More Than a Game: College Athletics Develop Integrity and Character

By Guest Contributor

Dear Hannah and Isaac,

I read your piece, “It’s Actually Just a Game,” with more than a touch of bemusement. I am the straw man you address with a strange amount of earnestness, stereotyping and half-truths, your qualification that it is “less a reflection about individuals” or should I say, disqualification, notwithstanding. The argument you advance, as I understand it, goes as follows; in the fairest and best of all worlds all non-academic activities would be given the same treatment. There would be no undue emphasis on any one activity to the exclusion of others. Your reasons follow this premise – better socialization, less fetishization, et cetera, and the result would be the de-emphasis of athletic superiority.

My admission to Middlebury way back in 1970 was clearly gained on my athletic ability. During my high school years I was less than an indifferent student, didn’t give a damn about my grades and rarely studied for exams; but I was a very capable hockey player and at the time an alumnus of the school brought me to visit Middlebury. I loved what I saw.

I knew I gained admission before the letters were mailed to everyone else. The coach called me (I guess he thought I might choose another school) and told me to act surprised when the admissions office would call confirming my acceptance. I’m sure I had the lowest grades of anyone entering our class – by far.

In those years the hockey team played almost half its schedule against Division I schools. When I showed up in September the coach was not too happy. I didn’t look like the same kid who had graduated from the elite, all-boys private school, (where they also wanted a hockey player and overlooked my disdain for good grades.) My hair was down to my shoulders and before he would let me play he told me to get a haircut. I told him to f*** himself. He didn’t let me play. 

Well, the team did poorly and my long hair became more of an issue. The team took a vote and I was accepted without a haircut. I remember the first game I played as a freshman on the varsity team against University of Vermont. We were supposed to get killed. I think I made about 56 saves that game and we won 4-2. It was a big deal. There were no uncontrolled breakouts of fetishistic behavior. The social fabric of college life wasn’t ripped apart; but there was a definite feeling of pride that Middlebury, which emphasized intellectual accomplishment, was the little college that could compete well against those who were geared towards competition on a higher level. And no one ever said anything again about longhaired hockey players. 

I lived for hockey. When the hockey season was over my freshman year I quit school a few weeks later. I asked to return just before school began the next fall. They said yes. By my senior year I was named co-captain. My relationship with the coach was ok, but never great. When I graduated I actually wanted to be a professional hockey player. I had a tryout with a professional NHL team and played in an exhibition game, but decided it wasn’t for me.

But a strange thing happened in the course of my four years at Middlebury. I ended up with a double major in philosophy and religion. I went to rabbinical school and became a rabbi and then acquired a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy. I have been a professor at three universities, which each had different characters. I have served a congregation with more than a thousand members and one with barely more than a hundred.

I learned two valuable things at Middlebury that I carry with me everywhere. The first is that knowledge and its pursuit is a wonderful privilege, but without character it is useless. This lesson began when I sat in the admissions office with Fred Neuberger, (the head of admissions) and he asked me questions that had little to do with academic achievement. It continued in my relationship with Professor Victor Nuovo who taught me philosophy and religion and so much more, as did others. Chaplain Charlie Scott encouraged me to think about a career caring for others. My four years of varsity hockey added an appreciation of teamwork and the value of competition that can’t be replicated. 

My conclusion from all these influences is that there is an impertinence to character that doesn’t exist in knowledge. I don’t mean it in the cheap sense but in the sense of wonder whereby character can’t be forced into the confines of fairness and equality. Character must always reject – and this is its insolence and inappropriateness – the urge to be forced into a neutral, average way of leveling the world through knowledge or any other means. Character remains impertinent when we are actually amazed by what we see in ourselves and in others, whether they excel throwing footballs or prefer knitting circles or research cell biology.

The second thing I learned at Middlebury is that fairness and socialization are significant pursuits, but without integrity they are trivial. My understanding of integrity might surprise you. It begins with the integration of our mental and physical pursuits when we recognize the need to strive to refine and use to the best of our abilities these elemental aspects of our existence – both our body and our mind. Physical activity and mental acuity have important things in common. They both require dedication and practice that neither one can supply alone to make a whole human being. There is no exact formula for the admixture of intellectual and athletic pursuits, and fortunately there is no character in doing nothing. 

In short that is why I am deeply committed to the education of student athletes – their intellectual and athletic superiority – in whichever pursuit. I still consider myself a student athlete at the age of 62. Yes, most athletics are actually games, but strangely they incorporate most of the aspirations and lessons that lead to a good life. We usually refer to that phenomenon as good sportsmanship.

I find other attitudes toward integrity are merely a kind of moralistic exercise in pedantry, which is beside the point, which sadly is the way I would characterize your essay. It leads to judgments about who attends class and under which circumstances. This kind of pettiness inadvertently reduces education to the lowest form of consumerism by depriving it of the freedom and spontaneity that engenders learning in a more profound depth.

Integrity is not merely a moral quality. It must be gained physically as well. Excellence in rock climbing is as valuable as fly-fishing or as stopping hockey pucks. There is no doubt in my mind that they require dedication, practice, skill, intellectual insight and physical attributes. And some colleges tend to value some of these activities more than others; it’s just that more people tend to like the excitement of watching hockey as entertainment rather than fly-fishing. And I don’t see the wisdom in making anyone conform to any type of entertainment and you would certainly realize that any physical activity could be fetishized. That includes the writing of polemical essays.

My experiences beyond Middlebury showed me that colleges, just as the people that inhabit them, have different characters. They emphasize different activities, ways of socializing and the pursuits they think lead to excellence. And when they do it without the burden of conformity and with the impertinence of character mixed with wisdom, they succeed. That was the Middlebury College from which I benefited. I hope that’s yours.

Your Straw Man,

Larry Perlman ’74

Larry Perlman ’74 is an alumnus of Middlebury College