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ISSUE 120 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/27/2006

Jock majors at St. Olaf? Numbers say athletes favor some fields over others

By Ryan Maus
Staff Writer

Friday, October 27, 2006

Chris Feehan ’07 peeks at the clock in the corner of his computer screen, quickly noting the time as he shuts down the program he is working on. It’s already 3:01 p.m. on this cold Friday afternoon, and although his class, Computer Science 284: Client Server Applications, actually lasts until 3:30, Feehan gives his professor a silent nod and quietly walks out the door.

No, Chris isn’t the sort of person who randomly walks out in the middle of class. Instead, while the rest of his classmates ponder the nuances of object-oriented programming, Feehan makes his way to Manitou Field for a different kind of challenge – executing a defensive scheme as complex as the most convoluted computer code. As the lone computer science major on the football team, Feehan is an exception to some surprising trends when it comes to the academic preferences of St. Olaf athletes.

According to recently released 2006 data, the 423 majors that have been declared by St. Olaf athletes do not conform to patterns observed in the general student population. Ole athletes tend to forsake the fine arts (music, dance, theater, art) and humanities (languages, religion, history) in favor of more “practical” majors such as the natural sciences, mathematics and social sciences (such as economics and political science).

In some cases, these trends are extremely pronounced. For example, a male athlete on the Hill is twice as likely to be an economics major as an average St. Olaf male; a female Ole athlete is also nearly two-thirds more likely to be a math major than your average St. Olaf woman.

For Feehan, a four-year member of the football squad, some of these trends have been easy to identify, even as he proved an exception to the rule.

“Starting football three years ago, I did notice that many of our guys were economics majors [nearly one-fourth of the current squad has declared the major], but it never really affected what I wanted to do with my life,” said the Ole starting linebacker. “Computer science and football are two of my main passions in life, and I’ve stuck with them.”

However, this calls to mind an important question: What might be some of the underlying reasons that those who participate in sports together have similar study interests? Sean Goldsworthy ’94, a former two-sport athlete and current men’s hockey coach, presents an interesting take on the phenomenon.

“The business world is highly competitive, and that’s going to attract a lot of ‘Type A’ personality people,” said Goldsworthy, whose squad also boasts over 25 percent economics majors. “And most of these natural science kids enter medicine, which is probably the most competitive field there is today.”

“It makes sense that someone who thrives in a competitive environment, like athletes, would be lured into environments like business and medicine – very challenging and hard-driving fields.”

Kelly Dolan ’07, St. Olaf’s top distance swimmer and an academic all-conference honoree, is one of eight (including all four seniors) math majors on the women’s swimming and diving team. She echoed Goldsworthy’s sentiments that the competitive nature of sport helps funnel athletes into certain fields of study.

“A lot of the athletes I know tend to gravitate towards competitive and challenging classes,” Dolan said. “Areas like the fine arts could be seen as more passive, and you could see a highly energized person getting bored in classes like that.”

Dolan also did not discount the possibility that fellow teammates help influence the academic choices of certain athletes, such as those on her own team. "There are a lot of kids who come here undecided as to what they’re going to study, and because [athletes] spend so much time together, you talk to your teammates a lot and find out what they’re interested in,” Dolan said. “Someone might say ‘I really liked this class’ or ‘This professor was really great,’ and one class might lead to another until you become a major.”

St. Olaf Associate Professor of Physical Education Gary Wicks has studied the academic preferences of Ole athletes in the past. His 2002 CILA (Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts) presentation dealt with a recent book by James Schulman and William G. Brown entitled “The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values,” which makes a number of observations about the role of sports at academically elite colleges and universities.

“While I think St. Olaf falls in line with some of the national trends, we’re also different in other ways,” Wicks said. “We’re such a selective institution that most athletes come here for academic reasons rather than athletic ones. I also think the nature of our curriculum forces people to explore many different areas of study.”

Wicks also discussed some of the potential pitfalls of athletes conforming too much into the same mold.

“The authors of ‘The Game of Life’ discussed how other extracurriculars can fall by the wayside [for athletes], creating what we might call a ‘jock culture,’” Wicks said. “Even though I don’t think this is a huge problem at St. Olaf, athletes here tend to live together, eat in the Caf together and take many of the same classes.” Yet Schulman and Brown’s exhaustive study found that although athletes at selective schools tend to do worse academically (i.e. grade-wise) than their non-athlete classmates, they also benefit from a consistent post-graduate earnings advantage over students at large. Oles such as Feehan confirm that even if St. Olaf does contain an element of “jock culture,” this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Football is as big a draw as academics for many of our players, so it makes sense that they would find things in common with their teammates off the field,” Feehan said. “These guys are their best friends at school, and over four years you can grow very close.”

In a society where sports clichés are ubiquitous in areas like business or sales, it appears that college athletes may already be primed for success in the outside world. Feehan, for one, sees many parallels between his studies in the computer lab and those on the gridiron.

“Football and computer science are each taught in a very ‘black and white’ sense,” said Feehan, who worked for a San Francisco Bay Area software company this summer. “If one little parenthesis is off in your code, the whole program might not work. In the same way, one misstep on the football field might lead to a blown coverage and a touchdown. Both activities require perfect precision.”

Athlete or not, once the doors of St. Olaf close after four years, the real “game of life” truly begins. In today’s competitive job market, those students hardened by the rigors of athletic competition may be the ultimate winners.

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