Styled “the Renaissance Man of Sports” by both the Los Angeles Times and Sports Illustrated, Tim Green does everything but play the lyre. He shone on the football field at Syracuse University, earning All-American honors, before joining the Atlanta Falcons as a defensive end. During Year 2 of his NFL career, he enrolled in law school and began a novel, the first of 26. “Sports is a proving ground for what happens over the rest of your life,” he says. Now a father of five, Green has analyzed professional football at Fox Sports and served as a commentator for Good Morning America and NPR. He’ll fly his athletic and intellectual colors on May 8 at the next Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate in New York City, where he and sports columnist Jason Whitlock will dispute the motion, supported by Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger, that college football should be banned.
Green makes an emotional appeal for the sport, arguing that it creates habits and knowledge that benefit players for the rest of their lives. He returns to perseverance, team work, and discipline as beacon values instilled by football. Green’s challenge at the debate may be squaring his own rewarding experience as an athlete with evidence of NCAA corruption and medical risk. Here are excerpts of our recent conversation.
Slate: Could you talk about your experience as a college football player? What are the similarities and differences between playing in the NCAA and the NFL?
Tim Green: I loved playing football in college. I had a great experience as a student-athlete. The difference between college and the National Football League is pretty intense. Everyone is bigger, faster, stronger—and it’s a lot more vicious and violent.
Slate: Did you find yourself having to choose between sports and academics at Syracuse?
Green: No. I enjoyed my academic experience as much as I enjoyed my athletic experience. The only thing that I fell short on is I probably didn’t get to drink quite as much beer as other people. The level of success that I was able to have in both arenas makes it evident that I did have enough time.
Slate: Is there anything you would have done differently during college, in terms of balancing your priorities?
Green: No. I really felt like I had achieved a good balance between the two. I enjoyed the dichotomy of sports and academics, which is why I went to law school when I was a pro player. And honestly, I think that if you can do both, each one makes the other more pleasurable, since they are quite different. The common factor is a lot of tireless work when no one is cheering for you. But I felt that going from one to the other made me appreciate each one more.
Slate: What’s the primary mission of a university?
Green: The primary mission is academics. That said, the lessons you learn on the playing field can be extremely valuable. The problem is when people fail to translate those lessons. Teamwork, hard work, discipline, perseverance—they’re all well and good, but you’re missing out on most of football’s benefits if you can’t take those things and apply them to your post-athletic career.