Do you remember the energy on North American University campuses in the late spring of 2017? It was the crescendo of the campus free speech wars. Do you remember the viral videos of Yale students screaming at Professor Nikolas Christiakis for daring to suggest students could navigate potentially offensive halloween costumes on their own without administrative policies? Or the fiery scenes from Berkeley when Antifa mobs violently sacked the campus to prevent a speech from Milo Yiannopoulos? Do you remember roving gangs of students looking to remove Professor Bret Weinsten from campus for daring to attend on a day where white students and profs were supposedly not allowed on campus?
If that rings a bell, then you know what name enters next. Professor Jordan Peterson brought a maple flavor to the campus battles when he declared he would not be compelled to use preferred gender pronouns for students due to Canadian legislation, the famous bill C-16. This propelled him to superstardom in the emergent “Intellectual Dark Web” a loose collection of scholars, journalists, and cultural dissidents fed up with increasing cultural censorship. I was just finishing my first semester as an Assistant Professor in Kinesiology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in the spring of 2017, watching all of this with great attention. Then Dr. Peterson began lecturing on the psychological significance of the Bible. I lived an hour from the lecture hall and decided to attend the final 10 lectures after watching the first two at my kitchen table on YouTube. On May 30, 2017 I attended my first live lecture and my trajectory as an academic was forever changed. I realized the need for a larger effort to engage with the public, and this put me on my current path of academic entrepreneurship.
In that lecture, Peterson made connections that I myself began to make while teaching the history and philosophy of sport. It centred on the importance of meaning and experience. He talked about the feeling when we see an athlete perform an incredible act, a gymnast nailing a flawless routine, for example. What is the automatic reaction of the crowd? To leap to their feet and cheer with thunderous applause. He described it as the appreciation of the divine. This lit my mind on fire! I taught my students about the Ancient Greek belief that athletics were a means to touch the fingertips of the Gods, but hearing Peterson express it through more familiar religious ideals (I’m Jewish) opened my eyes to the power of this observation. It sparked an idea that deep down there is a spiritual connection between athletic exertion, human flourishing, and the advancement of liberty. And watching Peterson fill up an auditorium for his public lectures simultaneously reaching millions of people online with his message convinced me that I needed to wrestle these ideas free from the academy and push them into the public’s view.
Talk Is Good, But We Need Action
Academics love to talk. The IDW was very good at talking. Lots of podcasts launched, lots of interviews given, lots of ideas written about. But where was the concerted action? Where was the follow through? Where was the construction of alternative institutions? It’s impossible to pinpoint any one exact reason why it all fizzled out, but my own story from that summer helps shed some light.
In that summer of 2017, I began researching the historic religious roots of athletics, merging that narrative with Peterson’s adaptation of phenomenology to decipher the psychological lessons of the biblical stories. Phenomenology is the philosophical investigation into experience and meaning. It starts with the fundamental question ‘how is the world experienced?’ As a historian, I’d never considered the application of the knowledge that I researched or taught to my students. History is the past, yet we need to know it to provide a greater understanding of our current circumstances, and that was a good enough rationale. But just as the IDW failed, so too did my project on spreading ideas on sport, religion, freedom, and human flourishing. I compiled a lot of research, wrote a few rough drafts, but ultimately the ideas stayed dormant and out of sight.
What’s the connection? All talk NO ACTION. What good is it to write about freedom of speech but not actively create spaces for the thousands of faculty and students to exercise it? In that same vein, what good is it to talk about the value of sport in developing freedom and flourishing without proving how it works?
Moving Beyond the Theoretical
Too often scholars neglect the body out of preference for the mind. We love knowledge, ideas, and testing them against each other. We love the contest of debate. We possess vigorous energy in our research and rigorous self discipline in our methodologies. We do serious lifting. But do our bodies match our strong minds? The Ancient Greeks, the one’s who gave us philosophy and the earliest ideals of freedom, would laugh at the modern intellectual. They believed a strong mind required a strong body and both needed to be exercised consistently. To them, being too flabby and soft in our bodies also means that we aren’t reaching our full intellectual potential.
I won’t get into the science behind it too deeply, but suffice it to say, the Ancients were right. Numerous studies show that regular physical exercise increases cognitive abilities. However I want to talk more about the idea of action, as opposed to theory, rather than simply launch a diatribe into why you should exercise more (but seriously, you should also probably be exercising more!).
The importance of scholars engaging in some type of physical exercise relates to our inability to break free from the world of theory and dive into the world of action. When we separate the body and mind, it’s easy to retreat into the world of pure theory. After all, if the mind is more important than the body, we can neglect to work on the latter while focusing solely on the former. This may lead to publications, books, lectures, and other outputs, but how are these ideas being received and implemented broadly? Let’s be real, most academics produce work for their CV’s and to impress a narrow range of niche scholars in their fields. How many people in the general public have read your academic articles in journals? Let alone implemented the knowledge you’ve worked so hard gathering into actionable change in the world? If we are being honest with ourselves, we know that even if our answer flatters our egos, it doesn’t impact broader society. This is especially true for defenders and promoters of freedom. Why do you think we keep losing in the Academy? We keep making arguments in theory but we FAIL consistently by not taking enough action. Over the past two years I’ve made a concerted effort to take my ideas to the public. I believe I can help other academics who want to spread ideas of freedom but feel confined within the academy to take a leap into the public realm.
