Applying Menand’s Theories to Modern Sports

Blog Post #4

Section 10

In Louis Menand’s “Live and Learn”, he proposes three theories for the purpose of college. Theories two and three fit perfectly in studying changes in all levels of sports in recent years. Theory two values the well-rounded experience college provides. It claims that what you learn from academic, social, and individual experiences is the most important aspect of college. On the other hand, theory three claims college is all about specialization and giving one the necessary knowledge and skills for a specific place in the professional world. Just as theory three helps explain the increase in popularity of non-liberal education, it helps explain the increase of sport specialization.

Pictured is Jim Thorpe: arguable the greatest athletes ever

Pictured is Jim Thorpe: arguably the greatest athlete ever

In the early 20th Century, the best athletes played multiple sports. Jim Thorpe and Babe Didrickson Zaharias are widely considered the greatest male and female athletes of their time periods. What attracted people to Thorpe and Zaharias was their uncanny abilities to succeed at the highest levels in multiple sports. Thorpe played professional football, basketball, and baseball, while also earning gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in the Olympics. Similarly, Zaharias thrived in golf in which she won 10 major championships, basketball, and Olympic track in which she won two gold medals. Later on in the century, incredible athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders succeeded in two professional sports, but not nearly to the same degree as Thorpe and Zaharias. Nowadays, the greatest athletes specialize in one specific sport.

Eric Dunning believes modern sport is becoming increasingly competitive

Eric Dunning discusses the competitiveness of modern sport

One viable explanation for the growth of specialization in sports is the increased competitiveness of modern sport Eric Dunning discusses in his work titled, “The Dynamics of Modern Sport”. Increased knowledge on working out, dieting, and physical development has led to more people being bigger, faster, and stronger. Due to the explosion of the sports industry and the opportunity of a free education, many young people aspire to be collegiate and professional athletes. The increase in athleticism and interest in sports has made sports much more competitive and harder to compete in multiple sports. People believe that if they  put more focus on their best sport, they will gain advantages over their peers through increased practice time and experience.

This specialization has trickled down to youth sports as well. Growing up, I played about six different sports competitively and always played something different every season. My theory on youth sports fits into Menand’s second theory on college. I enjoyed playing for the experience. I loved the competition, I got to develop life skills such as leadership and teamwork, and I made some of my best friends who I still keep in touch with to this day. More people, however, are beginning to lean towards the specialization theory, the equivalent to Menand’s third theory. The rise of travel sports leagues and people taking sports lessons has given children access to playing one sport all year. Children focus on one sport with the belief that it gives them a better opportunity to develop their skills and play at higher levels. While advocates of theory three would argue for this idea, I believe that the experience of playing multiple sports is more valuable than putting all your work into one sport with the hope that you can play in college or in the pros. When it comes to sports, I am a believer in Menand’s second theory.

-Aaron Simon


2 thoughts on “Applying Menand’s Theories to Modern Sports

  1. Pingback: Michigan Sport Business Conference & The Experiential Learning Process | THE BIG HOUSE OF IDEAS

  2. Nice post, I agree that sports are definitely starting to shift towards Menand’s third theory. I couldn’t help but think of Michael Jordan as I was reading this post, because he is someone who specialized in basketball for all his life and then took some time off to pursue baseball. He is living proof of multiple theories of Menand. However, I also thought about Jordan in today’s context and whether or not he would still be able to take the same type of time off and come back without missing a beat. Nowadays, specialization is so prevalent that I think it probably wouldn’t be possible. If you look at MJ back in the late 80s/early 90s (and even Kobe at a young age) they were so skinny because, as you said, there was less of an emphasis on diet and weight lifting. I question how dominant MJ would be today against guys like Lebron James because I don’t think that MJ had the type of strength that Lebron possesses as a result of the sports word shifting towards Menand’s third theory. I think this shift is also a sign that the business interests of organizations like the NFL and NBA aspire to a higher playing levels in order to increase fan engagement and revenue.


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