Friday, October 14, 2011

Right On The Button

TigerBlog put on his best suit - actually, it's his only suit - yesterday and made the 20-minute drive to the Holiday Inn in Somerset.

The occasion was the College Athletic Administrators of New Jersey annual meeting/awards luncheon. TigerBlog is a vice president in the organization.

His role yesterday was to be something of a moderator for the discussion of the educational value of athletics of college campuses.

About 15 minutes before the event, though, TB noticed that the button on his suit pants was no longer there. It wasn't the button that held his pants on, since that was done by one of those metal clasps. No, the button in question was the kind that extends a little past the clasp.

Without the button, a piece of cloth on the end of the waist was therefore not attached. TB was pretty sure it was being obscured by the belt, which covered the whole waistline anyway, and he was fairly confident that nobody could notice the missing button.

Besides, he figured to be standing behind a lectern for most of the time anyway.

And the speakers were so good that there was no reason to notice TB.

There were two, actually.

One was Phil Felton, a molecular biology professor (who used to be a mechanical engineering professor) who serves as an Academic Athletic Fellow for the men's and women's cross country and track and field programs. Phil is a Wales native who attended Leeds for his undergraduate and doctorate work.

TB has known Phil for a long time, and he's seen him with the track programs on dozens of occasions. In fact, Phil's been a huge help with the Ivy League Heptagonal cross country championships, which will be held at Princeton in two weeks.

The other speaker was someone TB had never met before. Her name is Connee Zotos, and her background includes an undergraduate degree from Rowan and a Ph.D. from Texas, not to mention head coaching jobs in field hockey, soccer and softball and a 14-year run as the Director of Athletics at Drew University.

She is currently a sports management professor at New York University.

Together, with very little moderation necessary from TB, Connee and Phil spoke to an audience of administrators from New Jersey's college athletic departments, in all three NCAA divisions plus junior colleges.

One of the messages was this, and it was a great one:
There will always be people on campuses who are anti-athletics, and while there is only so much that can be done to combat that, all that can be done should be done.

Dr. Zotos talked of the value of having specific data on hand that would refute misconceptions - and also the value of having athletes not play into a "dumb jock" stereotype.

What does this mean specifically?

Well, much of athletic stereotyping is the result of misinformation, assumptions that the non-athletic community makes about the athletic culture. It's not enough to simply say "no, that's not correct;" it's necessary to site definitive numbers that disprove the statement. Otherwise, it's simply left out there.

At the same time, there are ways that athletes play into the stereotype. Dr. Zotos told the story of 6-5 basketball players who had to cram themselves into those little desk/chairs in her classes, but she told them not to slouch and recline, because it would just reinforce what people think of athletes.

Phil spoke about the need to engage the faculty to correct similar misconceptions, not only because of the larger view of athletics on a campus but also because of the impact it has on the education of specific, individual students.

He also talked about the Faculty Fellows program here at Princeton, which has 100 faculty members and administrators, all of whom by definition are on board with the value of athletics, and the impact it has on students and other faculty members.

Both spoke about the value of athletics on the undergraduate experience and the lessons that are taught by intercollegiate competition. Both cited very specific examples, which made their comments even more significant. Both talked about the need for athletes, coaches and administrators to be as proactive as possible in spreading the word about the athletic successes, more so in the area of personal development than in simply wins and losses.

And what is the point of it all? To give the athletes themselves the best possible experience. And to allow the athletic department as a whole to do its best to enhance the school's overall image.

The two-hour program wrapped up with a question that basically asked about the irony of spending all that time talking about the value of college athletics and yet having to constantly defend that to those who aren't buying in.

Dr. Zotos had a clear comeback to that, saying essentially yes, that's how it is. Now deal with it.

After that, it was over to a different room, for lunch and the awards ceremony, including honoring the Division I/II, Division III and junior college male and female student-athletes of the year for New Jersey.

Each of the athletes had an opportunity to say a few words - including Princeton fencer John Stogin, who did so via a video he'd made and sent from Cambridge, where he
is doing graduate work.

As each spoke, it was clear that they had been touched by their athletic experiences and that they had benefited so much from being able to compete in college.

They were shining examples of what the discussion in the next room had been about, and why administrators do so much to try to provide those opportunities.

It was a pretty vivid live-action reminder of what had been said in a theoretical sense earlier.

And it was a perfect ending to a pretty nice event.

It's a diverse group, New Jersey's athletic programs. And yet they're all facing some of the same issues.

As the questioner said, it's ironic that such a positive part of the educational process needs to be justified at all.

It should be emulated, not questioned.

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