Thinking about sports

[Image - Thinking About Sports]

Stanford was represented by more athletes at the Beijing Olympics than any other American university. A total of 48 enrolled and former students competed for eight countries. They took home 25 medals; three hang around the necks of current students, all women.

Here at home, the university has won the NCAA Division I NACDA Directors' Cup so many times—every year for the last 14 years—it's like watching Bill Russell's Celtics.

All that brawn along with all those brains. According to the Stanford model, both are essential, and if you don't get in on your academic achievement, you don't get in.

On the academic side, Cardinal sports is more of an individual exercise than a team one. No huddles here. A few legal scholars, a couple of economists and management folks, a psychologist, some scientists, a priest and a few literary scholars all spend some of their time pondering such questions as why it is so thrilling to watch a ball sail between the goal posts, what good can come of children being sent to sports camps, why people felt personally betrayed by Barry Bonds and why monstrosities such as Monster Park or Enron Field come into existence in the first place.

Unlike other schools, Stanford offers no formal sports studies. You cannot become a sports economist here. But still, scholars who confess to letting ungraded papers pile up as they watch a late-season game go into extra innings find a way to let their inner fan meet their inner researcher. And sports scholarship extends as widely as the academy; academic sports journals feature articles on race, gender, municipal finance, performance theory, the media, nationalism and social behavior.

With all those top-ranked teams on the field (or the court or the pool) and all those top-ranked scholars in the stands, the brains in the Athletics Department thought it made sense to collaborate. So they hired the department's first director of sports performance, Brandon Marcello, an expert in nutrition and conditioning. His mission is to identify research across the campus that bears on athletic performance. He envisions collaboration with the School of Medicine's Center for Human Sleep Research and the Stanford Center on Longevity. He has spoken to chemists about supplements and would love to work with law and psychology and dance professors. He is very enthusiastic about biologist Craig Heller's Glove, an invention that lowers body temperature by cooling blood as it passes through the hands. The device can benefit soldiers, heart attack victims—and overheated athletes.

Why do we love sports so much?

"They’re like the comics, about winning and losing," ventures law Professor Hank Greely.

"We worship athletes," said Joanne Sanders, associate dean for religious life.

Because they’re beautiful, believes Hans Ulrich "Sepp" Gumbrecht, a professor of comparative literature and of French and Italian.

Others suggest sports contests remind us of stories, with beginnings, middles and ends. Or they provide us with an opportunity to live vicariously.