Column: Ivy athletes succeed on more than brains
Last Friday, though, Jaguars defensive end Aaron Kampman was placed on injured reserve, freeing up a roster space. This season has, even by the violent standards of the league, been an injury-plagued one for Jacksonville. As of the beginning of this week, they had 27 players on injured reserve — more than half a normal team of 53.
Which means, simply, that Colin Cloherty had not been one of the first 80 or so players used in some game-time capacity by fired head coach Jack Del Rio or interim head coach Mel Tucker. The Jaguars had a gap to fill 27 times, and 27 times the stopgap was not Cloherty. He did not fill the vacated position. Either he was not talented enough or he was not even on the radar.
On Sunday, he was on the radar. He lined up on special teams and recovered a fumble by Tampa Bay Buccaneers punt returner Preston Parker, taking it eight yards for a touchdown. A nice story. And hey, even nicer? He’s an Ivy League graduate!
A Brown graduate, to be specific, although most articles on the subject don’t care which Ivy League school it is. In these articles NFL players are either awesome, brainy Ivy League graduates or, more often, they’re not. The list of active players with such a degree is not a long or illustrious one. Matt Birk, a six-time Pro Bowler at center, got his degree in economics from Harvard and is now in his 14th year in the league. His Wikipedia page mentions his 3.8 grade point average in high school and 34 on the ACT. Zak DeOssie, who played at Brown, is the longsnapper and special teams captain for the New York Giants.
And perhaps most famous of all: Ryan Fitzpatrick, playing the quarterback glamour position in Buffalo, is a Harvard man. There are disputed reports on his score on the Wonderlic — a test administered by NFL teams with the intention of roughly estimating intelligence — but most seem to agree that it was somewhere in the vicinity of 48 out of 50 and was finished in record time.
I’m not belittling the athletic careers of these men by acknowledging their academic ones, or at least I am not belittling them in any new way — you would be very hard-pressed to find a substantial piece of writing on any of these three men that does not include at least a mention of their alma maters.
What people seem to want to believe is this: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a good quarterback because, regardless of his physical ability, he is somehow able, by virtue of Harvard or something, to outthink opponents and therefore outplay them. Come on: This is just a silly thought. Fitzpatrick is an NFL quarterback because he is talented enough to be one. Birk is a good center because he does a really, really good job at blocking the guy in front of him. When Fitzpatrick was at the forefront of a revived 5-2 Bills team, he was the intelligent leader the team needed.
Now the team stands at 5-8 and all the political science classes in the world wouldn’t stop Fitzpatrick from making a whole lot of bad throws, including a couple of impossibly errant ones that were intercepted this past weekend. Where’s that Ivy League education when you need it?
Being good at school and being a talented professional athlete have nothing to do with one another. That they are unrelated should be laughably obvious to anyone who thinks about it for 30 seconds. If bringing up Birk’s GPA were just a fun fact it would be harmless, but instead there is always some implied causal relationship.
I might as well tell you that LeSean McCoy’s favorite food is pizza and then expect you to nod your head and say, “Oh, yes — that explains it.” Book smart players can be good; Eli Manning, whom most people seem to think is an idiot, scored a 39 on his Wonderlic and went to Ole Miss. And book-smart players can be bad; think Drew Henson’s 42 and his Michigan diploma.
Peyton Manning scored a 28. Tim Tebow scored a 22. Dan Marino scored a 15. Michael Vick scored a 20. Fitzpatrick might tell you to set up a scatterplot in order to see just how little order there is.
Sportswriters are just writers, men and women of letters, and I think most of the public’s idolizing of sports figures comes from a reasonable desire to make athletes less alien. NFL players are men who dedicated themselves to something in a way that none of us — and I mean that honestly, none of us — can understand. That sort of monomania in the academic world is, for the most part, limited to the realm of scientists brilliant enough to drive themselves insane.
The things we consider most difficult — a premed class, a thesis, a dissertation — are frankly jokes when compared to the level of intensity needed to excel as a professional football player (which is, of course, to say nothing of their relative importance). When we tell ourselves that a player is good in part because of his or her intelligence, we are telling ourselves that there is at least a speck of the things we have been repeatedly told to value in their success.
But that’s a narrow way of thinking and a narrow way to go through life. Athletes are sometimes academics and sometimes not, but they definitely don’t need to be, and they definitely don’t give a shit whether anyone thinks they are or not.
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