For better or worse; athletics have become intertwined with everyday life, both within the college world and outside of it. The modern sport has evolved to become a type of all-encompassing entity, wherein pure recreation is no longer the sole objective. Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens offers an interesting definition of play, one that would generally rule out the majority of sports at the university level. Huizinga argues that it is “fun-element that characterizes the essence of play” and that when other objectives seep into this structure, the activity can no longer be accurately classified as play (Huizinga 3). Now what does this mean for the sports themselves and the athletes involved with them? It means that they are no longer primarily recreational vehicles designed for entertainment purposes, but rather something else entirely. Transformed into what exactly? Now that is the question that is being hotly debated all over the country with no firm consensus having yet been established. The NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert, assert repeatedly that “amateurism is a core value of the NCAA” and that student-athletes are students first and athletes second. The University of Michigan’s own athletic director David Brandon holds a similar opinion, stating, “Most of the athletes come to campus, want to compete” and have “no commerciality about them”
Now this would seem to agree with Huizinga’s definition of play in that the sport is a secondary activity with elements of disinterestedness. However; not everyone agrees with the NCAA’s statements regarding the current structure of collegiate athletics. The court system certainly doesn’t, ruling against the NCAA in the recent high profile O’Bannon case. The primary question that the general public concerns itself with, is whether or not college athletes should be paid for their efforts.
Continuing off Huizinga’s assertions, any activity that creates profit would be automatically invalidated as a form of play. The NCAA generates millions of dollars each year, meaning that the sports themselves are no longer “only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes it a need” (Huizinga 8). Rather, they have become involved with profit margins and bottom lines, which are factors well beyond the sound of the final whistle.
Perhaps collegiate athletics are evolving in a way that signifies some unfortunate truths about our society, such as an a constant need to quantify and maximize the efficiency of everything that we come into contact with. Or perhaps Huizinga’s definition is simply outdated, and should no longer be looked to as a guide towards what recreation really is.
Please feel free to leave comments!
(All images and videos located through a creative commons database)