Have you ever wonder how is it to be an athlete in a NCAA division 1 university like Michigan? Is it just about being cool in front of others and have the rights to skip school and postponed deadlines for assignments? Being an athlete myself in University of Michigan, I have to say that being division 1 athletes are not how people “think” they are. I started to define athletes a little bit differently after reading Johan Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”. I would have to disagree on Johan Huizinga’s view on what play means. According to Huizinga, the big three elements which define play is it has to be disinterested, voluntary and be limited by time and space. However, both modern college sports and professional sports contradicts to Huizinga’s view on play. Are play and sports totally different things? Yes it seems so.
Let us be realistic. Athletes in college and in professional do not play just for the sake of fun and interest. They play for a team, they play for a scholarship, they play for a contract, they play to make a living and ultimately they play to win. Even though I love the sport I am playing now, there is not one day I am not thinking about how to play better in order to make a better spot on the team line-up and to have a higher portion of scholarship. This exactly contradicts to what Huizinga’s play as in being disinterested. You have to be selfish in order to be successful in sports. Athletes have to be selfish in a sense that they have to practice and compete harder than anyone else. This mentality is shifted towards college sports while forgetting that the athletes are also students and their main purpose of attending college is to get better education. With NCAA greatly emphasizing on the athletes’ amateurism, it creates a two way tension as NCAA wants universities to “preserve an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is first priority.” When the schools want their athletes to win Big Ten championships and NCAA championships, it puts unbelievably huge amount of pressure and stress on to athletes in balancing their academics and sports. Especially in universities like Michigan where they belong to the top tier in both academics and sports, student athletes are expected to have excellent performance on the field as well as maintaining a decent GPA. It was a very hard transition for me into coping with the trainings and the academics. During my visits to different universities, the coaches told me that academic is always the priority for the team and academic will always go first. However, it is exactly the opposite when I actually joined the team. My friends from other schools also agreed upon what I think. Academic is always the priority but sports is just as important as academics. In other words, it is like professional sports player going to a full time university. I personally think that 24 hours a days is not enough to juggle between academics and sports.
College sports are also not voluntary. It may seem to be voluntary because all athletes sign the National Letter of Intent, which is a letter indicating an agreement to join the NCAA. However, coaches trains student athletes as if they are robots. They maximize practice hours and recommend the student athletes to do extra practices in addition with the required practice hours. Student athletes are also required to do the drug test whenever they are called upon. Student athletes also have a lot more rules and regulations they have to follow, such as some drinks or food we are not allowed to take or meetings we have to attend which is not related to sports. For example, we have to practice during the school breaks when we rather stay at home and be with our families. In other words, there are a lot of situations that student athletes do not have the right to choose and it defeats Huizinga’s definition of play as in being voluntary.
In my opinion, I think that modern college sports as well as professional sports do not fit into Johan Huizinga’s definition of play as it contains elements of being not voluntary and it consists of different degrees of personal advantages. The competitiveness and the commercial value of sports transformed sports from “play” into “work”. Work is a better word to describe sports because athletes put in time and made sacrifices for practices and competing in return for money to survive or a better scholarship for school.
-Wong Chun Hun