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Strictly Platonic: The Clash Between Education and Sports

In 2015, Time Magazine ran a piece exploring why student athletes struggled to maintain their grades and the numerous factors surrounding the problem. The article was in response to a report from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the NCAA’s investigation into more than twenty schools being probed for academic fraud – allowing players to forgo the same standards as other students in the classroom. As with so many issues we currently face, Joseph Campbell explored this matter years ago. What makes this exploration unique, however, is that Campbell investigated the topic through his fiction in Mythic Imagination, as opposed to the non-fiction writing he has become so well known for.

Strictly Platonic, a story Campbell subtitled The Romance of a Bookworm Who Lost His Goat and Found Himself Famous, tells the story of Jim Weston, a former college football player who now teaches at his alma mater. The narrative centers around Weston’s refusal to pass a star athlete in one of his courses, so that the All-American half-back will be eligible to play his final game for the school. Further complicating matters is the fact that Weston and the athlete, Larry Cobb, are both vying for the affections of the same woman, though Weston has kept the relationship non-physical as the title of the story suggests. This complicating factor, of course, has some people questioning Weston’s motives in not curving Cobb’s grades. 

Campbell makes the narrative’s theme explicit in the words of Weston, stating “We can’t just let these fellows wipe their feet on – on scholarship – on everything Wilton College used to stand for! Now can we? Why have these eligibility rules if we’re not to flunk a football man when he flunks?” (250) Such words might make it easy to forget that Campbell himself was an athlete, who valued experiences that developed the body as well as the mind. However, Campbell was also as committed, as the fictional Weston was, to scholarship. We might even assume scholarship was one of the great loves of his life. Research, reading, and writing filled more of Campbell’s time than perhaps any other activities. Scholarship and sports  rarely receive the same treatment on campuses, however. While money seems to rain from the sky on sports departments at institutions of higher learning, academic departments are constantly being scaled back, if not cut altogether. 

Sports certainly have their place on college campuses and can be a healthy part of the student experience. However, all too often in our modern setting, scholarship and academics are being treated as a sport. Popular disciplines are viewed like successful competitive teams. Research that may be slow and difficult, but necessary, lacks funding, especially if there is little evidence that the research will lead to capitalistic reward for someone. Some students choose the fields they enter with the same thought process they use choosing the team they will root for. Departments that don’t “win championships” for the school fire their leaders or close their doors. Scholarship may not be a contact sport in the way that football is. However, those dedicating their lives to it don’t hold their pursuits at a platonic distance either. Scholarship is inherently different from sports. It should not be viewed in the same way or held to the same short-term standards built around excitement, spectatorship, and financial possibilities. 

In typical Campbell fashion, there are a number of nuanced themes and topics at play in Strictly Platonic. Platonic love, the price of fame, and the dark side of well-meaning institutions all come under Campbell’s microscope at different points in the story. However, the central issue that Campbell seems to be dealing with in the narrative is not the ethics of bending grades, the complexity of romantic relationships among all those living life on college campuses, or even the place of organized sports in educational institutions. The real issue for Campbell seems to be finances

Football brings money into campuses. Scholarship usually does not, and thus is viewed with less interest. In Campbell’s story, even the pipe-smoking professor doing his best to convince Weston to look the other way with regards to Cobb’s grades exclaims, “Tickets for this game are going for fifty dollars apiece….” (250) Another character later advises Weston to think of all the advertising for the school, in an attempt to persuade him (254). Campbell seems to be reminding us that there are higher values than those to which we assign a dollar amount, and scholarship falls in that category. There are rewards beyond the financial. A key teaching from Christian mythology says, “…where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21) There are discoveries in scholarship that propel us forward as a society. The values that these treasures hold are beyond monetary gain or the momentary thrill of a game.


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