Sports and American Society

How sports affect American culture

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

USC Honorary Degree: A Worthy Nomination

Every year USC awards an individual with an honorary degree, “the highest award that the University of Southern California confers.” This individual is nominated by “any faculty, staff, student, alumni or USC Trustee” and then selected by the Office of the Provost to deliver the commencement speech to the graduating class. As a USC student, I have evaluated each of the requirements and components necessary to be awarded an honorary degree. Based on these criteria, I nominate David Robinson to be this year’s award recipient in humane letters for the spring of 2007. As stated by James Freedman in his book Liberal Education and the Public Interest, “in bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most" (117). Robinson personifies these high ideals by excelling in his athletic profession and continuing to inspire through his various contributions and community efforts. When choosing a candidate, Freedman warns that “there are of course risks to colleges in the granting of honorary degrees. Perhaps the greatest risk is that a recipient will turn out, in retrospect, to have been ill-chosen" (130). Throughout his career and into retirement, Robinson has demonstrated the same reputable character and integrity that is upheld by this university. I am confident that Robinson is a solid and deserving candidate who would embody a positive example and present a dynamic speech to the graduating class of 2007.

David Robinson is a former NBA basketball player who is considered to be one of the greatest to ever play the game. Freedman touches on those concerned with celebrity nominations, stating that the honor is “trivialized by decisions to garner a fleeting moment of public attention by awarding an institution’s ultimate accolade to mere celebrities-who are often famous principally for being famous…In recent years, athletes have [even] come into favor" (126). While Robinson’s success within the NBA is not the full extent of his nomination, it is nonetheless significant and commendable. Athletes are an example of individuals taking something that they love and making it a career. While some may feel that athletics do not require adequate intellect to garner such acclaim, the high level of competition, strategy, and physical exertion certainly makes the profession credible. In this capacity, professional sports can be considered what Mike Martin calls in his book, Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics, a craft motive. When describing sources of satisfaction within this category, he states that “individuals will tend to embrace professional ideals that evoke their interests and talents with sustained challenge and complexity” (22). Sports reflect this occupational concept by translating the action to the eager audience. Furthermore, USC’s reputation as a prestigious university benefits from selecting a candidate who is "highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor." Robinson had a historic career, even being selected in 1996 by the 50 Greatest Players in National Basketball Association History, indicating his place among the elite. During his time in the NBA, which lasted until 2003, Robinson made significant contributions both to his team and to the San Antonio community.

Robinson was a 7’1" center who was drafted as the number one pick by the 1987 San Antonio Spurs. Although drafted, he did not start his career until 1989 due to his obligation with the Navy. His father was an officer in the Navy, inspiring Robinson to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy as a mathematics major upon completing high school. Robinson was 6’7" when he entered the Academy before growing seven more inches (students taller than 6’8" are not permitted to enroll). While at the Academy, Robinson played NCAA basketball where his final two years he was a consensus All-American. As a senior, Robinson was awarded two of the most prestigious honors in college basketball, the Naismith College Player of the Year and the John R. Wooden Awards. Even though he was drafted by the Spurs, he served two years in the Navy before being released from his final three years of service as a Lieutenant Junior Grade because he was too tall to be deployed. He remained a reserve and later participated in many recruitment campaigns for the Academy. Loyalty to his previous commitment came before his own individual pursuit in the NBA, of which he dedicated to one franchise. Throughout his career Robinson was nicknamed “The Admiral” based on his service as a United States Naval officer. The Academy helped shape Robinson to become a disciplined and educated human being.

Immediately upon entering the NBA, Robinson contributed to his team’s success. In his first year as a Spur, the team made the first round of the play-offs. His play resulted in his being honored as the 1989-1990 NBA Rookie of the Year. During the 1993-1994 season, Robinson entered the final game of the season against the Los Angeles Clippers needing sixty-nine points to exceed Shaquille O’Neal as the scoring champion. Robinson scored seventy-one, his career high, becoming only the fourth person in history to surpass seventy points in one game. The next year, Robinson was named MVP. Yet despite personal achievement and success, Robinson had not led the Spurs to win a championship. Things became worse when serious injuries in 1996 side-lined Robinson for all but six games and subsequently resulted in the Spurs finishing the season 20-62. Their horrendous season without Robinson resulted in the Spurs' ability to draft Tim Duncan as the top pick. Robinson and Duncan became known as the “Twin Towers,” quickly elevating the Spurs to success. The Spurs went on to defeat the New York Knicks to win the championship during the 1998-1999 lock-out season. When Robinson announced that he would retire following the 2003 season, the Spurs won their second championship to cap off Robinson’s celebrated career.

Robinson finished his career with an average of 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game. He retired as a ten time NBA All-Star, scoring 20,790 total points. He is the only player in history to win the Rebounding, Blocked Shots, and Scoring Titles, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and MVP. In addition to these achievements, Robinson is the only American male basketball player in history to compete on three different Olympic teams. Before even playing NBA basketball, Robinson and the United States received a bronze medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In 1992, Robinson was a member of the “Dream Team” who won the gold in Barcelona. He was also part of the gold medal 1996 Atlanta Olympic team. While today NBA players are hesitant to compete in the Olympics due to the risk of injury and hostile nations, representing the USA was important to Robinson. He translated the patriotic ideals that he learned in the Navy into representing his country in basketball.

