Photo of women's basketball gamePhoto credit: Texas A&M University
Magazine Feature

Sports Major

Competitive performance as a liberal art

By Lou Matz

Spring 2022

Until the introduction of a dance major in the first part of the twentieth century, colleges and universities in the United States had only recognized the development of intellectual skills as worthy of inclusion in liberal arts curricula. Dance, like music performance, had been an extracurricular activity in the nineteenth century before becoming part of the liberal arts in the twentieth. Today, playing a competitive sport is considered an extracurricular activity, and many faculty, particularly at institutions with highly commercialized Division 1 football and basketball programs, question the educational value of competitive sports as the costs to support them increase amid budget reductions in other areas. But Myles Brand, an academic philosopher who was president of Indiana University before being named president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), stated in his 2003 state of the NCAA address that “intercollegiate athletics must be integrated with the academic mission” if higher education is to justify their existence.

Indeed, I contend that playing a competitive sport should be reconceptualized as a liberal art based on two sources: Plato’s ideal education for rulers, which he describes in his Republic, and the history of pragmatic-oriented reform of the liberal arts in the United States. Moreover, analogous to dance or music performance, intercollegiate athletics should also contribute to a first-of-its-kind sport performance major, which I am in the process of trying to establish at the University of the Pacific, a non-football Division 1 institution in the West Coast Conference.

One of the core functions of a liberal art, and a liberal arts education, is to liberate or free the intellect from the tyrannies of ignorance, prejudices, superstition, and cultural misinformation. These forces, natural and social, impede the personal control of one’s thinking or intellectual powers. To develop the powers and habits of principled thinking creates new opportunities to improve individual and social well-being in private life, the workplace, and in the exercise of democratic citizenship and government. Why shouldn’t the liberal arts equally liberate the human body through competitive sports to exhibit an enlarged range of motion and open up possibilities of more complicated and skilled forms of physical movement, gaining personal control of one’s physical powers to improve individual and social well-being?

Rollins College

The liberal arts are widely recognized as the disciplinary and interdisciplinary programs in the academic divisions of the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. But their current configuration and their distinction from “professional” areas of study obscure the history of the shifting conceptions of their goals and subject matter in US colleges and universities. The changes to the liberal arts and the undergraduate curriculum that began in the second half of the nineteenth century show that the liberal arts and the undergraduate curriculum have responded to meet the individual, economic, cultural, and political needs of the current time, and so their goals and subject matter have never been fixed. This history shows a definitive pragmatic-oriented trajectory that can now reasonably incorporate competitive sport participation as a liberal art, literally making the human body a part of the body of liberal learning.

The original meaning of a liberal art is found in Plato’s description of what areas rulers in the ideal political society should study: mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and dialectic (the Socratic method). The distinguishing characteristic of the liberal arts was their general applicability and usefulness to all or many occupations, or techne, in the city state, or polis. For example, to learn mathematics was, Plato writes, the “common thing that all kinds of art, thought, and knowledge use as a supplement to themselves . . . that every kind of art and knowledge is compelled to participate in” (from Allan Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic). Astronomy—today’s meteorology—applied to fewer occupations but nonetheless to many vital ones, such as agriculture, navigation, and war. And dialectic, or philosophical dialogue, was the universal methodology to discovering what was real in any area of knowledge.

The liberal arts, the artes liberales, were first established in the European medieval universities in the eleventh century and consisted of seven areas of liberal learning: the “trivium” of grammar (reading), rhetoric (oratory), and logic (reasoning), and the “quadrivium” of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—arts to understand the natural world and applicable to professional occupations. These artes liberales were contrasted with the artes mechanicae, the crafts and services of the servile classes, such as building, making textiles, and mining.

The founding US colonial colleges inherited their liberal arts curricula from the medieval universities in Europe. The rigid four-year curriculum, Frederick Rudolph writes in The American College & University: A History, actually consisted of little study of literature, history, or philosophy and, instead, emphasized reading the classical languages of Latin and Greek, with the addition of some natural philosophy or physics in the second year, some metaphysics and moral philosophy in the third year, and some mathematics in the final year. The goals of the liberal arts curriculum were to discipline the mind and to form the manners, morality, and piety of a Christian gentleman. The study of the intricacies of grammar and of mathematics was considered to be the best general and foundational training of the mind, valuable for its own sake and purposely separated from any real-world concerns and from professional studies, like law or medicine, necessary, as Rudolph describes, for “the full discovery and development of self.”

After the US Civil War, however, the distinctive American university evolved from the colonial colleges to address the practical needs of a growing agricultural and industrial economy, the increasing importance of research and specialized knowledge in the natural and emerging practical-oriented social sciences, and the demand for knowledge and skills of potential leaders in the still-young democratic republic. These forces pressured colleges and universities to make the liberal arts more practical and relevant. The study of modern languages, especially English, became valuable for modern life, and institutions eventually eliminated the entrance requirement of knowing ancient Greek and Latin. Institutions created new disciplines—such as the study of government, history, economics, and psychology—to prepare students to understand and navigate the future.

