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Jonathan Martin, Classics major

I take a look at the relationship between athletes and academics, focusing specifically on the 49ers' newest addition to the team, Jonathan Martin.

I must confess that I have been interested in Jonathan Martin as a player for considerably different reasons than most people. While many people (and especially the media) are intently focused upon his role within the recent Miami Dolphins locker room controversy, I have been loosely following his career because he studied Classics at Stanford.

Stanford has developed a reputation of producing strong student-athletes at the professional level. This is, of course, not unsurprising. It is a premier university that has developed a much stronger football program than it historically was able to achieve.

But, this interest is a bit personally motivated. Currently, I am a graduate student studying Classics in an MA program. More than likely, my future will be heavily rooted in the Classics, since I hope to move onto a PhD program and, eventually, teach at a university. I have a vested interest in fostering Classics within the public consciousness, not least so that people learn that I am studying Ancient Roman and Greek languages and history, not Classical music.

For this reason, I have followed Martin's career in addition to that of Robert Griffin III, who studied Latin at Baylor University. Both of these men serve as examples for other athletes, and other people in general, who are interested in maintaining an affable relationship with the media and the general public. While Martin's relationship with the media is colored by his role in the locker room scandal, I was struck in listening to his recent audio call with the media by how smart he is and how effectively he engaged with the reporters. This man, I think, has the potential to serve as a positive ambassador for the NFL to the public.

These athletes are worth examining, in addition, in order to see how and why they are able to attain success both athletically and academically. While there has been a considerable amount of discussion recently surrounding the debate concerning pay for collegiate athletes, it is worth mentioning another simmering controversy: some student-athletes are having a difficult time fulfilling the "student" portion of their title. According to this report, 60% of athletes from the sample examined at UNC read, at best, at an 8th grade level. We shouldn't ever presume to judge a man's worth based upon his education, especially since many of these men are put into a system that rewards working on their physical gifts at the expense of their mental gifts. But, that doesn't mean we should excuse the system.

It's valuable to have men (and women, for that matter - this doesn't only extend to players, even if that is the focus of this article) who can advocate for the NFL by being role-models or communicators. I think Martin's academic background gives him the opportunity to do just that, especially considering the fact that he has so recently been thrust into the limelight. Locker room culture is becoming a major topic of discussion for a variety of reasons, and Martin's voice carries a lot of heft in this ongoing dialogue.

But what is Martin's academic background? It's no surprise that he would be academically inclined: both of his parents graduated from Harvard. And, now that it is the offseason, he is following up on his studies by returning to Stanford to finish his degree.

Martin described the process by which he became interested in Classics in the call he conducted with the local reporters: after taking what sounds like a Greek Mythology course at the recommendation of a teammate, Martin became interested in the Classics. He did the next logical thing in taking Latin, in which he claims to be functional (though his tone of voice suggests humility, so I imagine he might be selling himself short in respect to his skills). To read functionally in Latin while working what is essential a full-time job as an athlete is itself an accomplishment. Because Latin uses a very different style of grammar and because learning Latin entails intense amounts of memorization, Martin must have not only a hard-working attitude but also a sponge-like mind. Martin, however, does not read Greek, for which he must be chided! Comprehensive studies of the Classics requires reading knowledge of both Latin and Ancient Greek, though I think we can give Martin a pass on this one. He chose the easier language of the two.

When asked about his favorite Classical text, Martin gave an unusual answer, instead offering up a text that he has been reading recently: Sophocles' tragedy Philoctetes. It is a lesser known play - not nearly as popular as his plays about Oedipus - and talks about a portion of the Trojan war that happens after the Iliad and before the incident of the Trojan horse. In it, Sophocles tells the story of how Odysseus and Neoptolemus attempt to trick Philoctetes to return to war, since his presence is instrumental to the Greeks' success.

When asked if he identified with Odysseus, the oft-turned traveler and protagonist of Homer's second epic the Odyssey, Martin chuckled and then politely answered that he did feel a bit like Odysseus, who returns home after a trying time. The parallels are obvious: after the stress he faced in Miami, Martin gets to return home to California - a place where he should be more comfortable.

He said that he liked the analogy.

Let's hope that his comfort not only helps his play on the field but also his ability to be an ambassador for Football.