A Philosophy Professor and Coach Sees Them Fitting Hand (or Ball) in Glove

By Liz Morris ’16 and Hannah Withiam ’16
Bob Simon

This interview is excerpted from one that originally appeared in the Nov. 25, 2014, issue of Change-Magazine, an online publication that draws submissions from college students on numerous campuses. The magazine “promotes student perspectives regarding social and political issues to a national audience, and connects passionate peers across campuses.”


Professor Robert Simon acknowledges that he has always had “two great loves” in life, aside from his family: philosophy and sports. It was not until he was encouraged to write his first book on the ethics of sport that he realized he could combine his passions into one area of study. Now, Professor Simon is one of the most respected scholars in the philosophy of sport field.

Professor Simon holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and had taught philosophy at Hamilton for 46 years [before his retirement in December]. He has served as president of the Philosophic Society for the Study of Sport and currently sits on the editorial board for the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. Although all of Professor Simon’s courses attract a wide array of Hamilton students, his Philosophical Issues in Sport class is particularly popular.

Liz and I have the privilege of being in his class this semester, in which we analyze common ethical issues in sports, such as gender equity and performance-enhancing drugs, and evaluate the arguments of different philosophers on these issues. We even read Professor Simon’s own published work, including his book Fair Play and a collection of scholarly articles, and we find that other philosophers often cite him in their work. His article “Does Athletics Undermine Academics? Examining Some Issues” particularly piqued our interest because it explores a topic that impacts our lives as student-athletes. Professor Simon argues that collegiate athletics, when done properly, are not incompatible with the school’s academics, but the two are rather mutually reinforcing. As coach of Hamilton’s varsity golf team from 1986-2000, Professor Simon has a unique perspective on how a school’s athletics and academic programs should support one another to provide students with the best educational experience possible.

We sat down with Professor Simon to gain further insight on his career and the role of athletics in a college or university’s overall mission.

Change-Magazine (C-M): How did you originally get into the philosophy of sport field?

Simon: It all started with a discussion I had many years ago with other professors in the Philosophy Department here at Hamilton. I said something like, “Winning isn’t everything, but I would sure like to experience it once in awhile,” and my colleagues at the time jumped all over me for overemphasizing winning until Professor [Rick] Werner, who had then only recently joined our department, pointed out to them that they were trying hard to win the argument. I told that story to the editor of my first book, and he said, “Why don’t you write a book on the ethics of sport?”

Since you have served as both head coach of a varsity team and a college professor, what do you feel is something that each side doesn’t understand about the other?

Simon: There are many faculty members and coaches who do understand things about each other, so I don’t want to overgeneralize. But I have found that at many institutions, some professors don’t understand how much athletics requires clear critical thinking as well as physical ability. Every day, athletes are learning to meet challenges and doing something they love for its own sake, especially at the Division III level. Similarly, some coaches don’t understand the critical thinking required in academics nor the demanding workload. I believe Hamilton and other NESCAC schools do strive to achieve the proper balance, and generally coaches and professors are both on board.

Is one of your motives for teaching the Philosophy of Sport class to make your students aware of the ways academics and athletics are mutually reinforcing?

Simon: My own research is actually in this area. I have taught great students at Hamilton, not only athletes, who engage in a pretty high level of discourse in my Philosophy of Sport class. I teach the class because sports are such a big part of our culture, with millions of people following them, and they must be studied academically so that we can strive to make changes and improve them in the future. Being critical about athletics is important because criticism can lead to change for the better.

What advantages do you see in athletic programs at the Division III level? How have your experiences at a DI and DIII school been different?

Simon: The ideal that we try to attain at the Division III level is that students can have a full academic life in addition to playing on a varsity sports team or participating in some sort of extracurricular activity. I’ve had students who have participated in all sorts of extracurriculars, and I’ve watched them acting in plays or playing in jazz bands. Coaches and professors are more understanding about student responsibilities at the Division III level. Especially at the NESCAC schools, athletes have the same academic duties as everybody else, and we don’t offer easy classes only for student-athletes to take.

How do you answer the critics who say that universities, mostly those at the Division I level, exploit their athletes financially and academically?

Simon: I define exploitation roughly as when one party takes advantage of the other in a way that it wouldn’t have been able to if the parties were more equal in the first place. If athletes are promised an education, but either the demands of the sport are too high or they are not prepared enough for the schoolwork to attain that education, then that is a form of exploitation. The majority of student-athletes are not going to be professional, so getting a quality education is the most important part of their college experience. When the school denies its students their right to a future, I see that as exploitation of the student. I do believe expanded scholarship money to cover the full cost of attendance for Division I athletes would be a good thing.