Another significant curricular change in the second half of the nineteenth century that unwittingly had future pragmatic consequences was Harvard University President Charles Eliot’s gradual replacement of the prescribed liberal arts curriculum with a free elective system in which, according to Rudolph, students could study whatever they wanted based on their intellectual interests, except for a year of freshman rhetoric. Considering empirical findings in psychology that students have different intellectual interests and capacities, Eliot realized that the elective system could effectively address two longstanding problems with the classical liberal arts curriculum: student motivation to care about liberal learning, as Rudolph also points out, and the recurring potential financial crisis of not having enough student enrollment, as Laurence R. Veysey notes in The Emergence of the American University. Eliot, however, still firmly held to the classical assumption that the value of undergraduate education was not to be practical but to foster the enjoyment of learning and knowledge for its own sake.

In the twentieth century, the philosopher John Dewey appealed to experimental results in psychology to focus his philosophy of education on the value of practical and relevant experiences that bring to students’ attention real-world problems, which inherently motivate students to study and resolve them. The emphasis on real-world experiences led to new types of liberal arts courses and programs, such as American studies, to understand global and national events like World War I. Dewey, Frederick writes, believed that these kinds of practical studies “gave a new dimension to what for many had been the sterile disciplines of history and literature. Who are we and why? these new programs asked.”

In the second half of the twentieth century, the demographic of higher education increasingly included more Black, Indigenous, and other students of color, as well as more women, working adults, and international students, prompting institutions to reconsider the content and goals of liberal learning, such as how to give more attention to social and political activism and to inequalities in all domains of life. At the same time, institutions across the US began adopting general education (GE) programs, which at most colleges and universities are now synonymous with the liberal arts tradition and which might be viewed as the vestigial remains of the classical liberal arts curricula. Created to counteract the narrow, specializing tendency of the academic major through a program of broad learning, GE programs usually give students a menu of course options in the natural sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities. Some universities also have institutional specific GE courses separate from any specific liberal arts department and represent what the institution considers to be essential liberal learning.

Le Moyne College

Now, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, I believe the best defined and most compelling pragmatic vision of liberal learning is the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ framework of Essential Learning Outcomes, which emphasizes the importance of a liberal education both for individual students and for a democratic society. This framework includes both intellectual and experiential forms of learning that challenge students to expand their intellectual horizons and self-understanding to lead more personally fulfilling lives and to prepare them for a changing workplace and for national and global citizenship. It also emphasizes the importance of experiential and applied learning experiences that present real-world problems to solve. Nonetheless, like other practical-oriented reforms before it, AAC&U’s vision of liberal learning has excluded the educational value of physical movement and the potential, in the form of competitive sport activity, that it has for providing meaningful real-world experiential and integrative liberal learning.

At the university or college level, competitive sport athletes are those who receive formal coaching, practice regularly, and compete against other university or college institutions and who are athletically skilled upon matriculation (most have played organized competitive youth sports for years). In this regard, students who play in any NCAA (I, II, or III), National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, National Junior College Athletic Association (community college) division, or who play on a club sport team meeting the above conditions are competitive sport participants.

In the context of the pragmatic evolution of the liberal arts, the following four reasons justify reconceiving the playing of a competitive sport—what can be termed sport performance—as a bona fide liberal art.


Playing a competitive sport liberates human powers of the body and displays its excellences or virtues. In Practical Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity, R. Scott Kretchmar characterizes the liberating potential of the development of physical movement and motor-skill as “embodied freedom,” the power to move and to create new movements. The discipline of training the body makes possible the liberation and creativity of physical movement. For example, in basketball, one cannot make highly skilled offensive moves unless one has developed the physical strength, range of flexibility, and experienced judgment to get around the defense. The more offensive players control their physical power, the more freedom they have.


Participating in a competitive sport creates profound opportunities for self-reflection and self-knowledge. Playing competitively can promote self-examination and lead to profound self-knowledge, a core goal of the liberal arts. Self-knowledge is achieved not only through ongoing intellectual examination of self and society but through developing control of the body and in athletic competition with others, which creates challenges that reveal an individual’s emotional, cognitive, and physical strengths and shortcomings. How persistent can one be in the difficult process of mastering intricate sporting movement? Can one be honest in assessing one’s sporting skills and willing to accept criticism to improve? Can one exercise emotional self-control when opponents cheat or demean you? Can one handle the disappointment of losing or of injury? Can one show good sportsmanship during emotion-laden competition? Can one resist unwanted, and even unethical, teammate social pressure? Does one have the courage to confront racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs and actions from teammates, opponents, or even coaches? Can one remain calm in pressure-filled moments? How does sporting activity form one’s sense of self? Most of these questions open up dimensions of self-exploration that are only possible through athletic competition, which creates worthy tests of character and self-understanding.

