This Sporting Life

By Grenier, Richard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

This Sporting Life


Grenier, Richard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Gazing fascinated at the latest magazine photograph of basketball star Dennis Rodman in full dress, with lipstick, mascara, tatoos, bleached hair, rings in his ears and bells on his toes, my mind drifts back to Thomas Arnold. Father of English poet Matthew Arnold and headmaster at Rugby, the celebrated English public school (private to you), Thomas Arnold was a great educational reformer.

Before Arnold, in mid-19th century, young gentlemen at Rugby studied principally Latin and Greek, but Arnold introduced several sensational innovations: mathematics, modern history, modern languages, and sport - the last for moral reasons, to build character.

Sport wasn't popular with all products of what soon became the general British educational system. In Ireland, James Joyce, a great figure of modern literature, said his vision of Hell was "an eternal rugger scrum." He hated it. But Arnold managed to convince thousands that the rough and tumble of the playing field developed qualities of character that no books or scientific laboratory could produce. He felt it taught young men to strive, to endure physical hardship, to deal with defeat as well as victory. It was a necessary part, he felt, of a gentleman's education.

But is Dennis Rodman a gentleman? Does he have an admirable character? If Rugby's Thomas Arnold were alive today, contemplating Dennis Rodman, one suspects he might feel something had gone wrong. On the other hand, Mr. Rodman is not the sort of person - nor frankly of the social class - that Thomas Arnold had in mind. Indeed, with increasing popular affluence and leisure, Arnold had no notion of how these English sports (often adapted) would spread throughout the world.

And he certainly never contemplated young gentlemen playing sports for money. With the development of professional sports and their ascent into the dizzying realm of high finance, he might well have washed his hands of the whole business.

Sport was certainly not a major part of the musical education of Madonna, who has a personality which for vulgarity has much in common with Dennis Rodman. Nor, on a more respectable level, did sport play a major role in the education of Pablo Picasso, Alexander Solzenitsyn, or Albert Einstein. I rarely fail to astonish Americans when I tell them that a major event of the athletic year in Europe is not a traditional soccer match between the Sorbonne and Heidelberg. From a European point of view this would be like Harvard Business School playing soccer against Yale Medical School. Don't the students at elite schools have better things to do than play children's games? In search of something even vaguely athletic, I once went down to the basement of Sciences Po (the elite French Institute for Political Studies) and found only a few exercise weights. Like all the other elite European schools, Sciences Po has no "teams" of any description.

In Europe there are plenty of sports, mind you, soccer, bicycle racing, skiing, but none connected with the educational system. …

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