SPORTS: Let me count the ways sports enrich education 264 494 281 512202 511 232 527284 494 301 512278 511 301 527234 511 257 527Other columnists tackle education topics. PAGES 8,9,12,28& 38

January 9, 2006

Other columnists tackle education topics.

PAGES 8,9,12,28& 38

There is a school of thought that the pursuits of sports and education are somehow mutually exclusive. Short of that, certainly there are those who believe sports are overemphasized in relation to education and, in terms of expenditures, every dollar spent on sports is a dollar somehow taken away from education.

In Indiana, Our Man Mitch Daniels, the governor, has been critical of local school boards for approving the construction of athletic fa c i l i t i e s - " Ta j Mahals," he called them-instead of using those funds for classroom instruction. I wrote in an IBJ column last May, and reiterate now, that I don't disagree that some school athletic facilities have been excessive. The irony, however, is that many of those same communities that have invested heavily in sports facilities are also communities that have students who collectively are among the best in Indiana in academics.

I also suggested then, and I do now, that many of those facilities serve multiple functions for multiple groups and represent an investment in the physical wellbeing of both student and adult populations. That would seem to be of particular interest in a state where obesity and general physical fitness of its citizens are major concerns, which the governor also has emphasized.

What cannot be debated, in my view, is the value of sports as part of the educational process, from Little League to the big leagues and beyond. Yes, there are bad coaches, just as there are bad teachers. But overall, those who participate in sports maintain the benefits long after the participation ceases.

And with all due respect to readin', writin' and 'rithmetic, and the dutiful emphasis that needs to be placed on the educational basics, learning is not confined to the classroom, as some insist. I suspect the value is diminished when we pigeonhole participation in sports as an "extracurricular" activity, rather than viewing it-as well as band, chorus or theater-as integrated parts of the educational process.

Sports do, indeed, teach. They teach time management, self-discipline, leadership, teamwork, poise, the direct link between preparation and performance, respect for rules, respect for authority, respect for opponents, respect for the game or activity, ethics, fair play, goalsetting, the value of sacrifice, performance under pressure, humility and the concept that sometimes there is defeat in victory and victory in defeat.

Just to name a few.

Sports inspire loyalty, friendships and relationships. Coaches are teachers of lifetime lessons, and there may be no better example of that than John Wooden, the former University of California at Los Angeles basketball coach, although there are many, many others who are far less famous who have had just as great an impact on those who have played for them.

Sports motivate. In some instances, they become the carrot that keeps a child out of trouble and on track toward an education. Sports can become the key that unlocks educational opportunity. The vast majority of college athletes-some 360,000 at NCAA institutions alone-are not pursuing careers in professional sports. They are pursuing their educations, with sports as a sometimes necessary means of doing so.

For those who see it through (and athletes graduate at a significantly higher rate than non-athletes, as recent studies have shown), the lifetime benefits are incalculable. The term "dumb jock" is a lazy stereotype that simply does not apply to the bigger picture of young people involved in sports.

Sports serve as a laboratory for individual and collective growth. They are where we can see the results of the practice of the traits listed above, played out in a public forum. Sports provide keen insights into human nature, psyche and potential. In many ways, sports were reality shows before there were "reality shows."

Even pro sports-the excess of excess in critics' minds-offer lessons for us all. Tell me we haven't learned at least a little something about grace and strength in the face of tragedy from Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy the past couple of weeks. What he has shown didn't come from a classroom, it came from his heart and his unyielding faith. His has been an inspiring lesson.

To focus only on the mind in the educational process is to ignore the link between mind, body and spirit. The Greeks knew this centuries ago. The French philosopher, Rene Descartes-the math whiz of his time-detailed "mindbody dualism" in the 17th century.

Dr. Joel Kirsch of the California-based American Sports Institute once wrote, "Academia is not just a mental process and sport is not simply a physical one."

Well-served, I submit, are those who can find a balance between the two. By all means, we should do everything possible to encourage our children to learn to the limits of their God-given potential. But sports can, and do, enhance that learning, providing lessons for a lifetime.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column,go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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