Singing the Team-Spirit Blues

William Brown for The Chronicle

January 02, 2011

The message came down from central administration, and it was ominous: Meetings would be canceled for the afternoon. Staff were to go home at 2 p.m. Buildings would be shut and locked down. The campus was going into high alert.

Welcome to the start of this year's football season at the Division I powerhouse where I work.

That the university deployed "shooter on campus" protocols made a certain sense, given the festive mayhem and spirit-filled vio­lence that sometimes accom­pany our football games. Still, it took many of us faculty by surprise. After all, the directives came down on a Thursday afternoon almost three weeks before the start of the fall term. Who knew that there was a football game that night? But then the football program has always marched to the beat of its own drum major and paid little attention to the schedule the rest us follow.

For those of you who do not live in the belly of a Division I beast, I suspect you see Big-Time Sports as a seasonal cycle that alternates predictably between the next Big Game and the next Big Scandal. Perhaps you (secretly) enjoy watching the games; maybe you enjoy reading about the shenanigans even more. One way or the other, athletic competition and athletic corruption now go together like bad beer and a tailgate party.

What you may not understand, those of you who only watch the thrill of victory and read about the agony of NCAA sanctions, is that Big-Time Sports is not simply a way of life for us in the rarefied world of Division I. It is the only way of life. Sports has expanded to fill all the available space. It sucks the oxygen out of the rest of campus life.

Forget critical thinking, the wisdom of the ages, or even job skills; our undergraduate "experience" has become a never-ending pep rally where the marching band just keeps playing. What Division I behemoths really teach is: Team Spirit!

Take a walk with me down our campus drag—a dreary half-mile or so of fast-food joints, interrupted by a few head shops, convenience stores, and T-shirt outlets. If you had to pick one word to describe this strip, it would be "sticky." The stretch is punctuated at the north end by a big sports bar, and at the south by an even bigger sports bar. The first is merely a chain, of which there are probably three dozen others in town; the second is owned by one of our former football legends. That's where you want to take out-of-town visitors to impress them.

In all those establishments are more flat-screen TVs than I can count, and they are all always tuned to ESPN. I went into a copy shop not long ago but could not attract the attention of the young man behind the counter. His eyes were glued to some phase of the World Armwrestling Championship, being broadcast, I think, from one of the former Soviet republics where the sport is huge.

If you don't want to venture across the street and off campus, then head to the student union and to our very own brew pub. Woody's Tavern, a dark, cavernous establishment, takes its name from our beloved (and long dead) football coach Woody Hayes. For most of the rest of the nation, Woody will be remembered as the guy who punched an opposing player on national TV, and for being one of the few friends Richard Nixon ever had. Here, however, he was assumed bodily into football heaven and is venerated as a holy man. There are many, many flat screens at Woody's, the biggest I have ever seen. They get only ESPN.

In fairness, the Big 10—which has 11 members and will soon have 12 but can't call itself the Big 12 because that is already the name of another athletic conference, which, by the way, will soon have only 10 members—is worried about how much time its students and alumni spend watching ESPN. Not worried that those countless hours spent watching football or field hockey or those East Europeans with immense forearms might be spent doing something else. Like reading or going to class. No, the league is worried that marketing and branding opportunities are being lost.

So the Big 10 (really 11) has created its own cable network. It has 42 million subscribers. Jim Delany, the conference's commissioner, described the importance of the network this way: "It has unleashed value for us and given us options and opportunities we never had before."

That does sound exciting, although in fact I have no idea what the statement means, and I've just read it four times. But it does sound a great deal like the brainless babble one hears on ESPN.

Delany was more specific with The New York Times. "When President Obama comes to the University of Michigan, we can televise it," he elaborated. "When there are flood-relief efforts in Iowa, we can be part of that." He said all that with a straight face, and you have to admire the man's chutzpah. Far be it from me to tell him that those 42 million subscribers didn't buy the package in order to watch people sandbag the Iowa River.

If you can manage to tear yourself away from ESPN or the Big [Number to Be Determined] Network and leave campus altogether, rest assured that Big-Time Sports will stay with you, like something you can't scrape off the bottom of your shoe.

Venture to the airport, and you will find a store that sells sweatshirts, beer mugs, and other such "branded" merchandise, including DVD's of old football games, which are played incessantly in the terminal on yet another big TV. The Somali women who work at that store and who must listen to those football games over and over and over always have a look on their faces somewhere between sad and homicidal.

The first time I went to the opera in town, I made the mistake of going on the Friday night of a Big Game. Before the curtain went up on Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, the manager of the opera came onstage to lead us all in a cheer. Poor Lucia couldn't compete with that no matter how wildly she flailed around. That was also the last time I went to the opera.

Visiting a friend in a rehabilitation hospital, I discovered that the walls were festooned with sports "art" attributed to the school of the Raphael of the genre, LeRoy Neiman. The stuff itself was bad enough, but no one seemed to notice the almost macabre irony that many of the people going through rehab had sports injuries. I wondered just how much it helped their recovery to be reminded of how they got there in the first place. But the land of Big-Time Sports is an irony-free zone.

In the film The Manchurian Candidate, Frank Sinatra has a wonderfully bizarre conversation with Janet Leigh in which he says, "Columbus is a tremendous football town." That was in 1962, and local leaders here are worried that nothing much has changed about the perception of Ohio's largest city. So they've embarked on a quest to find the soul of the city, some core of civic identity beyond Big-Time Sports.

It's been a multiyear process of bringing city residents together to find a slogan. No easy feat, as Paul Astleford, director of the city's travel promotion, told the Times: "Columbus has not had a bad image. It has just had no image in the national marketplace." Except for football. Frank could have told them that.

So as football season reaches its crescendo in the finale of the bowl season, I wonder about those students who—dare I out them?—don't care. The alienated artists and aspiring scientists who thought that once out of high school and in college they might find some measure of relief from the tyranny of Team Spirit.

This is a hard time of year for them. They keep their heads low, hoping that they and their lack of enthusiasm for Big-Time Sports won't be noticed. Because if it is, then the dark side of Team Spirit might be visited upon them.

Not long age, a nursing student who is a friend of mine found herself singled out in a professor's lecture because she was not clad, as all the other nurses-in-training were, in the school colors the day before a Big Game. My friend, recently returned from the Peace Corps, had no idea what the school colors were, much less that she was required to wear them or else stand out in shame. A Division I version of Hester Prynne.

In the land of Team Spirit, we tolerate no apostates.

Steven Conn is a professor of history at Ohio State University.