How can you defend a collegiate sports program in which few or none of its players graduate?

Simon: You can’t defend it. The program ought to be reformed in such a way that its athletes receive a legitimate education. Some reforms I would recommend are raising admission standards for athletes, preparing athletes better for collegiate academics, and reducing practice and travel time so that athletes have more time to go to class and study. Whether elite high visibility Division I programs can be reformed is becoming increasingly questionable. As we do here at Hamilton, I would like to see that coaches at larger institutions get evaluated as educators just as much as they are evaluated based on their win-loss record. That coach ought to be rewarded for graduating his or her players as much as for winning a championship.

What do you see as the benefits students gain from playing college sports?

Simon: College athletes acquire certain virtues through sport such as confidence, self-discipline and the ability to handle themselves in pressure situations. They should also learn to welcome analysis and criticism of their play, respect opponents and appreciate excellence. I wouldn’t say that sport is unique in this way, but it is one activity through which you can develop these values. Obviously the downside is that athletes can be so involved in their sport that it becomes their sole focus and they don’t branch out. That is why living a balanced life, particularly in college, is learning to balance several commitments. I also feel that college athletics provide student-athletes with a special opportunity to be the top performer at what they are doing on a big stage. Sports are often open to public viewing and, as in the performing arts, students can perform at even higher levels than their coaches or teachers.

What were your biggest learning experiences from coaching? From teaching?

Simon: As a coach, the biggest lesson wasn’t so much knowing the techniques or strategy of the sport but learning how to get a team to work through their differences in order to develop a loyalty to the group and be as productive as possible. I wanted my players to have open communication with each other and express themselves when they had a critical opinion or suggestion about how things were going. As a teacher, I’ve found that students respond best if you show them that you truly care about their development. I like to support my students at their extracurricular events, such as games and concerts or plays, and in turn, my students have always been supportive of me.

You’re a golfer and frequently discuss its merits in class. What are some of the elements of golf you’d incorporate into other sports?

Simon: I would list three. One, golfers need to have an appreciation for the activity while they are engaged in it instead of only focusing on how well or badly they are playing on a given day. Two, the mental side of the game is crucial to golf, and keeping an even keel would help athletes in many other sports. Three, respect for your opponent should be applied to all sports. In golf, you have to play alongside your opponents for three to four hours and even if you may not like them, you are expected to maintain civil exchanges — indeed opponents in college golf often become friends later.

What is an example of a hot-topic issue in sports that you didn’t anticipate had gray areas when you first began studying the philosophy of sport?

Simon: One issue that is frequently debated among philosophers of sport is the use of performance-enhancing drugs. I once thought there were easy answers for why athletes should not use drugs, and I still think it’s unethical, but the issue is much more complicated than I originally thought. Another issue is finding the right balance between athletics and other aspects of your life. Athletics can completely absorb people — players and fans alike. So the question is, how can you have a balanced life while achieving excellence in sports as well as other areas? I have also come to notice how issues in philosophy of sport relate to other issues in philosophy. For example, fair competition is crucial to an ethics of sport but can lead into discussion about what fairness would look like in the broader society.

Is there anything that you would like college students (and athletes) to hear or know?

Simon: One positive function that athletics can have on college campuses is to bring groups together to support athletic teams, which helps create bonds and healthy dialogue. I think it’s a shame that attendance at sporting events, and even at school plays and concerts, has been lower in recent years. Particularly at Division III schools, I don’t see as much fan support for women’s sports as I see at Division I schools. Athletics can serve as a venue to create a sense of community within because it attracts all sorts of people. It allows people to get to know each other and soften disagreement so that dialogue about other issues becomes more possible. One of the great issues in our society is how partisans of different ideologies can engage in productive dialogue. Perhaps by creating bonds across ideological grounds, sports can contribute to such a goal.

Talking Hamilton Sports

After the Change-Magazine article appeared, the Hamilton Alumni Review asked Liz Morris and Hannah Withiam to conduct a second interview with Bob Simon — this time focused on Hamilton athletics. After all, “Professor Simon may love sports, but there is nothing he loves more than Hamilton sports,” the authors note. “Even today, he and his wife, Joy, sit in the front row of every Hamilton basket­ball game screaming the ‘De-Fense’ chants with the same passion and volume as the students.

How do you believe Hamilton has handled its transition to the NESCAC since 2011?

