I am an athlete. I play a game called field hockey for a living. My domain of excellence is a 60x100 yard rectangle of artificial turf where, wielding a candy-caned hooked stick, I strategically chase around a plastic ball with my teammates. It’s a silly, old, stick and ball game to which I’ve devoted the longest, most painful hours of my life. Strangely, I’ve fallen in love with it; not so much for its competitive thrills, but for what I’ve learned, and more so, become because of my rigorous, sixteen-year ‘study’ of it. The game has given me a voice, and that voice, like the mind that commands it, has been trained by discipline and diligence, to pursue the monotonous path of daily excellence – to fulfill the promise of higher learning and be a positive contributor to society, day-in, day-out.
More than an athlete, I am a student of sport; I’ve found my calling in the coming together of people to perform odd – seemingly meaningless – tasks exceptionally well: shooting a ball through a hoop, kicking leather through uprights, hitting plastic in a net. I’ve been made privy to the unique body of learning that lives deep within the heart of sport; the emotional stuff that moves human souls so curiously toward transcendence. And like so many others, I often wonder whether, driven by the dollar amount of given outcomes, we have misplaced, momentarily, the true value of sport in society.
I’m not sure. I don’t have the answer. Truth is, I haven’t always held sport in such a high esteem. I grew up on sport. It was all I knew. It was my escape, my change at greatness. I resented it. I thought it was an unworthy cause: a distraction from higher purpose, rather than a means of achieving higher purpose. I derided my mom for failing my intellect. “You should have pushed me into the arts and sciences,” I’d often rant; I blamed my family – my dad, my siblings – for making sport seem like the only way out; the only way to get a good education.
For years, I cascaded along a blurry trajectory, unsure how to mend a heart torn between my pure passion of athletic competition and the unyielding pressure to defy the social stigma associated with being an ‘athlete’. A ridiculous fallacy governed my mind, and shrouded my love of sport in a cloak of shame – that I – an athletic girl from a large family of athletes who grew up in a one bathroom home rules by a single academic mandate – my father’s infamous, “a ‘D’ and you’re done,” decree – never belonged in an elite sphere of higher learning, like college; and since I didn’t belong amongst the academic elite, I got the sense that I was less a person, less a part of society, less-needed, and less capable of playing my role in the world.
I was ashamed of my love of sports. I was ashamed of my family; that we didn’t have astute, worldly conversations around the dinner table; that we didn’t talk politics, or history, or religion. I was ashamed that my mom was a mom and my dad was a landscaper, that they never went to college and that the only think I knew about business was that my dad had to cut enough lawns every month to feed eight hungry mouths.
I went to the University of North Carolina, I desperately wanted to find my place in the classroom; I clothed myself with intellect – chose hard courses, rarely talked sports, and worked hard, really hard. I made it my mission to defy the stigma of jock and prove myself a scholar. For a long time, thought, I felt like an imposture, feigning belonging in the University’s scholarly world of wealth, privilege, and knowledge while denying a thriving existence in its competitive, no nonsense, performance-driven world of sport. Despite my insecurity, I managed good marks, was admitted to Kenan-Flagler Business School, and with time, and searching, I found solace at the University of North Carolina.
I guess I found a place where I belonged, where I could excel, in her classrooms and on her playing fields. Empathetic to my struggle; she valued my athletic talent, demanded that I use it to engage in an honest exploration of excellence while encouraging me to explore new, uncomfortable terrains of learning. The University of North Carolina granted me the freedom to discover my voice in an integrated, high-powered world of athletics and academics. She gave me opportunity, and an empowered sense of self. Even to this day, as I write these words, she fulfills the promise of higher education, making common individuals, like myself, meaningful contributors to our ever-evolving world. For that, I am ever thankful.