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.

The Stanford model

Fans and critics among the professoriate agree that college sports, especially at a school like Stanford, presents serious challenges, and not just on the scoreboard.

"The greatest threat to the Stanford model is the amount of time student athletes have to devote to both sides of the model," former Athletic Director Ted Leland said soon before leaving Stanford after 14 years of service. Officially, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) allows student athletes to practice 20 hours a week. In fact, it's usually double that, Leland said. "There's a limit to what students can do. How long can we continue? Students can't do it all."

Roger Noll

Roger Noll, who helps Stanford recruit football players, says he is torn: "I think Stanford should be worried about being associated with NCAA football; I love the game, but it’s so corrupt because there’s so much money at stake."
Photo: L.A. Cicero

If you ask Roger Noll, professor emeritus of economics and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the collegiate system can't be fixed. One of the nation's best-known authorities on sports economics, he's a sports enthusiast (Caltech basketball anyone?), frequent adviser to some of the Cardinal's top stars and consultant to professional players unions. His articles cover such issues as stadium construction and professional baseball contraction. But he's also deeply concerned about the NCAA.

"It's the prisoner's dilemma," he said, referring to the game theory problem regarding cooperation and defection. "If you have 20 athletes all working 20 hours a week to prepare, they'll all compete. It doesn't matter how much you practice, as long as everyone practices the same. Same with drugs. But the fundamental problem is that in the absence of rigorously enforced rules, everyone pushes students to practice longer. The NCAA has a total lack of concern for athletes. It's a terrible organization."

It's terrible, he said, because, most obviously in men's football, "there is a payoff in violating the rules."

"I think Stanford should be worried about being associated with NCAA football; I love the game, but it's so corrupt because there's so much money at stake," Noll said.

Similar doubts infuse the work of legal scholar Barbara Fried, the William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor of Law, who is interested in distributive justice, the study of society's allocation of economic benefits and burdens. As she outlined in a recent article, "Punting Our Future: College Athletics and Admissions" (Change, May/June 2007), there is nothing just or sensible about setting aside admissions slots for athletes at elite academic institutions. (She does not specifically address Stanford.) School athletics are not the revenue-builder they are often thought to be, the academic qualifications of scholarship athletes are generally less than that of the student body in general, and the qualities allegedly enhanced by sports programs (leadership, discipline, teamwork and so on) can be developed by other means, she writes.

The legacy of Title IX

There are two reasons why sports have become more prominent at elite schools in recent years, according to Fried: the professionalization of sports and Title IX, the 1972 sex discrimination law best known for giving girls and women equal access to federally funded school sports programs. The two phenomena are related. The numbers of girls playing high school sports has multiplied at least tenfold since 1972, and women today account for nearly half of all college athletes. In 1993, Stanford announced it would aim for parity between men's and women's sports programs; it increased the number of scholarships to female athletes as well as the coaching staff and the number of teams. The string of Directors' Cups started almost immediately thereafter.

But Title IX also has brought problems. Fried believes that women's sports have embraced the "professionalized male model of athletics." While the number of female athletic scholarships is up, that causes the same well-known problems that male scholarships do, Fried writes: "It is at least worth considering the possibility that feminists, looking at the larger issues of women's equality in the world beyond college, ought to regard this outcome as a Pyrrhic victory."

When Title IX was passed, 90 percent of coaches of women's college teams were women. By 2006, the number was 42 percent. On average they are paid half what men are paid. Women also have lost departmental control of women's collegiate sports programs. These are trends that disturb Deborah Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and founding director of Stanford's Center on Ethics.

In an article this year in the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Rhode reports on a nationwide survey of coaches and concludes that gender bias, an old-boys network and work/family conflicts are to blame for the paucity of female coaches. One of her co-organizers for a recent conference on Title IX, former Stanford track star and cross-country coach Dena Evans, has written about the incompatibility of being a top Division I coach and being a mother. In a 2006 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, she called on athletics departments to follow academic departments' lead in finding ways for women to achieve their career goals with their families intact.

The ethics of enhancement

Another angle on sports comes from Hank Greely, the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law, whose principal concern (other than the historic injustice of the infamous 1982 Big Game) is the ethical ramifications of physical and cognitive enhancement, both in sports and beyond.

Hank Greely

"If we could find the fastest ‘natural’ runner in the world in some village in Nebraska or Africa, he’d lose to a mediocre sprinter at a good NCAA school who has training, good shoes, a sports psychologist and access to video," said Hank Greely, who is particularly interested in the ethical ramifications of sports.
Photo: L.A. Cicero

"The arguments against steroids are all poorly thought through," he said. "They boil down to: They're drugs, it means athletes work less—i.e., it's not fair, and it's not natural."

