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May 21, 2013

Eyes on a different kind of prize

Outcome-oriented athletic mindset does not align with UChicago’s prevailing academic ethos.

When I arrived at UChicago last fall, my first 11 days on campus were spent exclusively with athletes. This was, of course, because I got here in mid-September, and athletes were the only students here. Campus was pretty empty, the weather was beautiful, and my only legitimate concern was practice. On the Friday before O-Week, I left with my team to compete in our regional ITA tennis tournament in Indianapolis. I was at the tournament until Sunday afternoon, and I didn’t get back to campus until that evening. When I walked back into Max East, which I had moved into some five days earlier, it was swimming with students, suitcases, boxes, and parents. The whole aura of campus had changed. It was no longer a jock’s playground; it had transformed overnight into the academic institution that it’s known to be.

As orientation ended and fall quarter wore on, I noticed that, by and large, my fellow students really didn’t care about sports—UChicago or otherwise. Furthermore, this indifference influenced not only basic interactions between students, but also the fundamental nature of social culture at UChicago. I realized that our school is a place where, for the most part, athletes hang out with athletes and the rest of students don’t. Obviously all athletes have friends that aren’t athletes, but we primarily associate with our teams and other teams. While I don’t know if this divide is a good or bad thing, I certainly do wonder why it happens.

Obviously this divide is not unique to UChicago. Venture onto the campus of almost any Division I school and you will find an athletic culture that exists apart from the school to some extent. Yet the marked difference between these schools and UChicago is that athletes at Division I schools undeniably receive preferential treatment. Division I athletes are often given scholarships, access to armies of private tutors, piles of free clothing, and judicial leeway. Their lives are, quite simply, made easier by their universities. If their university treats them differently, it only makes sense that the student body would.

But these perks and special treatment largely do not exist once an athlete gets to our campus. Aside from being given registration preference in their very first quarter, the only other perk a UChicago athlete usually gets is a free water bottle. Yet, somehow, athletes still find themselves separate from the rest of the student body.

Perhaps this divide occurs because admission requirements can be relaxed for athletes, and thus the rest of the student body feels they don’t belong. Then again, it’s also possible that athletes simply choose not to venture away from their teammates because the associations that the athletic network provides are easy ones. Teams are often ready-made social cocoons, beyond which athletes have no incentive to venture. These are probably both contributing factors to the divide—yet, even if these obstacles were removed, I think the chasm between athletes and everyone else would still exist.

The mind of an athlete is something that for a long time was foreign to me. I didn’t start playing tennis seriously until I was about 15, and, up until that time, I never really understood how competitive I was. But sports taught me that I hate to lose and that the pain of losing is far more intense than the joy of winning. Ask any athlete whether she hates to lose more than she loves to win and chances are she’ll say yes. Moreover, I came to understand that the mindset of an athlete is probably the most outcome-oriented one that I will ever encounter. As someone who is naturally far more interested in the method than the objective, it took quite a while for me to warm up to the idea that the outcome is everything.

An athlete has one job: Win. So it makes sense that she would only be focused on the outcome. Trying to make things pretty or trying to enjoy the process to its fullest can often lead to an undesirable outcome: a loss. This win-first mindset is one that athletes bring not only to the playing field, but also to the classroom. A good grade is what’s important, not necessarily what’s required to obtain it.

This is why I think the gap between athletes and the general UChicago student body will never be bridged. The idea that makes UChicago what it is—that of the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of the pursuit itself—is distinctly at odds with the mindset that is required to be a successful athlete. After all, an athlete who is not concerned with outcomes will not be one who wins very much. I think this is the core of the issue, the essential reason that UChicago athletes will never be a central part of the school’s spirit: In a world where winning is do or die, there’s no room for the life of the mind.

Liam Leddy is a first-year in the College.

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