Perhaps even more impressive than his skills on the basketball court is Robinson’s dedication to sportsmanship and the contributions he has made to the San Antonio community. USC is looking for candidates “who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public.” This also includes individuals “who have made outstanding contributions to the welfare and development of USC or the communities of which they are a part.” Robinson has taken the same work ethic that made him one of the top centers in history and translated those values into community efforts. He has demonstrated moral concern, which Martin describes as professionals “provid[ing] opportunities to make ongoing contributions to the well-being of others” (23). In 2001, Robinson won the NBA Sportsmanship Award for the free time that he had dedicated to various charities. Two years later, upon his retirement, the NBA renamed its award for outstanding charitable efforts in his honor. Every month a deserving player is honored with the NBA Community Assist Award and given the David Robinson Plaque, which is inscribed: “Following the standard set by NBA Legend David Robinson who improved the community piece by piece.” USC’s own code of ethics promotes behavior that is “fair and honest,” as well as “respecting the rights and dignity of all persons.” The NBA has recognized these behaviors in Robinson and hopes to encourage other players to emulate his efforts.

David Robinson has given back to San Antonio, helping improve the impoverished areas and encouraging children to pursue academics. In 1991, Robinson visited fifth graders at Gates Elementary School and challenged the students to continue their education, promising to give a $2000 scholarship to anyone who went to college. In 1998 Robinson awarded the students who met the challenge with an $8000 scholarship. Martin states that "in addition to earning money to pursue interests outside work, we seek activities and relationships at the workplace that are inherently meaningful in terms of our fundamental values" (11). Robinson has expressed his own values through the community work in which he has participated in order to help others benefit. He has been actively involved in many various charitable events which support the principles that he emphasizes. For example, arlier in his career he started the program “Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood,” which helped discourage kids from drug use, as well as the David Robinson Foundation. Additionally, he has been involved in the Make-A-Wish foundation, was a member of the NBA All-Star Reading Team, helped with the Tim Duncan Bowling For Dollars Charity Bowl-A-Thon, gave testimony at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Night, and participated in several awareness campaigns.

Robinson’s most commendable effort to date has been the school that he and his wife Valerie founded in 2001. The Carver Academy is a private elementary school for kids that is named after George Washington Carver, a respected botanist and teacher. The school was developed to help children of diverse backgrounds receive a quality education and an improved way of life. Robinson told Christianity Today that he especially had “a real concern for black and Hispanic boys having a hard time of it and living in crime-ridden areas…Our vision was to give children an education that would prepare them for success not only in their work, but also in their relationships with their families and communities.” Much of the curriculum and standards are based on the virtues outlined in the “Judeo-Christian scripture,” specifically “integrity, initiative, discipline, faith, and service.” Robinson states that “education is one of my big things. When you see kids' eyes light up when they've just learned something, that's exciting.” The Carver Academy follows many of the same ideals as USC, whose “central mission…is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit” through “teaching, research, artistic creation, professional practice and selected forms of public service.” The Robinsons have donated more than $9 million to date, considered to be one of the largest donations given by any professional athlete. Through the cultivation of the Carver Academy, Robinson has demonstrated the qualities of “intellectual distinction and public service” (118) which Freedman stresses to be of chief emphasis when selecting an honorand.

In addition to his responsibilities as chairman of the Carver Academy, Robinson has devoted much of time to pursuing his Christian faith. Robinson was not active in any particular religion until he spoke with a minister in his second year of the NBA. Hearing the minister speak about his own faith and beliefs inspired Robinson to learn more about Christianity, and subsequently convert. In an interview with Christainity Today, Robinson remembers exactly when he began to integrate religion into his life: "I felt like a spoiled brat. Everything was about me, me, me. How much money can I make? It was all about David's praise and David's glory. I had never stopped to honor God for all he had done for me.” Today Robinson is even a part of the staff at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio. While religion is a very personal and somewhat controversial topic, Robinson celebrates his faith in a very appropriate and private manner. He is eager to inform those are curious about the Christian faith but certainly does not deliver unsolicited sermons at inappropriate times. Living his life as a Christian influences Robinson’s own morals and those he teaches to his three sons.

Through his endeavors, David Robinson has established a solid point-of-view that would make a powerful and memorable commencement address. Robinson’s message to graduates would be one of perseverance, drawing on his service in the Navy as a reminder about the importance of staying disciplined and honoring one’s commitment. Robinson’s legendary career brings him instant credibility in inspiring students to work as hard as possible to achieve their dreams in order to become the best in their respective fields. Basketball taught Robinson about perfecting his own skills while simultaneously forcing his team to learn how to work together in order to win. Robinson explains that, “you dream about having a team where everybody trusts each other.” It is this reliance and trust in others that consequently led to San Antonio’s two championships. One of Robinson’s most important points would be to remind the graduates that no matter what career they choose for themselves, it is important for them to use their time away from work wisely. Robinson devoted his own time away from the Spurs to family, religion, charity work, and opportunities like competing in the Olympics. Robinson could certainly transition to stress the importance of always working to help others through service and kindness. He has used his celebrity to give himself a platform to promote positive values and create change to benefit the community. Robinson’s message would impact graduates and certainly have them leaving USC with new insight.

David Robinson is more than just an athlete. He utilizes his position as a role model while still maintaining humility. Martin describes mixed motives by stating that “usually, though not always, work is inherently meaningful only when something more than money is gained" (21). Beyond his ability as a dominating center, Robinson has earned respect through his gracious demeanor and generosity. He has used his influence as a basketball star to present a positive influence on children and teach the concepts that he believes. Robinson recognizes his role as a public figure while still striving to uphold his integrity: “What I need to do is have a great positive attitude and a great work ethic. Those two things validate me. Yes, it's important that I have good numbers, and I'm well-respected as a player. But I think it's more important that I'm respected as a man.” David Robinson deserves an honorary degree from USC for his work as a patriot, philanthropist, humanitarian, leader, and champion.