If the LSA department needed someone to justify the purpose of this semester’s theme topic of sport and the university, that someone would most certainly be John U. Bacon. In his lecture last Friday, entitled “The Fight for the Soul of College Football: Who’s Winning and Why it Matters,” Bacon made it clear that the University of Michigan as we know it would not exist without the adoption of sport early on in its history.
Although the University of Michigan barely receives any money from the state of Michigan today, Bacon pointed out that there was once a time when this university relied heavily on the tax dollars of Michiganders. Especially early on, he noted that most of these individuals had no connection to the university. They were not going to come here to get an education, but they still had to pay a portion of their income to fund this institution. In order to make these people feel like their contributions had some effect beyond the education of those who were fortunate enough to attend Michigan, the University of Michigan used sport to extend itself beyond the realm of academia.
In his book, Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games, former MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti talks about the importance of leisure– which he defines as “free time.” By utilizing sport, specifically football, Michigan created an inclusive system that is open to all who wish to support it. The University of Michigan created a widespread outlet for leisure to thrive. Taxpayers now had the opportunity to attend a Michigan football game, even if they didn’t actually attend the University of Michigan. This was huge, because it made all who contributed their hard earned money to the university feel like they could still have a form of ownership and connection to this institution.
In my opinion, the rich history with sport that John Bacon described has only strengthened the ties between sport and the University of Michigan today. The legacy of avid support from fans of all backgrounds, combined with the athletic achievement from so many high profile athletes at Michigan, has created something that is truly unique. Together, these aspects have created a culture of excellence—a culture of victors—and it is the reason why Michigan brings in so many of the top young student athletes in the world to compete here on a yearly basis.
Furthermore, as a fan that watches these world-class student athletes, I see sport and the university as something that is also about sharing leisure for the greater student body. To quote Giamatti one more time: “When people win together, the joy is more intense than when any of us wins alone, because part of any true pleasure is sharing that pleasure…” Bacon pointed out that “The Victors” is a song that does not mention the need to win; it addresses the fact that we have already won. Other colleges have fight songs with lyrics that mostly revolve around the word “win,” but not us. We don’t, because according to “The Victors,” we have already won. Going to the University of Michigan– submersing ourselves in this culture– makes us victors. The opportunity to go here is a “win” in itself. Therefore, the pleasure that can be captured from merely watching our fellow “victors” compete in sport allows us to take pride not only in our teams, but it also allows us to indulge in the tradition and representation of excellence that makes Michigan what it is.
Sharing this pleasure with one another is what creates the strong ties that Michigan fans have to this university. Past and present students can remember not only the leisure they achieved while watching Michigan’s top athletes compete, but also the knowledge they captured in the classroom that empowered them to go out and change the world, while non-students can support Michigan sports simply for the love of the game, or to bear witness to a storied legacy and tradition. This dualistic legacy of achievement in sport and in education—in leisure and in legacy– is a quintessential part of my definition of “the Michigan difference.”
We are the soul of college athletics. Michigan students, alumni, and fans have built the sporting programs here into what they are today. These individuals are also the ones who serve as ambassadors for the next generation of leaders and best in the way that they communicate the Michigan legacy to their communities. While Bacon made it clear that the Achilles heel of sport and the university is the people who try to put a price tag on the leisure and pleasure that we share, the transcendent power of sport that Giamatti discusses is real at the University of Michigan, and no price tag that can be put on that.