Between 1946 and 1949, it was hard to find an edition of the Orient in which the name Matthew D. Branche ’49 did not appear. His athletic dominance earned him a great deal of notoriety throughout the state of Maine. He captained the tennis and track teams, dominating the podium at Maine’s state track meet in 1948. And, as if being a dominant two-sport captain wasn’t enough, he was an invaluable member of the football team and was named to the All-Maine team in basketball. But his presence was felt far beyond the four sports teams that he played on while at Bowdoin.
Branche, a native of Tuskegee, Alabama and a WWII veteran, came to Bowdoin as one of the College’s first African-American students. In his first year, he became the first African-American to be elected president of his class. The next year, he became the first African-American to join a national fraternity at Bowdoin—a critical juncture in the racial integration of Bowdoin’s social life. Bowdoin’s Delta Upsilon chapter received backlash from the national organization for accepting a black man, prompting them to withdraw affiliation with Delta Upsilon and convert to Delta Sigma.
Even prior to his graduation, a certain aura of mysticism surrounded Branche’s name, almost in recognition of the fact that there might never again be a Bowdoin student-athlete that could repeat his accomplishments. An Orient column from 1948 titled McClelland’s Polar Bearings etched his legend in ink.
“Few athletes have done as much and probably none have done more in Bowdoin athletics than the husky track captain who will hang up his spikes for the last time this Saturday … Soon he will be gone from Bowdoin. Those who have run with him or against him will never forget him, and neither will the Bowdoin he never let down.”
The column includes a whole laundry list of his athletic accomplishments over the course of his three years at Bowdoin. But it also mentions the fact that, in his senior year, Branche was forced to quit the football and basketball teams and dial back his hours in track and tennis in order to complete pre-med labs.
Reading editions of the Orient that predate color television, you wouldn’t expect to find a lot of similarities between student life then and now. But this same issue came up in last week’s Bowdoin Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (BSAAC) meeting, the first for Associate Professor of Classics and Chair of the Classics Department Robert Sobak.
Sobak will serve as Bowdoin’s faculty representative to the NCAA, a fitting role for a former three-sport athlete at Franklin & Marshall. In that meeting, Sobak fielded the same question that popped into my head when reading that column about Branche. “How [do you] manage being a multi-sport student-athlete?”
Sobak’s response left the room silent. For Sobak, it was never a question of management. He couldn’t have done as well as he did in the classroom without the focus and the outlet that playing soccer, squash and tennis gave him. He recognized that the “student” in student-athlete comes first for a reason, but—even more so now as a professor—realizes that the learning done on the field and with his team was equally as important in shaping him into the professor and person that he is today.
The question he now asks himself is how would he have managed without it. Professor Sobak recognized the merits of the original question, though, particularly in the context of Bowdoin and the growing culture of hyper-specialization in youth sports. Sobak addressed an element of the Bowdoin student-athlete experience that is often taken for granted by his colleagues and athletes themselves: the number of in-class and out-of-class academic hours have increased across the board, along with the amount of time that athletes are expected to put in. However, the number of hours in a week has not.
Something’s got to give. And too often, that “something” manifests itself during course registration. Both Sobak and the student-athletes in the room recognized that, despite the fact that our coaches encourage us to take full advantage of everything the college has to offer without consideration for our athletic schedules, there is a tendency, if possible, to avoid courses that end at 4:15 PM, that begin at night or that have lengthy labs.
But for Dr. Matthew D. Branche, those pre-med labs were inescapable. The choice to sacrifice his athletic enrichment was, and still is, the obvious choice. But, to my surprise, Sobak doesn’t believe it should be that way. The virtues of a liberal arts education include the ability to experiment and learn through unconventional mediums, particularly those situated outside of the classroom. Whether that medium is sport, theater, volunteering or anything else, all of us— including student-athletes— should be able to take advantage of it all.