At an Ivy League university such as Columbia, I think it’s fair to assume that we are all aware of the august Rhodes Scholarship that often falls to some of the most motivated, engaged, and intelligent students in our ranks. The Rhodes Scholarship brings to mind prominent politicians and media members, not athletes—so we often overlook the second criterion listed in Mr. Rhodes’ will, which reads “energy to use one’s talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports.” Although the will is very clear regarding sports, some might dismiss this criterion as antiquated and therefore probably not considered by current Rhodes selection committees. This is not the case.
I did not really know about the role of athletics in Rhodes selection until reading about how Myron Rolle, a safety on the Florida State football team , chose to accept the scholarship and study at Oxford University before entering the NFL. I found it odd—and impressive—that such an elite athlete could also find time to earn the Rhodes. After doing a bit of research, I discovered the aforementioned clause and realized that sports definitely play into the committees’ evaluations. Rolle is an especially high profile Rhodes recipient, as he came from a blue-chip college football program and was also drafted into the NFL , but athletes really do comprise a rather large portion of the scholarship winners.
I recently looked at the biographies of the Rhodes Scholars over the past few years and spotted numerous athletic achievements along with academic honors, research experiences, and service projects. It seemed like almost every applicant in some way embodied Rhodes’ second criterion indicating that its spirit is very much alive. In fact, of the ten Ivy League Rhodes Scholars last year, eight were involved in athletic or outdoor activities ranging from varsity basketball, to taekwondo, to ski and snowboard racing—the last being the athletic pastime of Raphael Graybill of Columbia (who also won the Marshall Scholarship—which doesn’t look for any athletic prowess in the selection process). We see that applicants need not be varsity athletes playing prominent sports but certainly must acknowledge how integral sports must be to the selection process. There is a section of the Rhodes Scholarship webpage that discusses the importance of sports. It reads that committees “look for evidence of energy and vigor, which sports—or other activities—can provide” and goes on to say that sports neither qualify nor disqualify applicants but are certainly important.
I surely agree that athleticism is a desirable quality in what we might describe as the “complete” person, but “success in sports” as a criterion for the Rhodes is a bit strange when related to the practical nature of the scholarship. Rhodes Scholars can undertake a range of degree programs at Oxford, many of which are taught under the tutorial system while others are more research-focused and involve little classroom time. Of course, students could engage in extracurricular activities, including sports, at Oxford, but the information from the Rhodes Trust stresses that academic study is the primary purpose of the scholarship and those students who are not serious about postgraduate education need not apply. My point is that there is a disparity between the criteria for selection and the skills needed to excel at Oxford. The spirit of the selection criteria appears to be that the scholars should be civically minded and well-rounded so as to change the world for the better. I agree with this logic but think that individual study at Oxford might not be the best fit for such people. Although I run the risk of entering a larger theoretical discussion, I question whether our future leaders need to be Oxford-educated intellectuals or athletes.
The prestige of the Rhodes Scholarship elevates Mr. Rhodes’ personal belief that athletic achievement plays into future success in the mainstream. We look at Rhodes Scholars like demigods among humans—the award comes with an enormous cachet—and we begin to view their traits and accomplishments as things to be valued in every person. They are undeniably treated as the leaders of tomorrow. I argue that sports do not directly determine whether a person will successfully complete a postgraduate degree at Oxford. Likewise, do our leaders need a postgraduate degree from Oxford? There are three things on the court right now: the criteria, which include the “success in sports” clause, the scholarship, which enables study at Oxford, and the prominence of the Rhodes Scholarship.
I am not sure whether I think there is a problem with the Rhodes system. Mr. Rhodes’ second criterion and the rest of the Rhodes system simply prompted me to reflect on what I—and the rest of society—look for in the best of us. Students that excel in all imaginable areas, especially sports, continue to impress me, and I do think that certain people really can conduct scholarly research, play in the NFL, and hold elected offices in their lifetimes, using their manifold experiences and abilities along the way.
Benjamin Spener is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in economics-mathematics and Latin American and Iberian cultures.