Stanford proving brains and brawn can work together 

It's easy to be cynical about college sports these days.

As conferences sign high-dollar TV contracts and money pours in on the backs of unpaid student-athletes, the relationship between school and sports is getting harder and harder to see.

But this week, Stanford proved, once again, that books and balls aren't mutually exclusive by capturing its 19th straight Director's Cup.

The Director's Cup isn't sexy like the Rose Bowl, the Final Four or the BCS championship game. It doesn't produce front-page headlines or capture national TV audiences. It isn't trending on Twitter. It's also the hardest trophy to win because it requires excellence in a broad range of nonrevenue sports and a true understanding of what the term student-athlete really means.

Stanford snagged the Director's Cup for the 19th time in its 20 years of existence this year by earning the most points among Division I schools based on its teams' placement in 20 different sports. The Cardinal won a national championship in women's tennis and finished among the top 10 in women's cross country, women's soccer, women's volleyball, women's basketball, men's fencing, women's and men's gymnastics, women's and men's swimming, women's track and field, women's water polo, and football.

The school also placed in the top 10 in women's field hockey, women's lacrosse and women's rowing, but those scores were omitted because the contest is based on a maximum of 10 women's teams and 10 men's teams.

The secret to the athletic department's success is the school's academic reputation. Stanford is the only school besides Cal (which faces some public-school disadvantages) where a student-athlete can receive an Ivy League-caliber education and also compete against top-level competition in a conference like the Pac-12 Conference.

College athletes carry reputations for being lazy students who get special treatment while breezing through school taking classes on human sexuality and pop culture. This might be true of football and basketball players at many schools, but it's a false characterization of the average student-athlete at Stanford, who simply wants to continue playing the sport they love while earning a college degree from a top school.

If you talk to Mark Appel, the No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft, Zach Ertz, the No. 35 pick in the NFL Draft, or Kristian Ipsen, who won a bronze medal in diving at the London Olympics last summer, they will all tell you the same thing: They picked Stanford for its academics.

"It was a no-brainer," Appel told me recently.

Unlike Appel, most of the student-athletes at Stanford will never sign a professional contract in their respective sports. It's a labor of love. They're excellent time managers and their drive to succeed on the field is matched in the classroom.

Stanford wins the Director's Cup every year because it has a near monopoly on these super student-athletes and it's refreshing to see that the school's sports programs are rewarded for taking academics seriously.

So if you're fed up with the exploitation of college sports and you feel like you need a shower, take a trip down to the Farm and check out women's tennis, women's soccer or men's swimming. You'll get a whiff of what college sports is really about.

Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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Paul Gackle

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