Giving smart its due

Here’s a score for you: Stanford 24, USC 23.

Last week, Stanford’s football team was the English at Agincourt, the U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid. It was Gandhi besting the British, Truman beating Dewey, the tortoise edging the hare.

Here’s another score: Stanford 1,540, USC 1,460.

Those are the schools’ upper-range scores on two out of three SAT tests, as reported in U.S. News & World Report’s online 2008 college rankings. I’m not saying that brains won the day in that gridiron upset for the ages. What I’m saying is that we need to give smarts a share of the adulation we give to sweat.


Stanford’s win put things in perspective. Whether it’s the sunny side of sports, like the World Series, or the shadow side of it, like Marion Jones and Floyd Landis, we keep on cheering for lats and pecs and quads and glutes when we ought to be doing more cheering for some other body parts, like the cerebral cortex.

The year’s first Nobel Prize was awarded to men whose work could wind up stopping cancer and diabetes. Will A-Rod or Brett Favre ever do anything as important as that? The physics Nobel just went to men whose work made the iPod possible; every student at this Saturday’s football games should observe a moment of shuffle in their honor. And yet the Nobel Prizes are a one-day story; sports gets an entire section of the newspaper every day.

Where’s the Wheaties-box star treatment for brains? Where are the trading cards for writers, for scientists, for painters and inventors?

There’s plenty to love about watching sports. I like football; the anonymity of helmets makes the game a kind of chessboard choreography. My friend, Josh, knowing I follow the Green Bay Packers, gave me a laminated card with a scrap of retired Packers’ halfback Paul Hornung’s jersey embedded in it. It’s nifty, but it would never occur to me to put a Hornung jersey on my back.


Unfortunately, the daily stuff of brain work isn’t much of a spectator sport. You can’t sell 50-yard-line tickets to watch someone think. Every sports fan can have an opinion -- “Those bums, they shouldn’t have punted on fourth down.” Poetry, or physics, or biology, we don’t know enough about to kibitz. Imagine a season ticket-holder to the Human Genome Project groaning, “Oh, man, he used electrophoresis on those molecules without an agarose gel!”

So how do you convert brains into box office? Cross-breed “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” with “GE College Bowl” to get “Who Wants to Be a Genius?”

Schools’ IQ squads could play before a live audience for full scholarships for poor-but-brilliant freshman prospects sitting right there in the studio, ready to sob or celebrate on national television. When a team happens to choose the lucky category, a ringer waiting in the wings joins the game -- a Nobel laureate or a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Not only would the players’ stock rise -- remember egghead hottie Charles Van Doren back before a cheating scandal crashed 1950s TV quiz shows like “Twenty-One”? -- but the writers and scientists whose names and works were the answers to the questions would ascend to idol status as well.


Why, there’s millions in this. Kids would start wearing jerseys with fabled scientists emblazoned on their backs -- “Curie,” “Leakey,” “Galileo” -- or “Whitman,” “Austen,” “Steinbeck.”

Sure, some of these guys wouldn’t belong on Wheaties boxes, but there’d be a brisk trade for William Faulkner single-malt Scotch. And who could resist Hemingway Viagra? Ernest Hemingway had more macho swagger than the defensive line of the Oakland Raiders. A huge painting by British artist Harland Miller, just sold at auction, looks like a Hemingway Penguin paperback with a mock title that describes every book Papa wrote: “I’m So ------- Hard.” There isn’t a frat boy alive who wouldn’t want a piece of that action.

As for product endorsements, why not Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist, extolling Red Lobster’s fish as brain food? Nobel laureate James Watson with a testimonial about Red Bull: “It’s how I keep awake and alert during those long, grueling hours in the lab.”

Kids could collect show trading cards with the trivia of MacArthur genius grant winners, of authors and musicians -- J.K. Rowling’s secret food indulgence, Don DeLillo’s favorite band. Franz Liszt, 19th century composer, pianist and object of desire, could be hot all over again on a trading card: “Big celebrity friend: Beethoven, who once kissed him on the forehead after a performance. Secret shame: He was a Hungarian who was never fluent in Hungarian. Fans fought over: his green silk gloves.”


Naturally, I see myself as the host of such a show; I once modestly suggested myself to Merv Griffin as Alex Trebek’s successor on “Jeopardy!” but Merv’s gone, and Alex doesn’t seem as if he ever will be.

I know what you’re thinking -- if I’m so smart, what about this week’s game? I say USC takes the University of Arizona. One reason is those SAT scores from U.S. News: USC 1,460, UA 1,230. Another reason -- Pete Carroll is one smart guy.