A slightly different look at college athletics…

If I’m being honest, I’ll have to admit that I wasn’t all that aware of LSA’s theme this semester. I discovered it on the first day of classes while sitting in the lecture hall, staring at three huge screens with Professor Mika’s disembodied voice explaining how he would incorporate the theme into his course.

I’m also not a huge sports person…especially by Prof Mika’s standards, because the one sport that I do follow closely is golf.

                  Doesn’t he look super athletic to you?

Besides golf, I don’t find myself taking part or being a spectator of sports very often unless it’s the Olympics or Wimbledon. So to sum it all up, the theme of this semester at a face value doesn’t hold very much personal meaning.

However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t given it some consideration. What does Sport and the University mean? From a very simplistic point of view, the phrase ‘sport and the university’ refers to collegiate sports and the community around it. But that can’t be it- that involves only a specific population of a relatively large college.

To me, the Sport and the University theme is an attempt to draw in even those who don’t particularly care about sports and have them gain an insight into the world of those who do. I’ve noticed that among this student body in particular, “they’re an athlete” is a label that nearly approaches stigma. When people realize a classmate is at UMich on athletic scholarship, the thoughts running through their heads are obvious. Maybe they’re not as smart as me. Well, obviously they’ll focus more on sports than on studies. No wonder they eat so much….I mean, I’ve heard it straight from the mouth of babes.


The students who form opinions on the athletes.


What I think is important to consider is how the athletes themselves regard sports. I don’t personally know any at UMich, but I have a fair number of friends who are college athletes. One interesting case is my friend who I’ll call Nick. Ever since freshman year, Nick wanted to go to UMich. He was (is) the guy who would livetweet the football games and wear a maize and blue shirt every day of the week. He rejoiced in putting down Ohio State and Michigan State in conversation and visited the campus at least five times before even applying. I thought hell would freeze over before Nick went elsewhere for his college education.

When he got into University of Michigan, everyone thought that he’d commit as soon as possible. He didn’t. He hemmed and hawed and twiddled his thumbs well into spring…until finally he decided to go to Albion College.

Chosen over University of Michigan

When I asked him why, he just shrugged and looked at me.

“They’re letting me swim at Albion,” he said. “I thought I wanted to go to U of M, but I’ve been swimming for fourteen years.”

Nick’s not the only person I know who made this kind of decision. One girl went to Albion as well, but for soccer. Another friend of mine went all the way to Butler so that he could continue his cross country/track career and yet another turned down University of Michigan to swim at MSU. Most of them could have gone to another college with a more prestigious standing, but instead chose to go where they could keep on being an athlete. What we forget about most athletes is that if they’re still playing after high school, they’ve probably been playing for the lion’s share of their life. To suddenly stop would be like lopping off a limb.

To put it into terms that we’ve been centering our discussions and lectures on, these particular students have tied their ‘work’ and ‘play’ together. The decision to do one directly affects the other. How and where they do their work affects whether or not they play.

A few days ago, we read “Death of a Grasshopper” by Bernard Suits. Suits defines gameplay as activities with intrinsic value. They lack instrumentality- they are not activities taken out with some material gain in mind. In our discussions and lectures, we’ve been tossing back and forth the idea of whether or not college sports counted as play. A lot of my classmates thought that the amount of rules involved and the fact that many college athletes are on scholarship rule it out from being play.

The thing is, Nick and the other students I listed off earlier are not receiving scholarships. They’re on the team and they’re competing the way they did in high school, but that’s it. What’s more, they’re not planning on becoming professional athletes. Nick and his fellow student athletes in this case are playing their respective sports for the sheer sake of playing them.

For them and for other athletes like them, “Sport and the University” is not the linking of two different institutions. Instead, they approach the theme as one singular idea. They’re inherently and internally linked due to the amount of value and significance they place in their athleticism. Where they go for college is important for their career future, but not so important that they would give up the joy of continuing their sport.

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As we go forth in our semester of Political Science, I think little mini-analyses like these will help flesh out the theme more and more. I think that’s the point- to use the courses that are incorporating the theme to delve into the world of college athletics.


One thought on “A slightly different look at college athletics…

  1. I found your post very interesting, especially with the examples of your athlete friends. I guess this also suggests that despite increasing commercialism and profit-orientedness (or as John Bacon said, greed) in the college sports system, the autotelic quality of sports is still preserved, at least for many athletes. They choose to play their sport for no other end than to play the sport; it has deep intrinsic value for them, and could even define their identity. This enables them to make sacrifices and make ‘irrational’ decisions like turning down a more prestigious college, for the sake of playing the sport. I think this is something that more employers are, and should take into consideration besides the CV and grades- the passion and commitment that one shows in other areas of life, as well as the often non-quantifiable skills and traits that competitive sportsmen possess.


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