Category Archives: academics

Academics and sports: Circular logic?


Here’s a puzzler for Pi Day:

Since one of the earliest written approximations of pi—sorry, my keyboard doesn’t have Greek letters—was found in Babylon (on a clay tablet dated 1900-1600 B.C.), and I (a practitioner of sports journalism) live in Babylon (OK, not that Babylon); and since ancient Greek mathematician and physicist Archimedes, credited with devising the first recorded algorithm for calculating the value of pi, was from Syracuse (OK, not the Division I college sports power Syracuse); and since Pi Day (March 14) also is the birthday of genius poster boy Albert Einstein, who is said to have hated sports as a young man but befriended Paul Robeson, the pioneer black singer and actor who had been an all-American football player at Rutgers….might there be some empirical link between nerds and jocks?

Is there some theory of relativity here?

The convergence of academia and athletics this time of year—that is, teams representing institutions of higher learning in the annual NCAA basketball tournament—in fact has increasingly taken the form of ships passing in the night. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics, 13 of the 68 teams involved in March Madness last year would not have qualified if the new threshold being phased in by the NCAA had been applied—that teams must have 50 percent of their players on target for graduation.

More and more, the most serious forms of academic and athletic pursuits appear to exist in a transitory, incidental relationship without lasting significance. Like pi, the separation seems forever. Especially since the entertainment value of sports—dramatic, unscripted—increasingly generates a never-ending perception that, while games are fun, scholarship is a solitary, punishing grind unworthy of television coverage.


The beauty to Pi Day—recognized by Congress in 2009 because the 3/14 date reflects the first three significant numbers in pi—is the way it stirs up a bit of geek goofiness, worth a good giggle. Grey Matter for Dummies. Pi Day even can serve as a reminder that sports and education are capable of co-existing quite well.

In 2008, a new sport called Pi Ball was invented in South Africa—supposedly on Pi Day—played on a circular court around a central circular ball strike area. Comparable to beach volleyball, with two players on a team separated by a net, it hasn’t caught on internationally. And certainly not here in the United States.

But here’s a better answer to what we may see as the sound mind, sound body conundrum: At MIT, where they really do do rocket science, boasting some of the world’s elite brainiacs among the student body, the football team was undefeated this past regular season.

(Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

(Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Not only that, but MIT has a really fun/intelligent cheer. (With pi included.)

E to the U,  D-U, D-X

E to the X, D-X.

Cosine, secant, tangent, sine, 3-point-14159…..

Integral, radical, U, D-V,

Slipstick, slide rule, M-I-T.

There. Problem solved.