Opinion | Defining physical intellect

Luca Evans
Sports Editor

Sports are an art form. The way that athletes move – a fluid expression of physical being – is akin to dance, to painting, to a symphony. So why, then, is the belief so rooted in our society that athletes simply aren’t smart?

A few days ago, a friend joked that I idolized people less intelligent than me. He didn’t mean anything by it. But it got under my skin, because it only served to remind me that there’s often an inherent bias in the perception of athletes from those who aren’t as invested in sports.

So, I did some digging – googling, to be specific. I didn’t know what I was looking for, only for some sort of concrete evidence to prove athletes’ intelligence. What I found dropped me directly into the lap of Harvard University. More specifically, the Hobbs Research Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His name is Howard Gardner, best known for his theory of “multiple intelligences.”

First presented in his book “Frames of Mind” in 1983 and also detailed in a later novel “Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons,” this theory essentially dispels the notion of one specific form of intelligence. One of the types he did define stuck out to me – “Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence,” as Gardner called it. I sent him an email with a few questions on the topic. Gardner responded in a follow-up email, explaining that often in society, physical acts of intellect aren’t valued as much as analytical, yet that’s a belief that isn’t well-founded.

“ALL human activities involve parts of the brain and any complex human activity involves many parts of the brain,” he wrote. “Who is to say that football player Tom Brady or dancer Misty Copeland are not using intelligences and many parts of their brain in what they do?” There’s intelligence in analytical thinking, in interpersonal connection, in kinesthetics.

This argument wasn’t even about proving athletes were smart. It’s about altering our very definition of what intelligence means – about understanding that the incredible muscle response and hand-eye coordination of an athlete is its own form of cognitive power. When Stephen Curry splashes home a three-pointer or Tom Brady throws a touchdown pass, you could say they’re not only demonstrating athletic feats but also extreme intellect, years of training the mind to send the perfect signal to the body.

At long last, I’ve finally found the perfect rebuttal to my friend’s comment. And it’s only taken about a week, too.