A Losing Season

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.

21 thoughts on “A Losing Season

  1. Guitardave

    blah(we didn’t win) blah(we didn’t win) blah…our values!… like a big soft comfy chair…

  2. Tom Doniphan

    “China is tightening its grip on the legal sector, with plans for a ­professional standard based to a great extent on each lawyer’s “political performance”. South China morning post 2017
    The “political performance” in higher education is what this is about. It counts more than in the halls of academia than education or sports. Vanderbilt did its bit last week. As law schools churn out ” woke lawyers” and after a few years be appointed or elected “woke judges” it will only get worse. And the new regime is going to stomp on the accelerator.

  3. DaveL

    The students wrote essays? They sat on panels? You got a lot of “likes” for it? I’m sure if some of his graduates were accepted at Yale Law, or got published in Nature, he’d say so. If the rate at which his students completed their degrees, or their rate of finding jobs post-graduation, had gone up significantly, I’m sure he would say so. Instead, we get word salad by the bushel. To me, that suggests he has nothing concrete to point to concerning the supposed holistic benefits of his coaching philosophy. At least he can say he isn’t the kind of coach who wins at any cost, even if it’s only because he isn’t the kind of coach who wins.

  4. PDB

    If he had said “My players didn’t win as much but they got good grades and all graduated with good jobs,” then his firing would be much less defensible.

  5. B. McLeod

    For today’s social justice warriors, their job is always this sort of posturing, no matter what their employers may think they were hired to do. For the ones who are attorneys, the important thing is to handle the case with all correct pronouns, not some narrow focus on whether or how long the client gets to spend time in jail. This guy is just the “coach” version.

    1. SHG Post author

      And like the coach, they take great comfort in their unassailable sensitivity to social justice, the fact that their deft got life plus cancer for jaywalking notwithstanding.

  6. Jake

    This is why my team sport always was and always will be sailboat racing. Leave your feelings on the dock and try not to drown each other out there!

    1. delurking

      That’s pretty rich (pun intended), coming from you. Should people be allowed to be that rich? I assume you only sail OPB, but then how do you countenance associating with those people?

      This is mostly tongue-in-cheek, by the way, but only mostly.

  7. Erik H

    This guy seemed to fall prey to the most common academic fallacy:

    1) He’s hired for a specific and highly limited skillset–basketball in this case.
    2) He takes his bully pulpit and forced-to-listen-to-him students, and decides that he is going to act like an expert outside the skillset–in this case social justice.

    I don’t know why teachers do that. Yes, they know more than their students in their specialty or they wouldn’t be hired. But why do they act like specialists in everything else?

    Maybe he would have won more games if he paid less attention to things other than basketball. Maybe poor kids would learn more math, too, if their teachers paid less attention to SJ and more to math.

    1. SHG Post author

      If the teacher is hired to teach physics, then the students are responsible for learning physics from him. But if he’s hired to coach basketball, are they obliged to suffer his indoctrination to social justice? What if they just want to play ball?

      1. miketrials

        Where, exactly, it is written that winning is a primary or dispositive component of being a COLLEGE coach? Maybe the school wants some social justice (as they define it) ladled into the porches of the players’ ears, too — unless it’s Oklahoma, which just wants to be a university the football team can be proud of. Mayhaps a better question would be whether the jillionaire businessmen roaming the sidelines in search of their next shoe deal might start being interested in graduation rates, let alone literacy, for their “scholar-athletes”? I played D-III, and can say from personal experience that college athletics are a beautiful thing in many ways. But it appears to have been forgotten that it is college football/basketball/whatever, and not football college. I’d suggest universities, especially public, have no real business (irony intended) being involved with the grotesque spectacle presented by the “power” conferences in major sports serving as farm teams for the pros, with luxurious athletic dorms, single-year scholarships and gross misuse of the athletes for the financial benefit of school and coach, coupled to a shocking lack of education attendant upon this bargain. As a bunch of lawyers shouldn’t we recognize this sooner than most?

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