His daughter has a sporting chance

Judith was home sick when she called for the day's homework and got the news: Her basketball teammates had elected her one of three captains.

She just started high school this year, and she had turned one possible school down because, among other reasons, "they don't take sports seriously enough." Watching players do agility drills in the movie Coach Carter during winter break, she said, "That's what we should be doing."


She went to school on a morning she'd been feeling queasy rather than miss practice. And she thinks she's lucky, because a scheduling quirk gave her two physical education classes instead of a language.

My daughter, the jock.


Me? I've lived by the slogan, "So many books, so little time." When I was about her age I'd just discovered Robert Maynard Hutchins' line, "When I feel a desire to exercise, I lie down till it goes away." When I discovered it, I felt that I'd found a friend and guide.

What I didn't know then was that Hutchins -- famous as the president of the University of Chicago who took the school out of the Big 10 Conference in the 1930s -- had the natural grace to make his attitude plausible, never mind attractive. And I didn't understand that Hutchins' all-mind-no-body approach to life was as wrong as the football-factory outlook he opposed.

It would have been hard even for an adult to get all that 40-odd years ago. The Kennedys were trying to get more "vigah" -- remember "vigah?" -- into American life, and there was much talk, especially by physical education teachers, about Bobby Kennedy's call for daily 50-mile hikes. Alan King, the comedian, reacted with another line that struck a chord with me: "What are we gonna do, wrestle the Russians?"

High school physical education back then was about as enjoyable as trigonometry, Latin or a root canal: laps, rope-climbing, push-ups and calisthenics supervised by the football coach. (The coach at my school, a local legend, was a slave driver who, in one jaundiced memory, made the University of Maryland's Ralph Friedgen look svelte.) That and the normal philistinism of adolescents, especially adolescent boys, would have pushed any reasonably bookish kid into Hutchins-ism in sheer self-defense. And I was more susceptible to Hutchins-ism than most.

A precocious reader, praised to the skies for it by my relatives and teachers, I had let it turn my head long before high school. I denied that skills that didn't come as easily as reading could possibly be worth learning, or that I could possibly learn them even if they were. Besides Hutchins' and King's lines, I had one of my own: "If at first you don't succeed, quit making a fool of yourself." If I hadn't picked up, goodness knows where, a taste for walking I might have been a total wreck before I turned 30.

In any case, I hit my 20s with neither physical nor social graces, and a strong inclination to rationalize the lack of them rather than do anything about it. I've been working intermittently at compensating ever since.

Judith has done the opposite of what I did at practically every stage of life, and it's worked. She disproves something that bookworms, at least the kind of bookworm that I was, want and need to believe: that skill at sports doesn't translate into anything important in the real world.

Judith navigates the maelstrom of adolescence with supreme self-confidence. She's a good friend to both sexes, a good companion to her older sister and stands up to her mother and me in a way I half admire in spite of myself.


And through all this, she's pulled excellent grades, sometimes against pretty long odds.

Is her academic performance caused by her athletic ability? Are the two things caused by something else? It's hard to believe it could be a coincidence. (And it matters that women's sports don't provide enough money or publicity yet to turn their participants into spoiled egomaniacs as men's sports do too often.) But Judith the jock looks as though she's going to do well at whatever she does. Wouldn't it be funny if all those clean-living sports taskmasters we bookworms sneered at had a point?