Brains, Brawn and Bran: Beyond the False Dichotomy

A recent article in the Boston Globe’s Innovation Economy Column asks General Mills to put intellectual achievers on the front of the Wheaties Box alongside the parade of athletes that has graced the cereal for years. Instead of just Olympic gold medalists and Super Bowl winners, the columnist wants the winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the Intel Science Talent Search and the Lemelson-MIT Prize.

While full of good intentions the column has the tone of the pasty geek in the stands wondering why all the girls are so attracted to the talented athletes. It also continues the false dichotomy of brains vs. brawn that suggests men can either be smart or strong, but not both at the same time.

History shows that several great men have been able to balance intellectual ability with athletic prowess. Below are four examples of men who have balanced athletics and intellectual pursuits in their lives.

Niels Bohr – Nobel Prize Winner, Professional Soccer Player

Niels Bohr was a physicist whose theories on the structure of atoms, particularly the Bohr model of electrons traveling in discrete orbits around the nucleus of an atom, won him the Nobel Prize in 1922 at the age of 37. This was far from his first award. At the age of 23, and while still a college student, he was awarded a gold medal from Academy of Sciences in Copenhagen for solving a science problem posed by the organization.

Bohr was also mentor to Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who discovered the Uncertainty Principle and was awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics. Bohr’s son Aage would be one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1975.

His accomplishments in Physics are astounding enough, but on top of his scientific accomplishments he was also a professional soccer player. He and his brother Harald both played for Akademisk Boldklub , a Danish soccer club. Bohr played goalkeeper for the team, though a story has it that in a game against a German team Bohr was distracted by a math problem and missed a kicked long ball, allowing a goal.

SOURCES: Nobel Foundation
Akademisk Boldklub (Translated into English by Google)

Lennox Lewis – Heavy Weight Champion, Chess Player

Lennox Lewis is one of the greatest boxers that has ever entered the ring. He had a 41-2-1 record and 32 KOs under his heavyweight championship belt, as well as an Olympic gold medal in 1988. He retired in 2003 and was inducted to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009, the first year of he was eligible.

Beyond the brawn of physical competition, Lewis is also a chess player. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph Lewis said that he played chess four hours a day during training.

"It's like boxing: there's a strategy. You have to decide what move to use, or what combination of moves. I'm thinking less when I'm boxing, because the reaction time is a lot quicker, but some people call me the chess boxer because they say I think too much when I'm in the ring. I am taking my time about it and they are not seeing the action they want. Well, that is because I am thinking of the proper strategy to defeat this man. I am thinking and boxing at the same time. Some boxers just go in there and just throw punches and hope to win."

The Daily Telegraph

Philip John Noel-Baker- Diplomat, Academic, Olympic Medal Winner

Philip John Noel-Baker was a Cambridge graduate and politician who participated in the formation of the League of Nations and the United Nations. He was a Member of Parliament, Chair of the Labor Party, Secretary of State for Commonwealth and Secretary of State for the Air. He was an advocate for disarmament which led to his 1959 Nobel Peace Prize.

Additionally he was a decorated veteran from World War I for his service in the first British Ambulance Unit. He received the Mons Star from France and the Silver Medal for Military Valor and the Croce di Guerra from Italy.

Noel-Baker was also a three time Olympian who ran track for Britain in 1912, 1920 and 1924, winning the silver medal in the Men’s 1500 meter in 1920. He captained the 1924 team, which was memorialized in the film Chariots of Fire, though Noel-Baker’s role was not shown.

SOURCE: Nobel Foundation

Byron White –Rhodes Scholar, Supreme Court Justice, Professional Football Player

Byron “Whizzer” White is an example of achievement that should put him in the ranks with Theodore Roosevelt in the chronicles of men. Born of two parents who didn’t complete high school, White earned a scholarship from the University of Colorado at Boulder for being the top of his graduating class. At Boulder he became Student Body President and earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford.

His law degree studies were interrupted by World War II when he served in the US Navy, earning two bronze stars and writing the intelligence report about the sinking of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 (he had already met Kennedy and his father earlier while studying at Oxford).

After the war he attended Yale and graduated Magna Cum Laude. He was law clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson, did private law in Colorado, and worked on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He was named Deputy Attorney General, where he work directly under Robert F. Kennedy and was nominated to the US Supreme Court in 1962 at the age of 44, becoming the first court clerk to return as a Justice. He served 31 years before retiring from the bench in 1993.

Along with his intellectual heft he was also a talented football player. He played for The University of Colorado at Boulder and became the school’s first All-American player in 1937 and led the school to its first ever bowl game the same year. In addition he played basketball, baseball and other sports, earning seven letters overall and was All-Conference in every sport he played. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.
He deferred his Rhodes Scholarship to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates (now the Steelers) in 1938, and earned the highest salary in professional football up to that time. He led the league in rushing that year. He spent the next year at Yale Law, earning the highest grades in his class, but turned down an Editorship in the Yale Law Journal to play two seasons with the Detroit Lions, where he would again lead the league in rushing in 1940. Despite his short and interrupted football career he was voted by the NFL as part of the 1940s All-Decade Team.

NY Times
College Football Hall Of Fame

Feel free to comment or mention any more men who have balanced athletics and academics.

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