Questions about the purpose, status, and level of support that an athletics program in a university ought to have are raised periodically and the answers may change with the growth or development of a particular university. Universities and colleges sometimes have distinctive missions; they serve within an educational and social environment which place expectations on them; students choose schools with certain expectations; and the realities of resources of time, energy, and funds are always part of the questioning. So what is the place of athletics in the environment in which we serve, and at FPU?
Let me outline a few thoughts. This is part of a new round of discussions that never really end, but which have surfaced once again. More could be said, and some will say I should say less.
- Athletics is part of the educational program at FPU, almost exclusively for traditional undergraduate students. Athletics have a long history in higher education, in ages when the university prepared leaders for government and the military, but also as part of the educational program generally. As universities became co-educational, athletic opportunities for women to compete and perform expanded. Leadership and teamwork are taught on the field or on the court. They cannot be learned without doing. Athletics is about doing and learning.
- This raises the further question. What is it that student athletes learn, that perhaps others do not or at least not as intensively? On several occasions I have had the chance to meet a group of business people many of whom have been student-athletes. They show certain characteristics that are admirable and are often learned on the court or field. The know how to work as a team. They understand that different members of the team play different roles. They are focused on goals (winning, achieving), and know that they will only attain those goals if each member plays his or her role well, and supports their teammates in doing the same. They hold each member of the team accountable, and expect to compete with energy. They also know that the game plan may have to change in response to a new condition that has arisen. They bring a sense of exhilaration, camaraderie, and fun to the work. These are all important lessons. Athletics teaches not by outlining and testing on these qualities, but by putting the student into stressful, public situations in which hundreds of their peers, parents, and instructors have the opportunity to watch and see how well they have learned those lessons. I suppose we should say that they also learn to live with public scrutiny and to bear the pressure of public review with equanimity. Most of this is unspoken. Some do not handle that pressure well, but all learn to work under it.
- Many athletics programs are values driven. This is an important element of a university athletics program. The NAIA has its Athletes of Character, and the NCAA II, Life in the Balance emphases. To compete one must do so fairly (play by the rules), respect ones opponent, and practice good “sportsmanship.” The game or contest involves others whose lives, abilities, egos, and reputations are on public display. We expect to see athletes compete with respect for their opponents–they shake hands after a match, and congratulate the winners for their win, and the loser for their competitive drive and ability. We do not enjoy watching arrogance or taunting. When it exists within a team, it can destroy the team’s cohesion. Those values are often driven home when the team or individual suffers a loss or a string of losses. It or the single athlete must rise above that loss, draw on or build strength of character and overcome the loss. By the way, for those who love the humanities, one of the most profound depictions of athletics in literature can be found in the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. It includes a powerful scene on the limits of human power, skill, enraged energy and glory as old warrior, Entellus, weakened and grown wise through his years, takes up the challenge to box the young, strong, and brash Dares. Aeneas wisely stops the fight, and then “his loyal shipmates took Dares by the hand,/ Weak-kneed, his head wobbling side to side,/ Spitting out teeth mixed with gobs of blood./They led him to the ships…” We do not have a boxing team at FPU.
- Athletics also provides a place where communal solidarity and pride are encouraged. We are most prominently “Sunbirds” when we are at a game or meet. It is not the only place where this may happen–music, drama, and service provide other venues, as well as student government. But it is highly public, as a large part of the community gathers to enjoy the competition, feel the adrenalin surge with our athletes, and experience defeat or prevailing over our opponent. “We won last night” is spoken not by an athlete or coach but by a student or professor the next day in class. Together we leave the field, stadium, or our events center, then travel individually to our homes feeling catharsis, pain, or exhilaration. Or we head out together for pizza to celebrate. Who can sleep right after a good game?
- Athletics provides public awareness for the university. Sports, we know, engage so many of the public that one of the most consistent ways that a university is known is through the regular reporting on the sports page of it contests and achievements. For this to happen the university’s teams must be competitive at their level, conference, and league. A losing program’s coverage gradually diminishes, as does its attendance, along with the quality of experience for the student-athlete. A Division II school will never get the same coverage as a Division I. If there are Div I schools in the same town, and pro or semi-pro teams as in Fresno, the recognition may get buried, or simply not be as visible. I love it when a friend comments on our win over a UC team. For positive public recognition, as well as for good competition to occur, the university must support and resource its athletic program to allow it to compete and when the time and team are right to be conference champions. Teams and athletics departments push for more funds, raise funds on their own, and like to point out the PR value to the university–it is real and consequential. A friend who becomes a donor may first hear of the quality of the university through its athletic program. The program symbolizes the quality, character and success of the university. It is an important contribution to the university as a whole, but it is not the whole of what symbolizes the quality of the university, nor the only program that encourages the growing of friendships and supporters.
- An athletics program must fit with the size, scope and mission of the university. FPU is now a Division II, NCAA school. We outgrew the declining, small school NAIA which had served us well for many years. The public and our students expect in a university of our type to see competitive teams that exemplify the success of students, and offer those students the chance to pursue it at a highly competitive level. They expect to see a thriving communal life made up of performances of all kinds, athletics prominently among them. We are not one of the elite academic institutions that has only club or non-scholarshipped athletics (Div III). We are not a Div I university where all too often athletics seems to dominate the stage. In an age when professionalism is valued as one of the goals of a university education, the athletics program must exemplify that value and expectation. But it also must be pursued within the limits of university resources (and new resources sought specifically for it). It is always a balancing act. Public recognition and resources come with quality and successful programs; athletics is one of the most publicly noticeable programs; it is not the only one–others must be resourced and allowed to teach in their way and exemplify that same high quality.
- What about us as a Christian university? Well, we are a university, and Christian universities compete as well as do others. As a university we exist within a culture that values and teaches professional accomplishment which is symbolized by athletics. We exist as a university subject to that expectation. Christian universities need and enjoy the events and achievements that build solidarity and communal pride, and we need and enjoy friends and donors. We hope that our programs have fewer rules violations that our coaches teach and our student athletes learn better and more integrally the values and virtues that athletic competition and performance teaches (see 2 and 3 above). As a Christian university, we want to be engaged in this kind of education and in this part of our culture. We desire to pursue an education for the body and heart, as well as for the mind. Athletics is an opportunity for this kind of education.
These are just a few thoughts to help us continue the conversation about the purpose, status and support an athletics program ought to have in a mid-sized regional Christian university like Fresno Pacific. We are fortunate to have the athletics program that has been built by a long string of energetic and resourceful Athletic Directors, outstanding coaches, and supportive presidents. We are proud (I know that is not necessarily a Christian virtue) of our athletes and their accomplishments. We are humbled (that’s better) by the support of loyal fans and donors to the university and Sunbird Athletics over the decades.
Tonight Sunbirds Soccer plays at 5:00 and 7:00 on Ramirez field. See you at the games!