But some drugs (and devices) are legal while others aren't. To make it fair, following Noll's suggestion, give everyone the same access. Besides, what's natural?

"If we could find the fastest 'natural' runner in the world in some village in Nebraska or Africa, he'd lose to a mediocre sprinter at a good NCAA school who has training, good shoes, a sports psychologist and access to video," Greely said.

Why, for example, should medications that make you go faster be off limits while space-age swimsuits are the darlings of the Olympics? How is it that sports like tennis and golf reach new levels thanks to high-tech equipment while players can't indulge in high-tech pharmacology? Nobody cared that Sartre wrote his late works while loaded on speed, or that a college professor drinks four cups of coffee before lecturing; why does it matter what an athlete does? Is neuro-enhancement cheating? What if there were a pill that helped students pass the bar exam?

"I think the enhancement debate in sports is a deceptive preamble to the debate on cognitive and genetic enhancement in general," Greely said. Couching the doping dilemma in terms of health and fairness does not get to the essential issues. Gene therapy is on the horizon, and we are not prepared for the far-reaching neuro-ethical debates it will trigger, he said.

Greely also has written about sports in relation to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One such article focused on the case of Casey Martin, the disabled Stanford golfer who petitioned the PGA Tour to be allowed to use a golf cart. Legal arguments revolved around the definition of unfair advantage. The Supreme Court's eventual ruling made it clear that almost all organized sports are subject to the ADA, though it has become evident that cases like Martin's will be rare.

In a similar vein, one of Greely's students, Patti Zettler, a former Stanford lacrosse star who worked in medical ethics before returning to law school here, recently wrote a paper about Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee sprinter who, as Greely put it, "came damn close to appearing in the Olympics." The international Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled he did not have an unfair advantage (there were those who said his prosthetic blades gave him an edge). But in the end, he missed qualifying by a half-second. Zettler's study asked if, under the ADA, the NCAA or USA Track & Field would be obliged to let Pistorius compete. She concluded that they would because his participation would not violate an essential aspect of the sport (a legal requirement), nor would his blades give him an unfair advantage. As she said, "No able-bodied athletes are considering amputation and prostheses to gain Pistorius' 'advantage.'"

Stanford and Athens

The intensity of these ethical conversations, particularly concerning doping, belies sports' status as a game. If our body is a temple, then our stadiums can be cathedrals, and defilement is a serious matter. "Fair play" dates from the era when sports were about unassisted gentlemen on an even playing field and when working at sports was disparaged. The modern Olympics, with its celebration of amateurism and false antiquity, were the invention of a French aristocrat. Meanwhile, professional athletes were drawn from the lower classes. Slowly, this vast social gulf diminished, and at the same time what Sepp Gumbrecht calls "health sports" began permeating our society.

Sepp Gumbrecht

Not since ancient Athens, says Sepp Gumbrecht, not entirely tongue in cheek, have intellectual and physical pursuits shone together so gloriously in one place as they do at Stanford.
Photo: L.A. Cicero

Gumbrecht, the Albert Guérard Professor in Literature and a shameless devotee of the Cardinal, has written a book, In Praise of Athletic Beauty, which pays homage to his athletically and otherwise gifted students by exploring the aesthetic experience of watching them. To quote the Boston Globe, "To ground his argument, Gumbrecht turns to that staple of sports bar disputation, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment." He is interested in the spectator's transcendence from individual to collectivity, the athlete's transcendence into "the zone," and the fascination and admiration of beautiful bodies doing remarkable things, performing "epiphanies of form and of bodily grace."

Some sports require the athlete to be intentional about creating beauty, Gumbrecht noted in an interview. Ice skating, diving and gymnastics are examples. Others, like soccer, are beautiful to watch, but if the striker thinks about being beautiful as he or she kicks a goal, the goal surely won't get made. And there is beauty, too, in that unconsciousness.

Gumbrecht, along with Roger Noll, helps recruit Stanford football players. It's not easy to fill a full roster of academically eligible players. Noll appeals to them by telling them they won't have to spend all their time with other athletes, like at some big state schools; they'll actually be able to live in a dorm and go to normal classes. Gumbrecht tells them it's really hard here. Really, really hard. Not since ancient Athens, he says, have intellectual and physical pursuits shone together so gloriously in one place. But it's hard, he repeats. The recruits generally rise to the bait.

Positive coaching

We know about the steroids, the excessive pressure on young athletes, the financial shenanigans, the problems with the NCAA. But it's impossible for most of us not to watch. Like Gumbrecht, we are in awe. Therefore, other scholars say, let's fix the problems.

Psychologist Carol Dweck would like to start by fixing coaching.

