The Amateur Ethos and Non-Revenue Sports

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In his book, The Playing Fields of Eton, Professor Lavaque-Manty talks about how collegiate women’s sports are not considered “revenue” sports—which he defines as “a sport so popular that its paying spectators make it a major business.” Over the past week, I have spent time attending two of the sports that would not be considered by this definition to be revenue sports—women’s field hockey and women’s soccer.

Interestingly enough, with all of the drama that is surrounding the Michigan football program- something considered by many to be at the core of Michigan athletics- I found the events I attended to be the antithesis of the types of attitudes that currently surround the Michigan football program from both players and fans. What I witnessed was a uniqueness about these non-revenue sports, which I would best characterize as a resemblance of the “amateur ethos” Eric Dunning talks about in his book, Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure.

In Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure, Dunning talks about the emergence of spectator sports as the dissolution of the “amateur ethos” that previously surrounded the world of sport. Today, Michigan has over 100,000 spectators fill the Big House to watch the Michigan Wolverines play football for seven Saturdays each year, but they don’t do it just to see a bunch of amateurs. These fans view the Michigan football team as a prosthesis of the University—they want to see the same sort of excellence on the field that is seen in the classroom; they want to see the type of excellence that makes the University of Michigan so renowned as an institution.

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Especially given the past successes of the Michigan football program, these fans expect the football team to shine on the national stage it has created. The attitude of Michigan football fans is one of entitlement to quality representation—something Lavaque-Manty describes as an “internal good.” But these high expectations of fans can add a lot of pressure onto Michigan football players, which limits their ability to play just for the “pleasure,” of the sport, something Dunning talks about as part of the foundation for the amateur ethos.

At the core of the amateur ethos, Dunning claims, is the ideal of playing sports “for fun.” In the field hockey game against Northwestern, this is exactly what I observed. The rain was pouring down onto the field non-stop, but that didn’t stop Michigan players from dancing, laughing, and ultimately taking down the ninth ranked team in the country. This game was the exact opposite of what I witnessed when I saw the Michigan football team’s wet battle against Utah earlier in the football season- a game that featured boos from the fans and a displeased Brady Hoke.

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The difference between these two games was attitude. The women’s field hockey team’s response to a 1-0 deficit against a ranked Northwestern team wasn’t to become upset or play like there were no fans in the building. Instead, they stayed together as a team and scored 2 goals in the dense rain to come out of Ocker Field with a 2-1 win. It seemed that for the entire game, the attitude of the Michigan women’s field hockey team was upbeat and opportunistic. On the other hand, the play of the Michigan football team after they were trailing in the rain against Utah was sloppy and led to poor play.

Perhaps the disconnect between perceived enjoyment levels of both teams can be attributed to something Anthony Trollope addresses as too much “seriousness” within amateur sport—an idea that Dunning expands upon in his book. All of the pressure that the Michigan football team is under to generate revenue and represent the University in a positive way could have negative implications on the way these players play the game.

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In the soccer match I observed between Michigan and Ohio State, the seriousness of the Michigan players did not boil over into negative implications on the way they played the game either– even after Ohio State scored a goal with one minute left to play. In fact, I witnessed not only resolve from the entire women’s soccer team, but also from the entire women’s soccer fan section. After the goal was scored, I couldn’t find one Michigan player who was visibly discouraged by the goal. Instead, they immediately lined up the ball and tried to go for the win. And rather than boo the Michigan soccer team in displeasure, something that is often done at the football games, the fans at the soccer game tried to voice their support even louder to will the Wolverines onto an even later goal.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, this goal never came, but the fans at the packed UM Soccer Complex still stood up and cheered for the Wolverines– something usually not seen at football games after a result that isn’t a win. It is my belief from watching these two “non-revenue” games that the fans that show their support at these events buy into the amateur ethos as well. Perhaps the lack of a national spotlight does not make them feel like they are being represented, and they simply want to take pleasure in the game of soccer.

While the confines of the NCAA and the Michigan Athletic Department do not permit all of the characteristics of the “amateur ethos” Dunning talks about to exist in its fullest context, the amount of enjoyment I saw from both the women’s field hockey and soccer teams, even in the face of adversity and less than ideal outcomes, was something very unique. These sports made me recognize the amateur ethos—players playing to have fun– in the non-revenue sports of women’s field hockey and soccer more than I ever have while watching the sport that currently occupies so much of the athletic spotlight here at Michigan.

-Joe Shea

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