Sports | Sports Columns

JONES: A philosopher's reaction to Saturday's game

Eudaimonia, flourishing, happiness, excellence of virtue—however you want to say it, we all have an individual highest good or end with regard to which we value and determine our beliefs and actions. We seek to better ourselves and our situation so that we may best self-realize our human potential. This characterization of human nature is an amalgamation of several Core philosophies, but sports columns are allowed to make baseless and imprecise arguments, and it’s my prerogative to assume this teleology as universal, though I’m only concerned with—can you guess it?—Columbia, and athletics in particular.

Earning an undergraduate degree at Columbia is a fantastic endeavor for students in terms of working towards their personal state of flourishing. Often, the education received is a critical foundation for some future occupation, and (unfortunately) for fewer, the process of completing a liberal arts education itself is a distinct form of personal flourishing. Thus, when evaluated as a means to one’s end (thriving as a student), the average college student should be high-fived for making an excellent life decision.

There are two judgments being made here. First, that Columbia is an excellent school and only excellent students are qualified to attend. Second, regardless of an individual’s level of academic excellence, if an individual is seeking to best facilitate academic/personal growth, then Columbia is an excellent place for her or him to be. The first judgment is concerned with the simple comparative measurement of ability, and the second judgment is a statement that carries normative weight, which provides a standard by which to judge individuals’ decisions. Or for the mathematically minded, if f(x) represents some person’s life with x as their degree of personal flourishing, then the first judgment is merely plugging and chugging, and the second is the first derivative.

Criticism of Columbia athletics gets caught up with judgments of the first type, and it’s merely equine abuse to scoff at a 1-9 record or Adjusted Offense in the bottom half of Division I. I believe people stop at that point because anything more becomes a deeper criticism of our peers who are affiliated with the athletic department, and that is uncomfortably personal. So I will (carefully) be that guy.

What does it look like if we apply the same analysis of the average Columbia student to a hypothetical Columbia athlete? If an individual chooses, for example, to devote limited personal time and resources to the pursuit of accurately throwing a ball at great distance, then can we, with straight faces, suggest that Columbia is the best place to facilitate such a goal? Do we have the coaches, facilities, community support, or freedoms from external burdens (e.g. schoolwork) that best contribute to athletic progress?

We must truthfully admit that Columbia doesn’t provide a great environment and many athletes would have better served themselves had they enrolled at other, more athletically inclined schools (and I can think of 50 off the top of my head). Simply, it is a given that some athletes or teams aren’t very good, but the greater concern is that they came to the wrong place if they genuinely cared about getting better.

The implications of this (instrumentally hyperbolical) conclusion are, again, uncomfortably presumptive and personal, but personal and social reflection may yield insight about the construction of our community and the internal motivations that energize it. Certainly we value a student body with diverse interests, but what of disparate degrees of intensity in the pursuit of one’s end? Are we building the best community by compromising excellence in both the first and second types of judgment? Perhaps we can accept that Columbia is not universally excellent, but shouldn’t we at least expect that everyone is maximally striving?

Our community is complex, and these thoughts are only a small, incomplete part of the fuller picture; they should only be taken as such. Generalizations are convenient for 600-word newspaper columns, but they are insufficient to determine policy or guide opinion—I fully expect that a majority of those affiliated with athletics at Columbia resist reproach by this analysis.

Nevertheless, we should dispassionately utilize the philosophical tools yielded by Columbia to help guide that intuitively negative reaction felt when watching the football team lose its 12th Homecoming in a row. The conclusions may be uncomfortable, but, undergirded with objectivity and integrity, we may finally come to a point where we are able to completely dissect the value of athletics to our community.


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Anonymous posted on

You talk about Columbia "athletics" and yet only seem to be talking about the football program. If you were to expand your focus a little bit, you would see that your generalization doesn't apply to all sports.

You say that, "the greater concern is that they came to the wrong place if they genuinely cared about getting better." Athletes come here to get better athletically AND academically. They don't come here and devote all their resources to throwing a ball farther...they come here to take full advantage of what this university offers as a total athletic and academic experience. You fail to acknowledge the latter in your discussion.