Where others see balls and strikes, posterizing slam dunks and steroid scandals, Bob Simon sees case studies in ethics and values. Take his inaugural experience as a Little League coach some years ago. He was assisting his Philosophy Department colleague Rick Werner, and Simon's very first game unfolded like this.
"Professor Werner was the head coach, but he had to go to a meeting before the game was over. We had a 14-0 lead when he left. He said, 'You can handle the rest.' I was a little concerned with fairness; I thought I'd give some of the other kids a chance to pitch. So it went to 14-2, 14-6, 14-8. By the last inning it's 14-13, the bases are loaded, and I don't have any pitchers left. Thank God a kid on the other team struck out on a pitch over his head to end it.
"The next day Rick asked me how it went. I said, 'Fine.'"
Simon tells the story with a comedian's timing, polished by repetition, but he's after more than a punchline. "It led me to think about an important issue," he says. "Sometimes you're not doing kids a favor by treating them all identically, without regard for differences. Is what happened really fair to a kid who can't get the ball over the plate? In that situation, inequality is not always an injustice."
Simon, who was known among his Little League charges to spring quizzes in the dugout, takes seriously the relationship between competition and cogitation. "Of course," he laughs, "the danger is paralysis by analysis," but the former golf coach, who is now a volunteer assistant with the team, has long been concerned about the role of athletics on campus and the often-criticized performance of athletes in the classroom. "Rather than assuming that athletics is 'taking away' from a student's academics," he says, faculty members can harness athletes' mastery of competitive skills — "how to come back from defeat, how to handle criticism, how to be honest about one's abilities" — to help them succeed. "These student athletes are passionate about what they do. They're willing to learn discipline," he says. "I think we can draw on that and challenge them in the classroom to do as well as they do on the playing field. And many do."
Simon also makes the case that athletics, like the performing arts, have a distinct educational role in a campus community such as Hamilton's. Sports provide "areas where students can be the best people on the campus," rather than mere "apprentices" to faculty mentors. Additionally, athletic events are a kind of popular language; "large numbers of people can appreciate the standards of excellence in athletic activity in a way that they may not in a physics class or a philosophy class." And finally, important ethical dramas play out for the community on competition's stage. "In a team sport, you can see if a player's selfishness drags down a team, or if a player's ability to sacrifice makes the other players better," he says.
What he does: The Robert and Marjorie W. McEwen Professor of Philosophy is the recipient of numerous teaching awards and the author of Fair Play and works on social, political and academic philosophy. He was recently honored by the Institute for International Sports as one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators. As a member of the NCAA Scholarly Colloquium on College Sports, he is recognized as an authority on athletic competition, social values and ethics.