Posted by Jay Livingston
Over at Scatterplot , Jeremy Freese posts this excerpt from Season of Saturdays, by Michael Weinreb, a sports writer.
|Maybe you don’t understand at all: Maybe you attended a liberal arts college in New England, or maybe you grew up in a city where the athletes were professionals (New York, say, or Boston, or Chicago, or London). . . . Maybe the thought of a university’s morale being tied to its football team strikes you as a fundamental failing of American society. Maybe you hear stories about corrupt recruiting and grade-fixing, and maybe you cannot understand how a sport with a long history of exploitation and brutality and scandal can still be considered a vital (and often defining) aspect of student life. Maybe you see it as a potentially crippling frivolity, or as a populist indulgence, and maybe the threat of football encroaching on the nation’s educational system makes you wonder how someone could possibly write an entire book extolling its cultural virtues.|
And the thing is, I would like to tell you that you’re wrong, but I also know that you’re not entirely wrong.
Jeremy, a long-time Big Ten fan (Iowa and now Northwestern), admits to his own increasing ambivalence about the game. Me, I’m more like those “maybe” people Weinreb imagines. In the town where I grew up, many adults felt towards the high school football team the way college team fans feel about their team. They went to all the games (sometimes even the away games), they knew the team’s history and would compare individual players to those of five or ten or more years earlier. And this wasn’t Odessa, TX.; it was a white collar, WASP suburb of Pittsburgh. I wondered what was wrong with these grown men. Many of them didn’t even have kids in the school. The phrase “get a life” hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had, that’s what I would have said.
I had the same feeling some years later when I went to a Princeton game – the alums in their tweed sport coats and striped ties shouting “Go Tiger” while we – grad students and young faculty – regarded the whole scene with stoned irony.
Over the years, I grew less critical about the fans, mostly because of sociology, which taught me to look at institutions, not just individuals. Some of the men in my town really liked school football. Others (my father, for example) liked to play bridge. So what? But those accusations of brutality, exploitation, and corruption that Weinreb mentions – those are more than just “not entirely wrong.” They are accurate and important. But the fault lies with institutions like the NCAA, not with the fans and athletes.