Peck lectures on place of sports in education

Williams Director of Athletics Robert Peck concluded of the six-part Faculty Lecture Series on Thursday with his speech “Should Athletics Be a Part of the Academy?” Peck made it clear that sports should be an integral part of the college experience, provided that a “harmonious relationship between athletics and academics is ensured.”

Much of the beginning of the lecture focused on the origins of sport and then moved on to the actual development of sports in America. Peck gave much credit to the private academy for its impact on the pervasiveness of athletics today. He recognized the academy for giving attention to and encouraging athletics at a time when sports were considered a form of idleness in America.

He went on to say that with the introduction of competitive sports in the academy the problems in athletics, as well as the disapproving public opinion, eventually reached a point at which the academies had to make a choice to either ban athletics in collegiate institutions or create a governing administration to deal with the problems and set down regulations.

Even President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in and demanded that sports, especially football, be cleaned up and controlled by the universities. In 1905, at a meeting of 30 academic institutions, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was formed with the objective of ensuring “the regulation and supervision of college athletics throughout the United States.”

One of the changes put into effect by the NCAA was the separation of colleges into divisions and subdivisions based upon their athletic philosophies. Williams chose to enter Division III, which was guided by fewer regulations than Divisions I and II, but included the stipulation that athletics could not be a factor when awarding financial aid to students.

Controversy in athletics did not stop there; the incorporation of women’s athletics also brought about mixed feelings. According to Peck, in 1923 Williams College asked to be presented with the arguments both for and against the participation of women in collegiate athletics. Of the 154 questionnaires distributed, there were 98 replies from colleges stating athletics in the academy were perceived to have 14 major advantages and 15 disadvantages.

Among the listed advantages were athletics’ role in developing better muscle control, coordination, mental activity and quickened thought reaction. Peck agreed especially with the latter, suggesting that participation in athletics prepares and “aids women to meet the problems in the business world.”

Disadvantages mentioned in the questionnaire included doubts that women would be able to handle the emotional strain of playing competitively balancing sports with schoolwork. There was also mention of the effect that athletics would have on later childbearing years. Peck observed that many of these concerns and disadvantages have been laid to rest with developments in medicine and public awareness.

One of the most prevalent concerns about athletics in the academy has been that participants would neglect their academics. While Peck admits that this is a distinct possibility, he thinks it is most important to hire coaches who will keep the focus on academics and who believe that athletics and other extracurricular activities “should not impinge on academics in any slight fashion.” He believes that Williams has been successful in this endeavor and said testimony of this success was that, of the 33 Rhodes Scholars from Williams, 16 of them participated in athletics.

“I think we have an appropriate balance between academics and athletics,” Peck said, citing Williams’ winning of the Jostens Award for “a sound athletic and academic program.”

He went to state some of the arguments that he had heard in favor of athletics, one of which was that alumni support is enhanced by successful sports teams. One opinion he had heard was that, “alumni support is better when you have a winning football team.” Peck stated that it was his view that any alumni support gained because of sports at Williams came from alumni who had benefited from their participation in sports during their time here and was in no way based upon the current successes of the teams.

He remarked briefly on the fact that he thinks that the format of athletics in Division I schools is unsound. He is very critical of the professionalism that has permeated college sports and thinks that the “whole structure may fall in on itself at some point due to the financial issues surrounding college sport.”

He went on to say that in Division I athletics it is “difficult to tell…athletes that they cannot participate in the largesse that sports bring into the school…It is difficult to tell them to play for the love of the game when there is so much money involved.”

In closing, Peck said that Williams’ athletic and physical education program is “quite healthy” and caters to everybody. He mentioned that he had attempted to avoid the “trite, hackneyed, overused clichés as to why athletics should be a part of the academy” and it is in his opinion that “values can best be taught by putting people in situations where they will have to evaluate their response to challenging and sometimes stressful situations.”

He has also “tried not to, as the head of the organization, trumpet Williams’ successes but instead to use examples from people who have been influenced by sports as well as to provide relevant statistics.”

Peck, who will retire this year after over 25 years as Williams’ athletic director, feels that Williams has been successful in its attempt to find a proper balance between athletics and academy and that its many successes are reason enough why “athletics should be a part of the academy.”