Why are certain athletes seemingly always in the right place at the right time? How do they anticipate correctly what is about to happen, as if they
have seen it all before? Sorry, but I don’t have the answer. It’s something you can’t buy at the super market, though, I can tell you that.

There is also the matter of personality and charisma. Jocks are often cocky. Steve Kerr was just out of Arizona in 1988 and warming the bench for the Phoenix Suns in the 1988-89 season. They were playing the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan in Phoenix. Jordan took a pass in front of the Suns’ bench and was immediately trapped by two Suns. He was in huge, huge trouble.

Jordan palmed the ball, held it out of bounds, caught the eye of Kerr and said, “Watch this.” He windmilled the ball over the arms of his defenders, broke through them, recovered the ball on the dribble, zig-zagged through the rest of the defense and put down a spectacular dunk. Heading back down the floor, he looked over at Kerr and winked. He knew it all the while. That’s charisma.

Coming back to the “dumb jock,” you only have to hear an Italian soccer player (well, at least eighty percent of them) interviewed on TV and you have to wonder: there’s a total lack of culture, intellect, of being articulate. You need sub-titles to figure out what they’re saying. One, super star Francesco Totti, of Roma, is the subject of many “dumb” jokes. But is he stupid? Are his colleagues stupid?

You only have to know that these Italian soccer players (and most European players) sign with pro teams at age fourteen, leave home, drop out of school, and work on their game with the youth teams twenty-four hours a day. Totti’s not dumb. He lacks classroom experience, the university experience of walking around a campus and rubbing elbows with other bright people. He’s uneducated, not dumb.

In fact, there are some fabulous examples of Italian soccer players who have done extremely well in the intellectual arena. Former AC Milan goalie Mario Ielpo is one of Italy’s top lawyers. Gianni Rivera, former AC Milan striker and a living legend, is a powerful Senator in Rome. General Electric does not wield the power that Gianni Rivera wields on any given morning.

We have, Rhodes Scholars aside, countless examples of smart jocks in the USA. Many are on TV. Who has done more ads than Michael Jordan? Who is more outrageously hilarious than Charles Barkley? What about Senator Jim Bunning? President Gerald Ford, a hell of a football player at Michigan? What about Bob Dole, a hoopster at Kansas before WWII hurt his arm?

Want more examples? Noted heart surgeon Denton Cooley, who played for Texas in the first NCAA Basketball Tournament in 1939. Edwin Hubble of the Hubble Space Laboratory, who played on four Big 10 title
basketball teams at the University of Chicago, 1906-10. John Wooden, winner of ten NCAA basketball titles as coach at UCLA, was an honor student at Purdue.

I could wear you out with such examples, just as someone could point out some ignorant jock on TV and wonder how he made it through elementary school (if he did) and, if so, how did he do that? It all comes down to priorities. If a person makes sports his only priority, then culture, education, sophistication, and being articulate will suffer.

If he can balance both? Then you have “school bright” and “street smarts” all in one. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Peterson | Link to this Entry

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