Root, Root, Root for the Home Team–Or Else!

click to view George Carlin on sports

Over the course of late October and early November, I’ve spent various weekends at NCAA sponsored meetings as the faculty athletic representative. One of the notable elements of the American higher education system is, in fact, the way in which we link sports and university affiliation. As many college presidents will tell you, their athletic programs, in particular football and basketball, take up 2% of their time, 2% of their budget, but generate 80% of their publicity.

This is an easy thing to criticize from the outside. We struggle both inside universities and outside with the notion of the “student-athlete.” These are kids whose athletic ability opens educational doors.

More important, though, is the way college sports, at both major universities and at smaller schools, creates community and bonds people together. On any given Saturday in the fall, 100,000 people will fill the stadium to watch the University of Michigan play anyone. The NCAA basketball tournament in March generates billions of dollars for NCAA schools. In fact, and a little known one at that, the basketball tournament generates almost the entire NCAA budget. All those football bowl games generate revenue for the bowls and the teams.

But the sports fanaticism isn’t unique to American culture or universities. Jerry Jones built a palace in Arlington for $1.2 billion so the Cowboys could win half their games and the city of Arlington pitched in $360 million. Countries vie to host the Olympics so they can spend around $40 million. The jury is still out whether those investments pay off economically.

But they aren’t necessarily meant to pay off financially. In the NCAA, only about 15-20 schools have athletic programs that operate in the black. Yes, you read that correctly. For every University of Texas and Ohio State, there are hundreds of college athletic programs losing money. Last time I checked, though, I haven’t heard anyone cutting their football or basketball teams.

We are often identified by our affiliation and, whether we like it or not, more people watch the Super Bowl than vote. (Then again, the Super Bowl has a half time show. Maybe the presidential election should follow suit.) Sports has historically bound communities and nations together. We might vote for different parties, but when Real Madrid plays, or when Usain Bolt runs, we are all Spanish or Jamaican. (Unless you aren’t Spanish or Jamaican.)

Sports and athletic contests abound across the world culture. The European Association Football Leagues (that’s soccer to my fellow Americans) averages around 11-13 million fans a year in five different leagues. That’s 11-13 million times 5. American football (that’s the one where they try to kill each other every Sunday) only totals about 17 million fans per year.

And each week, fans live and die with their teams. Quite honestly, there’s little in life more fun than being in an Irish Pub during a World Cup match, especially if Ireland is winning. Drinks flow freely! But I would hate to be in Scotland or England should their teams lose. These “hooligans” riot and take to the streets. Their violent outbursts are rivaled only by American footballs fans who, periodically, go on burning sprees after a victory or loss by the home team. Fans become belligerent in cities across the world. 

These crazy people are our neighbors (or perhaps ourselves) who lead normal, productive daily lives, but each week they turn into fundamentalists whose moods are tied to various men (or women) whose exploits help define our cultural expectations for excellence. Athletes and the home team, quite simply, bind us to a community with shared interests.

This past summer, my family and I attended 6 major league baseball games in 14 days. Beyond the beer and hot dogs (Minneapolis has the best dogs, but Chicago has the best beer. Texas had the best game.), we see people with shared interests come together to support (and occasionally boo) grown men as they try to perform feats most of us can only dream about. Our expectations are part envy and part desire. When my home team wins, my choices are validated, but more importantly, my place gains prestige.

For a good long while, sports has replaced the sacrificial battles of the past. We’ve created, justly so, symbolic contests to test the will of our best and brightest. Like epic heroes of old, these men women are our ideals. When they win, our ideals win. When they lose, a little piece of us recognizes that our choice, our identity, might not be the best.

When I talk with my students about culture, I always ask them to look around as they try and understand a place. What do we see and how does that indicate value? Churches, streets, schools, bars, sports stadiums, businesses: If you landed in Arlington, I might ask, or Houston, Madrid, Mexico City, or any major city, what are the biggest buildings? Which ones hold the most people? It’s a softball question, isn’t it?

I’m no fan of violence (especially if I’m the victim), but I understand where it comes from. Sports, world-wide, offers us the opportunity to vicariously tap into our base, elemental physical humanity. I once interviewed the great sports writer Frank Deford and someone asked him why we are so adamantly opposed to steroids in sports. We have no such compunction about our policemen, firefighters, and military personnel. Deford told us that the steroids taint the human achievement. Great athleticism is like great art, Deford noted. Watch Michael Jordan fly through the air, Peyton Manning throw a football, Usain Bolt run, or Mary Lou Rhetton flip and you can see some of the best humanity can produce.

There’s our passion: sports offers us hope for humanity. Our emotions ebb and flow not because of the wins and losses, but because the wins and losses represent something about ourselves and our identity. Our teams, our home team, binds us together and gives us a shared sense of purpose with those who attend our classes, go to our church, or shop in the same stores. You might say tomato and I might say tomatah, but on Sunday, we all root, root, root for the home team.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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