Simon: Academically, I believe we have done pretty well, although the lengthened travel schedule presents a challenge for student-athletes. The trip to Maine, in particular, to play Bowdoin, Colby and Bates, is certainly draining. I think it would be beneficial for the NESCAC to add another team to the conference to form two divisions, a west and an east, in order to cut down travel. Athletically, the NESCAC is much more competitive than the leagues we were a part of in the past, although our teams are showing real progress as we adjust. While, in my view, it is not essential that we win championships in every sport, it is important to compete for them, both for the morale of the participants and to help bring people together on campus.

How well does Hamilton promote a balanced academic/athletic curriculum?

Simon: In my view, we do a good job. I am a big believer in enhanced communication between coaches and faculty. Most professors are supportive of their student-athletes but, in some cases, are concerned about students missing class to play in a contest. I would hope that, in such cases, professors do what they can to accommodate the demands of a college-sponsored activity like athletics and make an effort to help the athletes keep up with their studies, although I realize that, in some cases of conflict which cannot be resolved, academics should come first. A student’s academic welfare is primary. As a professor, I found that coaches were willing to communicate with me and took my concerns about academics seriously. To offer an example, the Philosophy Department once sponsored a particularly important lecture with a major speaker and all of the coaches I contacted about student-athletes in my classes let their players out of practice to attend.

Hamilton’s athletics teams each have an academic advisor who serves as a liaison between coaches and professors. What is the value of this system?

Simon: The value of the system for faculty is that they get to see what actually goes on in the lives of athletes affected by sports. For the students, it is beneficial for them to have a faculty member they can go to with their concerns, especially if there is no one else they feel they can talk to about them. I think the academic advisor program is a very good recruiting tool, and we can probably do more to publicize it.

Hamilton’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee has cited a lack of student attendance at sporting events as a problem with our sports culture. What are your thoughts?

Simon: I think the major benefit of fan attendance is that it provides relief for people, who are not necessarily participants, from the stresses of academics because going to games is fun. Athletics here is different from athletically elite Division I institutions because our athletes are students first who are playing out of love for their sport and not because they have an athletic scholarship. They are people we interact with every day and so there often are personal reasons, at least for me, for supporting them in their athletic endeavors. In addition, the play in NESCAC is much more competitive than I believe most people appreciate. We have real stars in athletics, just as we do in the arts and theatre, and they are worth watching for their skills and excellence. As a professor, I also found that, by attending games, I was more able to relate to my students in class. Students really appreciate it when you go to support them in their extracurricular activities and often are willing to work especially hard for you as a result.

Simon: Both are a very important part of our program and provide the opportunity for competition at somewhat less intensity than the intercollegiate level. I think participating in athletics at any level is not only healthy, but playing on a team requires students to be focused and organized. It provides opportunities to meet the challenges of the sport and learn from success and failure. Participation in athletics also provides a real outlet from the academic pressures found at colleges like Hamilton. Human beings find it fun to meet challenging activities, and sports are one sort of challenging activity from which we can learn. I’ve learned a lot from many of my failures in golf — although there have been some rare successes as well. Recognizing our weaknesses and learning to improve are lessons that I hope and believe often carry over from athletics to other areas of life. Of course, sports are far from the only area in which we can learn such lessons, but, in my view, they are one important arena for doing so. Like our Athletic Directors Jon Hind [’80], I believe they can support and reinforce our overall educational mission.

You and your wife, Joy, are huge fans of Hamilton basketball — both men’s and women’s. How does their game differ?

Simon: I think women’s basketball places less of an emphasis on pure physical strength. Their game focuses more on offensive ball movement and getting high-percentage shots. In men’s basketball, there is more of an emphasis on one-on-one play and having a strong inside game. I used to play pickup games with men’s and women’s players, and the play between the two genders was very different. Although I have to say that as women athletes are getting better, I think the two styles of play are getting closer. I think students can learn to appreciate both games because if people appreciate sports like men’s and women’s tennis, why can’t it be the same with basketball, soccer and lacrosse? As a reference, think of the popularity and support that the national women’s soccer team received during the last World Cup.

What are some of the biggest changes in Hamilton sports from when you first started teaching and coaching?

Simon: First, the level of play in Division III has risen and competition within the NESCAC is very high, across all sports. Second, the growth of women’s sports has changed the picture completely, and I consider it one of the biggest changes at Hamilton. Third, I think athletes today tend to specialize in their sport earlier, which I find unfortunate. You get kids who, instead of playing three sports, are only playing one sport since they are 13-years-old, which I don’t think is a healthy trend. Not only can people quickly burn out by focusing so intensely on one activity, but the specialization may also blunt their focus on academics and inhibit them from learning different lessons from different sports. For example, I noticed with my sons, that the lessons learned from basketball carried over to golf and vice versa.

Who were some of your first Hamilton role models in academics and athletics?

