As you may have noticed, I’ve been thinking a lot about athletes lately (it’s sort of hard not to, what with all this Olympics stuff going on). The place of athletes in our society and the veneration of athletes is something I find very intriguing, and also very difficult to swallow. I was going to expound upon my thoughts about this issue, but instead, I’ve decided to tell a story. Perhaps it will help me organize my thoughts so that I can talk about the Cult of the Athlete without foaming at the mouth. More importantly, I think it provides historical context.
When I was at Famous University, even the upper-division classes were usually so big that they had to be split into discussion sections to give students a chance to actually interact with each other, with an exhausted underpaid grad student at the helm instead of an actual instructor. We sort of got to know each other in the discussion section, not in the same way that students at a small college where people are actually encouraged to care about each other do, of course, but in a more vague “I recognize that face” sort of way.
One day, before our grad student arrived for a discussion section, several of us were talking about registering for classes. Registering for classes involved logging on to a massive automated system at a set day and time, and then picking several classes, and then getting another registration date to sign up for more. The system was, in theory, designed to ensure that everyone got a fighting chance to register for most of the classes they wanted, and there was a complicated ranking system which gave upperclassmen precedence, since they would be the most screwed if they missed critical classes.
I pointed out that disabled students were allowed to register before everyone else, which I thought was reasonable, given that some of the buildings on campus were not wheelchair accessible, and that disabled students probably had the need for certain accommodations.
“Actually,” another student said, “disabled students don’t register first.”
“Oh,” I said. “They don’t? But…who does?”
“Athletes,” she said, with a somewhat smug expression. “We get to register first.”
“But…why? That doesn’t seem entirely fair.”
She stared blankly at me.
“I mean, why should athletes be allowed to register first? They are students, just like everyone else.”
Now she was actively glaring, and she spat out “are you an athlete?”
There was a little pause, while I considered what I wanted to say. At Famous University, athletes were venerated in a pretty major way, so I didn’t want to say anything offensive, given that she was a discus hurler for the school. I am not, in fact, an athlete, although I respect athletes. I also don’t think that athletes should be elevated to a high position at an academic institution; encouraging students to be active is one thing, treating them like the geese that lay the golden egg is another. I couldn’t figure out how to articulate my feelings in a way which would promote further discussion, and I very much wanted to explore this intriguing state of affairs that allowed people with physical talents to jump the queue above all others.
Finally, I just said “no, although I have respect for athletes.”
“Well then,” she smirked, “you should just shut the fuck up then, because you have no idea what you are talking about.”
I was stunned.
What stunned me more was that no one else in the class said anything, and, in fact, I felt the mood of the entire group subtly shift against me. For the rest of the semester, I was an outcast pariah in the discussion section, all for daring to question the Golden Children.
And people wonder why I have a problem with the Cult of the Athlete in American society.