Carol Dweck

In her recent book, psychologist Carol Dweck posits that an athlete’s mindset can be more important than his or her talent.
Photo: Courtesy Carol Dweck

As she observed children as they learned, Dweck developed her theory of "mindset" (and wrote a book called Mindset). Children (or athletes) with a "fixed mindset" believe they either have it or they don't. Parents and coaches reinforce this, to the children's detriment, and they get locked in. But children (or athletes) with a "growth mindset" can transform themselves.

One of Dweck's students recently did an honors thesis reporting that Stanford athletes who thought their coaches believed in effort over ability tended to perform better.

People who worship athletes "forget that the drive got them there," Dweck said. "Michael Jordan said, 'I worked hard, it's not a gift.' He said, 'I've missed lots of baskets, I've failed.' But people don't believe it."

People prefer to think that champions are superheroes, she said. "I'm not saying there's no such thing as talent; there is. But that's just a starting point. Even Michael Jordan never coasted on his talent. You have to keep growing.

"Look at [former Stanford student] Tiger Woods. Several years ago he completely took apart his game. He understood that he had to lose for a while, and then he came back in this extraordinary way." (Both Noll and Greely, it's worth noting, advised Woods during his two years on the Farm, and both commented on how much he loved being a student.)

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is high on everyone's list of great coaches because he managed to get people who were not as talented as their opponents to nonetheless win. "Wooden's objective was to get all the players to give their all," Dweck said. "Too much emphasis on winning without team spirit is a losing strategy. It's like a company that looks good on Wall Street but actually is unhealthy."

That segue between coaching and management would come as no surprise to Jim Thompson, a Stanford MBA, former head of the Graduate School of Business' Public Management Program and founding director of the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a nationwide organization that counts among its supporters Dweck and Michael Jordan's former coach Phil Jackson.

Like Noll, Thompson uses the prisoner's dilemma metaphor. "The only way to ensure that students practice only 20 hours a week is to go outside the frame," he said. "Individual directors can't change the way things are done. And the problem is the trickle-down. When colleges start football in spring, high schools have to do the same."

When Thompson came up with the idea for PCA, which assists elementary and high-school sports programs, he got instant support.

"Ted Leland was very interested in psychology, in the degradation of the culture of sports," Thompson said. "So he was very excited about PCA. He thought it was a good thing for society, and he wanted to support it.

"Stanford is a great place for these ideas to incubate. I met with some people from [another university] who were working on similar projects, and I showed them my card, which said Athletics Department. They couldn't believe it. 'I can't even get in the door of our athletics department,' one said, 'and you're housed there?'"

Current Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby is "fantastic," Thompson said. "I was at a meeting in Washington, D.C., when he was appointed, and everyone at my meeting was congratulating me."

Though PCA later moved its offices off campus, Thompson continues to have close links to the university. Like Dweck, he believes that effort, not some mysterious innate ability, is the key to sports performance. He would never say, however, that winning isn't important. He knows that it is very, very important. His organization rewards "triple-impact" athletes: those who have a positive impact on themselves, on their team and on the sport. To be a winner, PCA says, a coach must focus on effort, learning and mistakes.

Getting in the zone

One of the first big decisions for Stanford after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, was whether to proceed with the weekend's scheduled football game. Sports are a vehicle for testing our ethical principles. They often act as placeholders for larger contests.

Nicole Barnhart and Rachel Buehler

Nicole Barnhart (left) and Rachel Buehler, members of the gold-medal winning 2008 U.S. Olympic Women's Soccer team, at Stanford's Olympic reception on October 10, 2008.  
Photo: Kyle Terada/Stanford Athletics

The person called upon to stand on the 50-yard line and provide two minutes of inspiration at that game was Joanne Sanders, an associate dean for religious life and an Episcopal priest. She also occasionally gets called upon to bless Cardinal boats. She worked as a chaplain for the San Jose CyberRays and the 2002 Winter Olympics, and teaches a class on Sports and Spirituality, a project initiated with Jim Thompson.

If stadiums have been called modern-day cathedrals, the comparison does not sit well with Sanders. It's one thing for an athlete to get into a quasi-mystical zone. Dweck says it has to do with mindset; others might call it a form of spirituality.

But sports can also veer off into what Sanders calls "muscular Christianity." Most obviously in football, but also in other sports (including at the Olympics), evangelical Protestantism can be a problem, and some Stanford coaches have called upon Sanders and her colleagues for advice.

"We've created a monster with sports, and this is where I get ambivalent," said the former tennis coach. "I vacillate between love and hate. There's so much hero worship. In some ways, sports has gotten off the track."

But if hero worship is not a good thing, that doesn't mean there aren't the occasional heroes. For over a century, Stanford has been home to some of them, and that has always provided an inspiration to its scholars. At the 1908 Games in London, Sam Bellah and John Miller became the university's first Olympians. Bellah placed sixth in the pole-vault, and four years later, at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, he placed seventh. Go Cardinal, keep going.