If your kid came home from college, where he was studying physics at not-insignificant expense, but didn’t learn quantum mechanics, you might be a bit miffed. But, your beloved child explains, he did learn to be more compassionate, to contextualize his privilege. Just no quantum mechanics. Is that a problem?
Two winning seasons, followed by four losing seasons, mark the end of my tenure at Saint Michael’s College and possibly my complex relationship with a profession that I did not fit into.
Those are the parting words of Josh Meyer, head basketball coach at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. His two winning seasons came with a team that his predecessor coached. His four losing seasons are all his. But then, winning wasn’t everything.
My values as an educator were challenged within a system that was a business of winning basketball games, often compromising the overall development of student athletes as people. While our win/loss percentage was far from stellar, we have developed a distinct culture in our program where basketball has been leveraged in order to help many student athletes have meaningful learning experiences through team sport. Student athletes have graduated from our life lessons 101 curriculum with a degree that is grounded in leadership, community, critical thinking and contextual awareness. Their experiences as members of our team will allow for increased success and happiness in all aspects of their lives.
Whether Meyer’s self-congratulatory explanation is true can’t be known. Without a comparison, who could ever know whether success and happiness were increased at all, no less in all aspects of their lives? Of course he believes what he did was impart virtues, like “leadership, community, critical thinking and contextual awareness,” whatever “contextual awareness” means. But was his job to teach his personal version of “life lessons 101”?
The opening analogy to physics is, in a way, unfair. No one majors in basketball at college, at least not technically, even if they go with the intention of ending up going pro. They are still, in theory at least, student-athletes. They are still, in theory at least, there to be educated, even if they never put their education to use. And if you’re NBA material, chances are that you’re not matriculating at St. Michael’s College.
To the extent that Coach Meyer took his role as an educator seriously, he’s right that his job goes beyond winning games.
For me, such outcomes are much more rewarding than winning a game. They are evidence that we’ve nurtured a true educational space that transcends the technicalities of the sport.
For the past several years, our team has engaged with each other and the community in an extensive dialogue on taking a knee during the national anthem. Student athletes have participated in panels, written essays and released statements to encourage conversation on this topic and the meaning behind it. The process has been a beautiful display of people with diverse narratives taking part in a civil discourse to provide a multidimensional picture that is as nuanced as the society in which we live. Our team has led other initiatives that shed light on systemic racism within our criminal justice system and has advocated for LGBTQ+ rights.
Whether this is what the parents of these student athletes sent their children to college to do is unclear. Meyer tells of the thank you notes he received, but not of the students who walked away from the team, who didn’t want to be indoctrinated into Meyer’s social justice ideology, who just wanted to play basketball. Even worse, who wanted to play ball on a competitive team, because win or lose, winning is more fun.
Was Meyer hired to be head coach of the college to turn his team into the sort of players who kneeled at another college, UVM? That’s what they did in 2017, and their host, and its students, didn’t appreciate turning their campus into St. Michael’s proving ground for social justice. It’s not a question of their “right” to do so, or whether it was the right thing to do. As far as I’m concerned, it wasn’t merely fine, but admirable. And when the team returned to UVM the next year, it was far less controversial.
But the St. Michael’s bastketball team, which was once a division competitor, was now known for kneeling and losing. Is that what a head coach is supposed to accomplish?
Team sports offer a pseudo-family environment, often with student athletes from different backgrounds, who have a shared passion for the subject matter and who depend on each other as they pursue a common goal. I have found that most student athletes seek a coach who will see and care for them as people, not just as players. These conditions create an ideal space for teaching and learning to take place, beyond the sport that is being played.
Team sports can’t help but be a “pseudo-family environment.” Your teammates become family, love them or hate them, and you depend on each other. You get to know each other. You get to understand each other. It’s not that someone makes you, but the nature of being a member of a team. It doesn’t “create an ideal space for teaching and learning.” It simply is, and can’t not be, when you practice and play, and really just live together.
Most college basketball coaches do not have the appropriate training to provide holistic educational experiences, where all aspects of human development are nurtured. Many coaches have obtained positions and advanced on the basis of their ability to navigate a profession where athletes are the commodity and winning is the currency. In the power conferences, where basketball is not to be confused with anything other than a professional sport, coaches are handsomely rewarded for their ability to win.
Coach Meyer’s concern for his players, for his role as teacher, for the lessons he can impart beyond dribbling and lay-ups, is admirable. But as he tacitly notes, his job was to win basketball games, as that’s the currency of coaches. It’s the physics prof’s job to teach quantum. It’s the head basketball coach’s job to win games. Is it the job of colleges to indoctrinate students into social justice ideology at all?
Josh Meyer probably wasn’t a good fit for a head basketball coach, not because he cared about his athletes as students and people, but because he didn’t care enough about winning games too. That was his job, coach, not secular priest.