Bookbyte Blog

Male college student with book and ballIf you’ve lived in the United States for your entire life, there’s probably a number of weirdly unique things you’ve come to take for granted. Our ridiculously complicated system of measurements, for example. When you’ve grown up with something your whole life, it’s sometimes hard to wrap your head around it not existing, even if the rest of the world thinks you might be crazy for doing it. Sometimes it’s worth stepping back and taking a moment to ask, “Why do we do that again?”

Forget everything you know about college sports and look at it objectively. I’m not talking about the sports most college students play, I’m talking about the massive industries, especially football and basketball. They’re kind of weird, aren’t they? Universities, the places where people go to get higher education, frequently go hand-in-hand with an industry worth billions where the star performers don’t get paid anything.

A recent Slate article by Alan Levinovitz argues that college sports are seriously screwing up the priorities of our universities and should be ceased. It’s easy to see where he’s coming from. He even opens his article by explaining that he works at James Madison University, a school on the verge of transitioning into a top-tier athletic power, if it makes the right moves. Levinovitz makes a number of strong arguments, such as pointing out the absurd pay rate differences between athletic and academic employees at schools with powerhouse teams. He points to the example of the University of Chicago, which did away with its once mighty football program back in the ’30s in order to focus on academics. Needless to say, in the ensuing decades, it’s established a reputation as a one-of-a-kind, top-level institution.

Even so, for all the twisted priorities created by college sports, I have trouble imagining a country without them. There are things that college sports do that professional sports can’t.

Growing up just outside of DC, I had the Redskins, the Capitals, the Bullets (who became the Wizards), and the United. The Nationals showed up later, but we could always drive to Baltimore if we wanted baseball. I was spoiled. I could get into any sport I wanted to. Later in life, I moved to Oregon, a state with an NBA and MLS team up in Portland, but no other professional franchises. However, I moved to Eugene, which meant there was only one team worth speaking about: The University of Oregon Ducks. It didn’t matter what sport was played, Ducks fans had a fervor like nothing I’d ever seen. Certainly nothing like the world-weariness of most DC area sports fans.

World-weary or not, professional sports remain king in DC, along with every other major US city. Sure, there are plenty of passionate Georgetown fans out there, and George Mason’s Cinderella Final Four run was the big story of March Madness 2006. But year after year, you’re much more likely to hear a conversation about pro sports, even if that conversation keeps boiling down to “Dan Snyder is the worst, isn’t he?

Drive 90 minutes away from any city, however, and the conversation will almost inevitably be about the local college team.

The reason I have trouble taking Levinovitz’ argument seriously is because he, along with University of Chicago back in the ’30s, comes from a “city” position. Chicago and football could both live full, healthy lives after the divorce, with no damage to the academic, athletic, and local communities. Other schools that have dropped their programs in comparatively recent years, Northeastern and Boston University, could say the same.

But in most places throughout the country that’s not the case. Remove the Ducks from Eugene, or the Irish from South Bend, and you’re causing irreparable damage to the focal point of local culture and community.

Let’s say college sports were banned tomorrow, but the NCAA didn’t dissolve. It just tried to exist independently from the college system, acting more like minor leagues but still competing on a national scale. If that happened, what would keep the franchises from staying put in smaller towns? Why not move to more metropolitan areas where they could have bigger fan bases and sell more tickets? At that point, what’s the different between them and professional teams?

Maybe that’s why college teams inspire even more fervent loyalty than professional teams. Major decisions might still be motivated by money, but at least the team is firmly fixed within the community.

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