Where to Start?
It’s daunting to try and bring complicated ideas to the public as an academic. We are rewarded in the academy for researching and writing about topics down to the most specific and technical details, not for attempting to communicate generally and broadly. This makes the transition most difficult. So instead of fighting against that nature, I started my journey by doing something familiar. I wrote an e-book. I know, that’s not much different than what traditional academics are producing but hear me out. I wrote the e-book as a bridge for myself, not necessarily as a means to spread the ideas. What do I mean by this? I wrote a book specifically on the idea of sport and freedom springing from the same religious sources. It was an idea that would NEVER find publishing support in the academic world. So I published it in e-format because it costs nothing and many people consume e-books exclusively. It was the cheapest, fastest, and most effective means of getting my ideas out to the public. But I also knew it would be limited in appeal and likely not sell or make any money. What I did hope was to establish myself in the public arena as someone who promoted these ideas and had expertise on the subject. Then something magical happened.
I promoted the book on my personal Twitter feed. I didn’t have a lot of followers, around 1700 at the time, but all I needed was for one to reach out. That was high school football coach Ben Fox, a gym teacher in Kansas who picked up the book and then reached out directly to me. He wanted to share the lessons in the book with his varsity football team. This sparked an idea in my mind. This was the opportunity I needed to take my message from the academy and into the public arena. I pitched an idea to Coach Fox. Why not structure an educational program around the book’s core lessons and instruct his young men in online lectures. He loved the idea and a brand new economic opportunity was born! That was in December 2020.
Throughout the winter of 2021 we talked frequently about the type of program that would work for his athletes and my schedule. I began to see a huge market potential for this type of educational instruction specifically geared towards elite student athletes. I decided to pursue this as a business opportunity. I had a lot of positives in my corner. I had a willing customer already. I could work on the product, the educational consulting, as I was building the business. And I didn’t have to go into any debt. I reached out to a close friend who was the President of a CIS Baseball team (the Canadian equivalent of the NCAA) and asked if he would be interested in a program based on Ancient Athletic history. He jumped at the idea and agreed to the same initial price as Coach Fox. I had two paying customers and no business!
I knew I had a great idea and needed some help to make it a reality. As an academic, especially in the humanities, we never imagine ourselves as entrepreneurs. I’d never written a business proposal or taken a marketing course, my specialty was in understanding, interpreting, and presenting history. I hired a business coach who helped me realize the idea, take the first concrete steps to incorporate the business, set up contracts, and do all the hard background planning to build the business’ bones. I paid for the business coach by tutoring high school students in preparation for their transition to university. I consistently leveraged my teaching and academic experience in funding and organizing the business.
Most academics are smart enough to make money online or in business. What they don’t want to do is make money the same way everyone else does. Perhaps this stems from our perceived status as ‘intellectuals.’ We believe we have a higher calling that is directly related to our intellectual ability and we want to have a career that reflects this. Perhaps it is because we defer economic opportunities while we earn our credentials to become Academics and don’t want these sunk costs to become obsolete in a new career. We also passionately want to understand and share the knowledge we research, interpret, and investigate. To be an academic entrepreneur means fusing intellect, interest, business, and action. It’s not an easy road but it’s fulfilling.
Hold Your Shield
I love both of the programs I created for these two teams but I’ll talk more about the program crafted for Coach Fox. I hope this sparks ideas for other academics on how they can turn their academic subject matter into products that people want to buy. With an extensive understanding of sport history, the internal dynamics of particular sports, and the ability to sync ancient philosophy with contemporary examples, I endeavored to create something special for this high school football team. Football is a tough sport played by tough people. It depends upon a high degree of coordination between teammates to execute complex plays with multiple variations. Each position is a specialist. Quarterbacks throw, wide receivers catch, linemen block, and so on. One common football mantra that helps players remember their duty on the field is “Do your job.” It’s a line repeated often by coaches in press conferences and portrayed in popular media about the game.
I took this idea and merged it with Ancient Greek warfare, specially the Hoplite Phalanx. This might seem a bit odd at first, but it’s an incredibly deep well to draw from. First, the Hoplite Phalanx depends upon mutual coordination for efficacy. Each solider holds a large shield big enough to cover their body, but they only cover half while the other half covers the solider beside them. This creates an interlocking web of shields that becomes almost impossible to penetrate from the front. I named our program “Hold Your Shield” as a nod to the football mantra “Do Your Job.” But “Hold Your Shield” entails a mutual responsibility to your teammates instead of just focusing on your independent action. Getting a group of 15-18 year old boys to think of themselves as Ancient warriors isn’t that hard of a sell. The Coach even showed them the movie 300 after one of our talks and they loved the imagery and connected it to our lessons together.
