Schwartz: Hawkeyes Learning In A Fishbowl

October 11, 2018

Written by David Schwartz

Last month some of my journalism students screwed up. On the cover of their college newspaper they ran a volatile quote without including who said the quote, and it made some people associated with the college look bad.

It was sloppy and shouldn’t have happened, and the students were embarrassed. They caught a lot of grief—as they should have. After a while another professor and I figured the students had suffered enough shame, so we reminded their critics that unlike students who major in engineering, literature or biology—all of whom learn through their mistakes—mistakes made by journalism students are made for the whole public to see. If a math major writes on a test that 2+2=5, her test isn’t printed off 5,000 times and distributed to the community.

This is what came to mind last weekend when Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley threw an interception against Minnesota so hilariously egregious that the only things missing were a bow and a gift receipt.

The pick was a necessary reminder of what we—or at least I—sometimes forget. Division I college football players are big, strong, fast people who don’t look like your average 19-to-21 year old. They’re also college students who major in football.

Amani Hooker isn’t just a business major, he’s a business and football double major. Stanley is double majoring in physical therapy and football. Football isn’t officially a major, but it should be because most college athletes spend more time training for their sport than they do studying within their academic disciplines.

Which means that they’re learning. And they’re going to make mistakes. And they’re going to make those mistakes in public.

It’s horrifying to think back to some of the mistakes or dumb decisions I made in college and consider what might have happened if they were broadcast live to 2 million people, then edited into 30-second highlight packages and shared over social media.

Like my journalism students, but on a far more public scale, college football players learn their craft publicly. They make themselves vulnerable to criticism from people who can’t possibly understand what kind of work they put in behind closed doors, before the lights of publicity and judgment are turned on and aimed toward them.

Because of this, it’s important to be patient with anyone learning a craft, even one with as little actual relevance to our everyday lives as football. It’s even more crucial to remember that learning is a process, and that mistakes—even failure—are a required part of that process.

Compounding this tension even more is our historical relationship to sport. We as a culture “buy” and “sell” professional athletes in fantasy leagues; we scream at youth-sport referees; we cry when our teams win the championship and when they don’t. As the writer Eric Simons observed: “Watching sports is insanely complicated—and very personal—but underneath the layers of personality and culture lie the biological and psychological roots of a universal obsession.”

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One might wonder, Wait, is Dave really suggesting we shouldn’t complain when the Hawkeyes play poorly?

No, complaining has nothing to do with it. Complain away. Complaining is normal, even healthy.

What I’m calling for is a more fundamental understanding of what we’re witnessing on a college football field. I want to shift how we think about the product.

It’s not just a football field—it’s a classroom.

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It might be a classroom with 70,000 paying customers—plus more than 20-times that amount watching from homes and sports bars—but it’s a classroom nonetheless. Although the Hawkeyes have accepted the responsibility of practicing, training and playing, it’s not their fault that we let their on-field performance control so much of our emotional well-being.

Let’s change the variables. Imagine if next weekend at Kinnick Stadium, instead of Iowa playing Maryland on homecoming, 50 Iowa students took the field in front of a full house to take their final exams in the UI business course, “Business Communication and Protocol.” Twenty camera people would encircle them. Every few minutes an annoying guy in a red cap would walk on the field and proclaim “pencils down for a media timeout.” And when the test resumed, every word they wrote, every sentence they started and finished, would be met with a cheer or a groan by 70,000 people.

Invariably, some poor student who has studied hard and might even have earned an “A” in the course up until this point would misunderstand a question or confuse a concept and write and answer so off base, so inexplicably dumb, that it defies logical explanation.

Because it isn’t logical. It’s just a mistake—like Stanley’s interception. Students make mistakes, even when they’re trying their hardest, and all you can do is learn from it and move on.

How would we react to the business student? Would we dwell on the mistake? Watch the instant replay? Tweet our incredulity?

Or would we consider the mistake within the context of the student’s larger body of work? Or the context of the situation?

Learning in public isn’t all bad. It teaches one to have thick skin, or that thoughtless, misguided, or uninformed actions have consequences that might affect others. But learning in public also exposes you like a nerve. It puts every flaw, every decision you make on display. It gives the world permission to tell you how good or bad of a job you’re doing.

It comes with the territory. College football players know that. But while the construct of American sport gives fans the authority to judge, how we choose to exercise that privilege is up to each and every one of us.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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