It's time to cheer for the MVPs of academics, too

I was an athlete-student for 17 years – from my elementary school days right up through my sophomore year at Amherst College, when an injury forced me to the sidelines for good.

"Athlete-student?" you ask, thinking I have momentarily reversed my syntax. But I use the term intentionally. If a child is equally accomplished on and off the playing field, he or she is far more likely to be heralded for athletic accomplishments than for academic achievements.

When was the last time your local paper featured stories with headlines such as, "Smith scores perfect 1600 on his SATs"? When was the last time you turned on the news to view highlights of your daughter's academic decathlon? Our society has diminished the importance of being a student first and an athlete second. Our athletes thrive on the international level, while our students fall further and further behind.

This value system became apparent to me during my formative years. In the fourth grade, when my Little League baseball team won the town championship, we were given individual trophies and our picture was mounted on the wall of the local ice cream parlor. A year later, I scored in the 99th percentile on a national standardized exam. For this achievement, I was rewarded with a handshake from my fifth-grade teacher.

In middle school I was selected as one of the school's outstanding athletes. In front of the entire student body and faculty I was honored by National Hockey League All-Star Adam Oates. I also received straight A's; for this, my mother honored me by posting my report card on the refrigerator.

I earned a 1410 combined score on my SAT and maintained a 4.0 grade-point average in high school. In addition, I taught Sunday School and was involved in many service activities. In my free time, I played baseball and was an All-Star pitcher.

When I started considering my college prospects, I was contacted by Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard, Holy Cross, Princeton, Trinity (in Connecticut), Wesleyan, and Williams. Yet it was not the professors or admissions officers of these prestigious institutions whom I heard from – it was the baseball coaches.

On each of my college visits, the coaching staff introduced me to a team member with whom I would stay. Generally, I was invited to visit on a Friday or Saturday so I could witness a practice or a game and then spend the evening socializing. During my numerous visits I attended only one class and met a grand total of zero professors. The experience left me wondering if I had it all wrong: Was I a student who played baseball or a baseball player who also studied?

Eventually, I decided to enroll at Amherst College in Massachusetts. I chose it because its small student body would afford me the opportunity to receive individual attention. (Coincidentally, Amherst's was the only college visit in which I attended a class.)

Even at Amherst, though, this "individual attention" manifested itself more on the playing fields than in the classroom. My coach devoted countless hours to analyzing my pitching mechanics, in an attempt to improve me as a player. I wish my professors would have as much time to discuss my writing mechanics.

As a baseball player, I was treated and instructed as an individual. As a student, I felt like one of the nameless, faceless masses. Let me be clear: This is not an attack on teachers or professors. I am fortunate enough to have been taught by some of the most intelligent and dedicated people the world has to offer. But to heap praise on those talented enough to excel on the field while ignoring the stars of our classrooms seems to be an inversion of the values we should perpetuate.

I realize that within American popular culture, sports are regarded as entertaining, cool, and sexy. Academics are not. Through a barrage of commercials, Major League Baseball has instilled in us that "Chicks dig the long ball." "Chicks" most certainly do not dig the extended history essay, the biology project, or the calculus exam.

I have no misguided dream of changing our social value system, for this may be impossible. I would, however, prefer an academic system in which there is room for "varsity academics" to coexist with varsity athletics. It's time for all of those involved in education to put the emphasis in "student-athlete" back on the student.

• Christopher Nasson is a member of the class of 2003 at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.

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