But “Hold Your Shield” means more than just formations in battle and my program was about more than just teaching these athletes about their historic roots. “Hold Your Shield” became the defining motto for the team. Coach Fox even made a sticker print out to put on the back of the team’s helmets. Because once you scratch the surface, the “Hold Your Shield” ideal defined everything we wanted to impress into the athletes. The Ancient Hoplites were the individual citizens of Greek City States. If you had the means to afford armour, you could fight in the phalanx and thus earn a position to vote in the democratic assembly. Furthermore, the hoplites were the ancient athletic heroes who competed for glory at the ancient Olympic games. This connection provided me great leeway in picking the most interesting stories from ancient Greek athletics, warfare, and mythology to hook the kids. I can talk about soldiers and then instantly connect their bravery, sacrifice, and strategy to the necessary qualities needed to excel in the modern sport of football. It also allows me to spread ideals related to liberty: personal responsibility, individual achievement, and the value of voluntary group associations.
Even more importantly, “Hold Your Shield” became a motto of identification and pride. Each hoplite and ancient athlete represented their city states. The Ashland team comes from a small farming community in South Western Kansas. The football team serves as a common beacon of community pride. The boys don’t just represent themselves and their school, they represent their families, friends, and communities. Coach Fox wanted his boys to grow into responsible men off the field while stimulating their commitment to on field success. The “Hold Your Shield’ ideal perfectly struck this balance. The team saw great success this past year. They knocked off the number 1 team in the State and spent a few weeks at number 1 themselves. They reached the State semi-finals in the playoffs, the big on field goal they set at the start of the season. But most importantly, Coach Fox saw his boys grow into young men who represented their community with honor, pride, and respect
After many games, the opposing coaches and parents would come to Coach Fox to shake his hand. Why? They commended the sportsmanship, tenacity, and respect shown by his players on the field. No cheap shots. No whining to the refs. Picking up downed players regardless of the team. No gaudy victory celebrations. And this mirrored the change he saw in his players in practice and team meetings. No backtalking to coaches. Lots of ‘yes sirs.’ Players holding each other accountable in terms of effort and dedication. Full buy-in to the team ideal. Dedication to video analysis and learning the playbook. Adapting to new strategies depending on the opposing team. Participating and growing through the live lectures with myself and taking their commitment seriously. The program achieved exactly what we set up to accomplish and then some. Coach Fox and the boys loved the program so much we are running it again next year!
What does my story have to offer other academics who both want to spread the ideals of liberty but who see their paths in the academy blocked? I think there are two big takeaways.
The first is to engage in the culture as a means to spread those ideals. Too often academics forget that the majority of people don’t care about academic research, intellectual discussions, and theoretical explorations. We are our own worst enemies at times. The Left wins because they control the culture. They spread their ideals through media and entertainment in a way that most people don’t consciously pick up on. We need to provide a counterforce. We need to get out of the academy. We need to get creative in how we can make our message entertaining so that people want to consume it without feeling as if they are being spoken at by ideologues. But we also can’t abandon our intellectual training either because it provides us a competitive advantage in the marketplace. It lets us stand out in a good way, as long as we don’t use our credentials as cudgels to make people think they are inferior. Instead, we should use our credentials as a way to bridge the gap between ideals and action. A humble academic still garners tremendous respect with most people. What people don’t like are ‘expert’ academics who think they know better than the ‘dumb’ masses and attempt to control their lives. If we present a humble stance and wrap our message in a cultural activity, we should find good success in spreading our ideals. I use sports because it’s a natural fit for a message about individual responsibility and achievement. It lets me utilize my academic acumen in a way that blends into a cultural activity enjoyed by millions of people.
The problem stopping us is ourselves. Stop limiting what you think is possible based on whatever your academic specialty is. Get creative, take a risk, be unique, and try to see what you can come up with.
The second lesson builds off the first but is more general. We need to be in the public providing positive alternatives. We cannot just be in the public complaining about the state of affairs. That gets us nowhere because people don’t like whiners, they like doers. It’s why I’m public about building my own Academy and promote the courses I’m creating and the programs I offer. This gets people interested and excited because you’re building something.
We’re not all meant to be entrepreneurs, but we should all be adventurous. We should want to try new things. We should want to build alternatives and provide solutions. What’s the worst that can happen? You fail and end up right back where you were. In this sense we should accept the athletic mindset that I spread through my academy. We need to embrace struggle and adversity as the means to overcome them. Are we in a difficult spot, yes. Will it be difficult to get out of, absolutely. Is it worth it to try? The answer has to be yes. We must accept the challenge and engage in competition in the public sphere.
The ancient athletic ideal celebrates the athlete for their willingness to be honest. Either you are fast enough or you aren’t. The problem for many liberty minded academics is we’ve given up on being included in the race at all. We make excuses and slink back into our faculty office. It’s time to become able bodied competitors in the marketplace of ideas. Afterall, we are supposed to believe in the wisdom of the market right. But we act as if our ideas will get trounced without giving it an honest try. I’m tired of playing defense and complaining. It’s time to play offense and create something inspiring. I hope you’ll join me in the arena and get up off the sidelines.