Fisher College


Playing a competitive sport develops contemporary liberal arts skills. With appropriate coaching and athletic program leadership, competitive sports can develop the types of emotional and social intelligences that are much more difficult to develop in the classroom and with traditional curriculum, such as teamwork, leadership, intercultural knowledge, ethical action, and emotional self-control. In Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, Derek Bok recognized the liberal learning value of playing competitive sport, how “students are much more likely to learn about working effectively with others from playing on an athletic team . . . than from the solitary experience of attending classes and studying in the library” and that “learning to think more carefully and precisely about ethical questions can take place both in classes on moral reasoning and on athletic teams.” Athletic teams are also optimal environments for promoting interracial understanding since, perhaps more than any undergraduate activity, athletics often brings people together from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Bok alluded to the research of psychologist Gordon Allport, who found that the optimal condition to effect interracial understanding is when there is “sustained” contact. Competitive athletics provides this condition.


Playing competitive sports contributes to the formation of a holistic, integrated person. This point both returns to the ancient Platonic ideal education and fulfills a contemporary expectation that higher education should promote full human well-being. For Plato, training the body was not done only for the sake of the body but to develop mental powers and to form an integrated or “well harmonized” human being. Today, the notion of whole-student education has meant the development and integration of intellectual with emotional and social intelligences, of the liberal arts with professional education, of the curricular with the extracurricular and cocurricular, and of various contemporary dimensions of wellness (physical, emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual). A competitive sport major can in principle promote whole-student development in all these dimensions.

Sport performance should not only be considered a liberal art but should also evolve, as music and dance performance did in the twentieth century, to become an academic major. If implemented, a sport performance major would formally recognize the educational value of competitive athletic experience—in practice, in competitions, and through strength and conditioning training—as a performative component integrated with sports-related coursework. At the University of the Pacific, the proposed sport performance major would require three years of competitive sport participation. Students would take sport-focused courses in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and business, which would create an interdisciplinary educational experience and integrate the theoretical and performance dimensions of sport. All of the courses in the major would improve critical thinking. Required courses in mathematics and the natural sciences—such as Sport Analytics, and Principles of Exercise Physiology—would provide foundational scientific knowledge and strengthen quantitative reasoning skills. Some courses would focus on written communication, such as the Philosophy of Sport and Global History of Sport. These courses would also provide the historical contexts to understand significant social and political events and the meaning of activist athletes’ lives in their historical context, such as Jackie Robinson, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson, and Billie Jean King.

Click here for a PDF of the chart "Sport Performance Major Learning Objectives."

For specific sport performance concentrations (basketball, for example), coaches would establish the learning outcomes. For the major more broadly, the program director and faculty members teaching in the program would develop, with input from coaches, other learning objectives and outcomes. To improve employability or admission to graduate or professional school, students would be strongly advised to complete a supplemental minor in exercise physiology, business management, data science, pre-law, or strength and conditioning. All but one of these minors would require only three additional courses.

Click here for a PDF of the chart "University of the Pacific's Proposed Sport Performance Courses."

Establishing a sport performance major is largely a separate issue from the need to address the many problems with the governance of intercollegiate sport. The major can be implemented based on its own educational merits while issues about unfair financial compensation for athletes in high profit-generating sports, illegal admissions, illegal payments, and academic cheating are addressed. None of these particular issues affects the case to establish a sport performance major. Nonetheless, higher education needs to improve issues that adversely affect the educational experience of intercollegiate athletes, such as the amount of class time missed due to competition schedules and the amount of time required of athletic participation in and out of season.

Central College

Universities could indeed incorporate the development of skillful bodily movement and physical health in a liberal arts curriculum without a sport performance major. General education programs could require fitness courses (noncompetitive sports activities), such as yoga, spinning, running, and strength training, or informal sport activity courses. Such a requirement would be educationally worthwhile as part of an expanded conception of liberal learning. Nonetheless, these activities can neither provide all the aspects of a liberal art previously discussed nor provide them to the degree that playing a competitive sport can—for example, the extent of the sustained contact with others and the development of essential liberal learning skills like teamwork, intercultural understanding, and expression of sportspersonship found in competitive sport activity.

Ultimately, reconceptualizing competitive sport as a liberal art and a sport performance major would be both a return to the ancient Platonic past and a future contribution to the ongoing pragmatic evolution of the liberal arts.

Thanks to John Thelin, Carol Geary Schneider, R. Scott Kretchmar, Bill McDonald, Michelle DiGuilio, Bob Gillis, Greg Rohlf, Michael Madary, Jennifer Helgren, and Christen Aragoni for their excellent feedback on drafts of this article.

Lead photo credit: Texas A&M University


  • Lou Matz

    Lou Matz is a professor of philosophy at the University of the Pacific and an aging basketball player. He can be reached at [email protected].