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Coach Odysseus

— I try to focus narrowly on residential college news in these Collegiate Way bulletins, since there are many other sources of general higher education news available online. But occasionally I branch out to other areas of interest, and today I report on a brief educational commentary I made elsewhere.

The September 4th edition of The New Yorker magazine carried a suite of education-related articles, including one by Peter J. Boyer, “Big men on campus,” about Duke University and its current athletics scandals. The article was written as a profile of Richard Brodhead, Duke’s president, who took office two years ago. I have generally had a high opinion of Brodhead, and when he moved to Duke from Yale University I even suggested here on the Collegiate Way that a residential college system might be in Duke’s future. I still hope that will be the case.

But one of the first scenes Boyer described in his New Yorker profile was a remarkable act of pandering to a manipulative basketball coach by the new president soon after he took office, and then an attempt by Brodhead to justify the importance of the institution’s sports program with an analogy designed to appeal to liberal arts majors (and perhaps readers of The New Yorker). Boyer wrote:

When I asked Brodhead how his experience at Duke has informed his thinking about the place of big-time athletics in the university, he cited Homer. “If you go back and read the Odyssey, who is Odysseus?” he asked. “‘Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending.’ And his ways of contending are intellectual, and they’re strategic, and they’re political, and they’re athletic. And so it seems to me that that would actually be at the foundation of it—it’s the image of excellence.”

Now, I’m not a Classicist—and neither is Brodhead—but I do I know a bit about Odysseus, and the notion that Odysseus should serve as an “image of excellence” to be emulated within higher education is disgraceful. Odysseus does actually reflect the character of big-time college sports, as practiced at Duke and elsewhere, but not in the way Brodhead intended. In today’s edition of The New Yorker (9 October 2006) the editors kindly printed the brief reply I wrote in response to Brodhead’s comparison:

Richard Brodhead, Duke’s president, attempts an apologia for big-time college sports by invoking Odysseus as an “image of excellence.” But another reading of Odysseus shows him to be a manipulative, self-aggrandizing liar, a deceitful opportunist, and a thief. He never stands up to the incompetent leadership of Agamemnon, he spends years in alcohol and dissipation, and what passes for his personal courage is, more often than not, just egotistical recklessness that leads to the death of his own men (which he is always quick to blame on someone else). Maybe Odysseus does have a lot in common with big-time college sports after all.

I’m a great believer in the value of liberal education, and so I would indeed recommend that all Duke students devote some time to the Odyssey during their undergraduate careers. From it they may learn some valuable lessons that will help them understand the universe of corruption that is big-time college sports today.

Update · 20 April 2007 — Another element of Odysseus’ history, not mentioned above, is that he was a mass murderer. But an excellent one, to be sure.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021