Over the weekend I saw Chris Wallace being interviewed and he was talking about the state of the news on TV. He said that he blamed his father Mike Wallace in some small part for the demise of TV journalism. Mike Wallace is a personal hero who was among the very first public-facing people to acknowledge his journey with depression. I don’t have the stones to blame Mike Wallace for anything, but Chris Wallace made a decent case. He said that 60 Minutes, which was once the number one program on television, taught executives that you can make money with the news. And once they saw that…
Such is the case with college athletics, as commercialism has infiltrated every aspect. In Covell’s book, however, the story of the Little Ivies and their continuing aspiration of leveraging college athletics to push forward higher values (diversity, equality, etc.) gives rise to an example of what could be. The Little Ivies formed The New England Small College Athletic Conference in 1971 and since that time have negotiated an onslaught of challenge and changing times in the most Ivy of ways.
The Introduction to the book starts with a Sports Illustrated article from ’94, so we will start there too. The article is in praise of The New England Small College Athletic Conference, a conference of the Little Ivies with its own rules and standards. From the article:
But the NESCAC philosophy is to consider sports a part of that education, and in keeping with that, there are occasional special admissions considerations for an athlete, just as there are for a musician. “The sweatiest of the liberal arts” is how Amherst’s Gerety describes athletics. “Be it poetry, acting, philosophy or athletics, any youngster has more to give than what is called for in a traditional class,” he says. So justifying sports is not a problem.
From there, Covell writes his way through the story of the NESCAC in the tradition of the best nonfiction: entertaining, quick-paced, and knowing exactly where the high notes are. Covell himself does the best job of describing the book:
This book is a case study of how this group of private, academically selective liberal arts colleges in the American Northeast, which collectively created an educatory model for the country, experienced and responded to shifts in the competitive landscape of intercollegiate athletics beginning with the establishment of intercollegiate athletics programs in the late 1800s… which evolved to become NESCAC in 1971. Over the decades since, the group endeavored to manage a range of conflicts, including an image-altering decision relating to NCAA postseason championship participation, which has led to its current position ns the perceived “gold standard” of the melding of intercollegiate athletics competitive excellence with the “small-time” framework of the primacy of high academic standards.
Covell’s writing is tight, and his thinking clear. Covell is a storyteller to be sure. The walk through the history is compelling, and peppered with quotes that give you the feel of the times. But Covell is also an analyst, and his observations of how the NESCAC works the mechanics of college sports in such an Ivy way (my words, not his) serve as a guide for any business, and even at times, personal conduct. From recruiting to financial aid to institutional diversity goals to the 1993 decision to allow postseason play to the upcoming tsunami of player compensation, Covell covers the NESCAC’s higher ground thoroughly and economically.
My takeaway from the book might be different from what Covell, a Professor of Sports Management at Western New England University, originally intended. The narrative of a collection of schools agreeing to a stirring set of principles by which they would engage sport, and doing so unwaveringly, is a guidebook. A manual. Instructional. There is a spectrum of reaction every time we talk about Ivy values here, ranging from the demand for personal perfection before one can even broach the subject to the dismissal of these values as they pertain to the style. Both are wrong, and if you read this book, you read a masterclass in the argument for understanding these principles. Yes, the Little Ivies do not win as many championships. But in the story told in Covell’s book, they are dedicated to an educational experience that integrates competition with the power of thought and the pursuit of excellence. Winning a championship is important. Bringing every aspect of one’s self to the highest level it can be is MORE important. And doing so in an inclusive, ethical, and noble way? Covell and the NESCAC show us where the apex is.
You can meet Dan Covell at a book event sponsored by the Williams Club at the Penn Club on November 2. Here’s the link again to Amazon to buy the book, which you should do if you want an inspirational and aspirational read.