Simon: In academics, my department chair Russell Blackwood was one of my biggest mentors. I remember having graduate school teachers who would ridicule students for their questions, but Russell taught me that no matter how off base a student’s question might be, you should get that student to clarify and better formulate the question to help make the student look good, or at least not bad. This approach encourages the student to keep asking questions and get better as the year goes on. I cannot mention all of the other professors I learned from but some that come to mind are Jim Ring, Ed Lee and Sid Wertimer, who each took me under his wing. Athletically, Don Jones, who was a football and golf coach when I arrived, was a model of behaving as a “gentleman” in sports. I also learned a tremendous amount from the former basketball coach Tom Murphy about having a concern for excellence and achievement, which comes from teaching developing players. Finally, the first athletics director when I came, Gene Long, had a full appreciation for all aspects of our program, including club sports and intramurals, and was cited in James Michener’s Sports in America as running, at the time, what was considered the best athletics program in the country.

What have been some of your fondest memories of Hamilton athletics?

Simon: I will never forget some of the amazing performances by both basketball teams, especially in the late 1970s, and the men’s team that was #1 in the country from start to finish in 1991. The women’s lacrosse team winning the national championship in 2008 was a historic moment. The enthusiasm some of our teams attracted in the community when they were doing well is certainly memorable. Yet, most of all, I will recall the interactions every year with our players in all sports who have been friendly, welcoming and terrific people.

How is your golf game looking?

Simon: I’ve lost so much distance in so many years that I’ll be hitting it backwards soon enough. But I would like to imagine that there are ways to back that up, such as my short game, which I plan to improve upon. Perhaps I can write a book on rating training devices to develop swing speed.

About The Authors

Hannah Withiam '16

Hannah, from Greenwich, Connecticut, is a classical languages and comparative literature major, and a member of Hamilton’s soccer and lacrosse teams. She is also a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

Liz Morris '16

Liz, from Riverside, Connecticut, is an economics major and a member of the Hamilton golf team. She is also a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.


A new logo was introduced in the fall for Hamilton athletics with sport-specific versions available for varsity, club and intramural sports, as well as wellness activities. These graphics are in addition to a new College-wide mascot, “Alex,” who makes appearances at Hamilton events and is used as a figure drawing in printed material and on apparel.


Hamilton is working with PrestoSports to develop a new athletics website that provides dynamic design, ease of navigation and mobile-friendly features to convey the excitement of Continentals athletics while integrating more seamlessly with other colleges in the NESCAC.

Web Streaming

Hamilton now offers live streaming of all varsity contests (excluding golf and cross country), with play-by-play announcers, real-time scores and game clocks. This high-definition web streaming, provided by Northeast Sports Network, allows parents of student-athletes to “attend” their children’s games from anywhere in the world. Visiting teams’ fans can also view the contests.


Through interviews with students and coaches, a new video depicts Hamilton’s academic program, campus life, facilities and what it means to be a student and a varsity athlete at one of America’s top colleges. The video gives coaches another tool to recruit academically and athletically qualified students to College Hill. 

The following Hamilton athletics-related projects are have been completed or are in the planning stages awaiting the outcome of fundraising efforts:

Campus Road Fields

The outdated Astroturf field will be replaced with field turf for use as a practice field for soccer, lacrosse and football. A new Astroturf field will be built below the current field for field hockey and other purposes. Together, these two lighted fields will enable 50 percent of varsity athletes, as well as all clubs and intramurals, to practice and compete. Restroom facilities will be added so that athletes and fans will no longer need to walk to Burke Library or Taylor Science Center.

Delaney Team Center

Delaney Team CenterDedicated in June in honor of lead support from trustee Bob Delaney ’79 and his wife, Pamela Craig, the new team center is housed in an addition to Sage Rink. This facility, along with renovated team rooms in the Alumni Gym, provides all student-athletes with modern accommodations and ample space so that, for example, winter teams must no longer wait until the fall season concludes to access locker rooms. Since the original locker facilities were built, the number of Hamilton men’s and women’s teams has more than doubled to 29 varsity sports. With more than one-third of students competing at the varsity level, the team center also will help with recruitment of top student-athletes.

Emerson Athletics Lobby & Hall of Honor

Connecting Sage Rink, Bristol Pool and the Alumni Gym, the Emerson Lobby is the visual entryway to Hamilton’s athletics program. Long overdue for renovation, the space currently lacks a “wow” factor — a missed opportunity for making a strong first impression on prospective student-athletes and their families. Rejuvenated entry areas, and the addition of a “Hall of Honor,” also will build Hamilton pride among alumni.

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