This “Household Words” column appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

People send me things: some nice–tokens of appreciation, bits of Macalester memorabilia–and some less gratifying, but either way the reception of such items is a necessary and expected part of the job. Among the “gifts” I received during my first year at the college was a copy of a cartoon from the Nov. 3, 1978, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune. Beneath a drawing of a very young, very dejected football player walking beside what appears to be his father is a caption–ungrammatical but to the point–that reads as follows: “If you’re playing that rotten because you got some dumb idea you’re going to go to Macalester some day, you can just forget it.”

Presumably my anonymous correspondent wanted to remind me that the history of Macalester athletics has, at least over the past few decades, been less than consistently triumphant–as if I needed a reminder of any sort. From the moment of my arrival I have been invited to ponder the past and present struggles of our program in football and, more recently, in women’s basketball (see page 10), and to reflect even more broadly on the role of athletics and recreation on a campus such as our own. A few of those reflections I would like to share.

Most important to recognize is the fact that athletics form a central part of the lives of many of our students and that it is therefore incumbent upon all of us at Macalester to think seriously and constructively about the subject. About one in five students at Macalester participates in intercollegiate athletics, a far higher percentage than at nearly any Division I school, and many more participate in club and intramural sports. To virtually all of them, their shared experiences with teammates, coaches and friends matter a great deal, regardless of scores and standings.

As for those scores and standings, it is helpful to remember that the results are considerably more varied than the conventional image of Macalester athletics might suggest. Not infrequently we lose; sometimes we win; occasionally we succeed on the highest level both collectively, as when our women’s soccer team won the NCAA Division III national championship in 1998, and individually, as when Ben Van Thorre was named a first-team Division III All-American in basketball in 2004. Attention is paid, and rightly so, when our participation levels in some sports are unusually low, but attention should be paid as well to the very high participation levels in sports such as swimming and cross country. And, clearly and consistently, our student-athletes are student-athletes: in 2003-2004, our women’s soccer team earned the highest cumulative grade point average of any team in the nation.

I am asked pretty often what success in athletics at Macalester would look like to me. My answer is simple: a program that comprises a meaningful, positive part of a student’s educational and social life at the college, one upon which any alumnus can look back with pleasure and pride. From any academic or co-curricular program we should expect nothing less.

This does not mean that we should yearn to win championships or measure success in simple terms; it means that we should do our best to provide student-athletes with the opportunity to succeed and support them in their efforts. It means that any student at Macalester, regardless of athletic interest or ability, should find some opportunity at the college to participate in activities that promote health and fitness. It means we should work to integrate athletics and recreation into the intellectual and communal fabric of the college and not imagine them as a thing apart.

In this area, as in so many others, we need both to celebrate our successes and remain passionately determined to do more and better for our students. We need to think about recruiting and retention, and about budgetary support. We need to attend games and meets and provide congratulations and comfort. Perhaps most visibly, we need to create spaces for athletics, recreation and wellness that are more inviting, useful and flexible than those we have at present, the oldest of which were built during the presidencies of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

Much more information will be forthcoming about the construction and fund-raising plans for this project, but already I have been impressed by the passion, energy and generosity of the alumni and parents who are volunteering their time and resources on behalf of Macalester students present and future. Without doubt, we will make this happen and we will do so soon.

Meanwhile, the cartoon remains tacked to my wall, a reminder.