The first time I met Professor Christopher Mott, he confiscated a tennis ball I was playing with and proceeded to throw me a perfect knuckleball.
It was summer school 2010, and my American literature professor had just revealed a perfect version of baseball’s funkiest pitch, across a crowded classroom, no less.
Most students dread when their professors throw them curveballs. Personally, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to catch Mott’s knuckleball, a quirky pitch that starts one direction, moves somewhere completely different, then does the whole thing all over again before reaching the catcher.
Clearly, there is more to Mott than meets the eye, more than just his goofy, grin-infested personality and the fact that he shares a surname with my favorite brand of applesauce.
Here at UCLA, I’ve only had one English professor who was a pulled hamstring and dislocated shoulder away from the NFL.
Luckily for Mott, though, he had a pretty good backup plan when he was the starting center for Arizona State’s football team in the late ’70s. Namely, an interest in English and education that has led him to his current standing: one of the most popular professors in the department.
“I was in a position where things didn’t have to change very much (after missing out on the NFL by a hamstring),” Mott said. “How is it not common sensical to leave as many options open as possible, as many doors open as you possibly can until you have to start closing them?”
Sports are a precarious thing, here today but possibly gone tomorrow in the snap of a hamstring. Or in an arrest, an attitude problem, or simple bad luck.
It’s one of the two primary reasons UCLA established Community of Learners, an organization ““ now defunct because of a lack of funding ““ meant to allay any intellectual intimidation felt by incoming athletes and encourage a dual emphasis in athletics and academics.
But that wasn’t the only reason for the program; it was also formed as a defensive front to combat a worrisome stigma.
“There was a desire to cultivate some advocates on the part of the student-athletes, so that it was a two-way street,” said Mott, who was active in the program.
“The faculty members were learning that most of these individuals were strongly committed to education and spent time and effort and energy in their studies at a rate that often exceeded that of the average UCLA undergrad.”
There is certainly no denying that this impression exists here ““ that the blue backpack toters are here for a singular purpose, and it has more to do with three-point stances than three-point theses. Calisthenics over calculus, pole vaulting over poll voting.
Most of us are guilty of automatically assuming these things. It’s such a natural train of thought, even former college athletes themselves have succumbed to it.
“I was surprised at my surprise,” Mott says. “I was a little disappointed that I, too, had become acculturated into an academic elitism or assumption that these folks are different; they’re lesser, they’re not as committed or not as bright.”
As much as these ideas are popular belief, they also seem to be institutional, and they’ve been around awhile. Mott references a time during his first semester at Arizona State when an academic advisor placed him in a class called “University Adjustment and Survival” that featured, among other Draconian trials of academia, spelling tests. Did I spell “belittlement” right?
Mott said he felt “horribly insulted” and insisted that his adviser never touch his schedule again.
It’s absolutely true that the onus is on both athletes and non-athletes to alter these perceptions. But do members of the former group even have much of a chance, thanks to an atmosphere long cultivated by the latter?
What kind of educational revolution does it take to change inherent academic presuppositions?
“I always felt like the guys I played with were a lot smarter than folks gave them credit for,” Mott said. “I also saw among these athletes a culture that grew up, or an internalization that occurred, where they started to believe ““ because of the atmosphere and the way they were received ““ that they couldn’t really achieve as much as they could.”
Organizations like Community of Learners admirably try to solve both sides of the issue: encourage athletes to avoid jaded attitudes about school and build support for their endeavors from other areas. I’m sure (well, I hope) that there are other programs like this out there, but who knows if institutional efforts will be enough to change anything. Certainly not if they can’t get any funding.
We’re fortunate enough to attend a university that continually produces both world-class athletes and intellectuals, and a good number of individuals that possess both skill sets. Some recent athletes that have earned considerable academic acclaim include former basketball player Mustafa Abdul-Hamid and former football player Alterraun Verner. There are many others.
Still, maybe it’s not the best thing that I’m mentioning these guys here. Maybe it’s better if it’s not a big deal when an athlete also happens to be a pretty smart guy. Why wouldn’t he be?
“It’s kind of a paradox,” Mott said. “By the very fact of creating an exceptional, it creates an exceptional. Is that an exception to the student-athlete then?”
At the least, I think it’s safe to acknowledge that there are certain deep-rooted conceptions that could use recalculating.
Oftentimes, we expect something to go one way, then it surprises us and goes somewhere completely different.
Just like a perfect knuckleball.
If you don’t think he’s as smart as he thinks he is, email Eshoff at [email protected]