As the University of Washington Huskies won the softball national championship 3-2 against Florida Tuesday (June 2) and Northwest viewers were enveloped in the joy of the achievement, I couldn'êt help recalling the one sports-oriented inquiry I'êve heard most often since I started teaching full-time at UW 15 years ago. In various forms the 'êquestion,'ê often with a wink and nod, has been in the form of a statement: 'êAthletes get special treatment, right?'ê
The answer in my experience is: 'êYes. They get special treatment from themselves. Unless you were in excellent shape you wouldn'êt want to follow them around for a week because it would be like participating in a triathlon you might not win: school, sports and (least of all) sleep.'ê
I'êve been lucky to welcome student athletes ranging from Olympic gold-medal winners to borderline-anonymous swimmers, sprinters, and assorted second-stringers. With zero exception, they were motivated by the drive to participate, knowing they'êd probably never make a dime off professional athletics and might not get any sleep that night because of late practice and a paper that was due the next morning.
A coxswain on women'ês crew had to be repeatedly nudged awake by a teammate, herself fighting to keep the lids wide during ponderous 9 a.m. lectures that came nearly four hours after the pair had prepared for Olympics greatness in the frigid brine near Montlake.
A miler bound for the Bay Area sent repeated e-mails reiterating promises to get an assignment in on time, even though he'êd be away for a long weekend at a meet. His work arrived before that of any of his classmates.
A cross-country runner sheepishly asked whether I'êd grant her a missed-class dispensation and repeatedly promised that she'êd be sure to furnish me a note from her coach about how the team was, uh, as if I didn'êt know, competing for the national championship (which it won last fall).
In short, the students athletes I'êve known have comported themselves in school no differently from most of the non-athletes who invariably have other obligations. It isn'êt widely acknowledged (or appreciated) that many students at the region'ês leading commuter school work jobs (several, sometimes) and have family obligations. I'êve had multi-tasking mothers borrow my office to change baby diapers between trips to UW computer labs. Winter quarter there was a guy in his early 50s who needed to leave a 12:30 p.m. class no later than 2 p.m., hoping he'êd catch light traffic so he could punch in on time for the swing shift at Boeing.
The non-athletes with such obligations are motivated by some of the same reasons as the sports competitors. But the latter have something extra and, in the case of the champion softball players, something memorable: They get to participate in activities for the sheer joy of it.
It'ês doubtful anyone could have seen any part (especially the final week) of the Husky women'ês 2009 march to softball greatness without noting the spirit they exhibited. It speaks to the admirable possibility of the purity of sports. It also ought to have us acknowledging the joy among less-celebrated students, who this week might find the occasion of the latest Husky national championship to say to friends and relatives about a softball stalwart: 'êYeah, I have her in a class. I just texted her a congrats. This is great. I hope we both do well on the final next week.'ê