College Sports, Enriched by Loyal Tribes of Suckers

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 19, 2014

The grotesque corruptions of big-time intercollegiate athletics have become so glaringly obvious that there is simply no longer a question of whether the college sports-industrial complex is a cancer consuming the academy’s soul. With each new, familiar, and utterly predictable revelation of rampant greed, sexual violence, academic malfeasance, and player exploitation, the only real question is whom to blame. I believe the true villains are not the coaches or boosters or television networks but rather the people who love college athletes best and most: the fans themselves.

To understand why, consider the nature of sports fandom. We watch sports in part because it’s thrilling to see remarkable athletic feats, and because the games are constructed around serial drama. Every pitch, pass, and shot creates a moment of tension followed by resolution. There’s a beginning, middle, and end, with clear opposing interests and a definitive conclusion. People have enjoyed watching gladiatorial conflict since forever, and probably always will.

Academe Today

Keep up with all that's happening in higher education with a free Chronicle report, emailed to you every weekday morning.

But the strongest appeal of sports fandom lies beyond the games themselves. Partisanship is what elevates sports from amusement to national obsession. People form strong emotional relationships with specific teams. This fulfills a basic tribal need that seems inherent to human nature. In a mobile, atomized, and generally peaceful world, sports fandom offers the easiest opportunity to unite with other people in a common identity and cause. That’s why New England baseball enthusiasts consider themselves members of Red Sox Nation. It’s why exultant fans say "We won!," not "They won!"

But there is an inherent problem with sports partisanship. Fans don’t just want to be members of a tribe. Because sports are competitive by nature, fans want their teams to win. And winning requires sports organizations to operate in markets. Owners charge market prices to people who want to watch games, and to municipalities competing for teams. Since the advent of free agency, players have been able to get the best available price for their labor. Teams themselves are bought and sold.

All of this makes sense as a way of efficiently allocating capital to sports organizations and ensuring that athletes are paid salaries commensurate with the value of their work. But it also, in every instance, tears at the sense of tribal solidarity that is so important to the sports fan. A team owner who exploits every available opportunity to extract money from die-hard fans is not behaving in the proper spirit. A player who skips town for a bigger contract is declaring that he cares more about money than about those who rooted for him. Someone who says, "You’re the greatest fans in the world!" to whoever pays him the most money is obviously lying. If franchises can simply pick up and move to a different city, that means the fans in the old city were never really part of a nation at all.

Obviously, lots of people root for professional sports teams anyway. They enjoy the spectacle, or they like gambling and fantasy sports, or they can manage the cognitive dissonance. But for a certain kind of impassioned sports fan, the contradictions of professional sports are intolerable. The realities of the market make their necessary illusions impossible to maintain.

Colleges sports are a solution to this problem. Because so-called student-athletes aren’t paid market salaries, and the franchises can never move, it is much easier for fans to pretend that everyone involved is motivated by a shared identity and love of the game. There is no free agency in college sports, movement between teams is made difficult, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association helps colleges persecute athletes who try to transfer against their first team’s wishes. Fellow students and alumni have, in theory, a common quality of membership with the players. And while professional sports teams are organized largely around municipalities, the fact that most big-time college teams are affiliated with public universities allows them to extend their tribal appeal to larger regions. That’s why a whole state pretty much shuts down during the Auburn-versus-Alabama Iron Bowl.

The defenders of big-time athletics actually acknowledge this. As the New York magazine writer and inveterate college-sports apologist Jonathan Chait has observed, "The top 500 college [football] players could drop out and form their own league, but, like the NBA Developmental League, nobody would watch it, even if the quality of play was higher than college football."

In other words, the appeal of the college-sports-fan experience is almost wholly defined by the nature of the affiliation between fan and team. Of the 109,901 people who gather on Saturdays to watch the University of Michigan Wolverines play football, most would decline to watch the same players wearing slightly different uniforms play in the same stadium under the name of the Ann Arbor Wolverines of the Big Ten professional sports league. This is not rational behavior. It’s closer to a form of mass psychosis.

To justify their pastime, college-sports fans like to invoke the vague and ill-defined notion of the "college sports ideal," which, as best as one can tell, has something to do with the moral virtue of young men and women entertaining the masses without being paid. Or fans will glom on to whatever weak-tea "reforms" are proposed by college officials busy stuffing their pockets with billions of dollars of revenue from cable TV. These are best understood as delaying actions, designed to feed university coffers and the peculiar emotional needs of college-sports fans for as long as possible.

The self-deception inherent in college-sports fandom—the false belief that "they" are "we"—has become more difficult to maintain in recent years, as big-time sports have become more and more market-driven. The fact that colleges have openly colluded with the National Football League and the National Basketball Association to prevent young athletes from selling their services on the free market (pro basketball players are required to give one year of heavily discounted labor to colleges, while football players must donate three) underscores that those athletes aren’t playing for the love of Old State U. Every new multimillion-dollar coaching contract and gargantuan television deal stands in larger contrast to the comparatively paltry value of a college scholarship.

Yet none of this has dimmed the enthusiasm of the fans, people so pure and needful in their affections that they cheerfully fuel a cash-drenched and morally bankrupt college-sports machine that grinds up the very same athletes they desperately wish to commune with, but never will.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy 
program at the New America Foundation.