College Sports – A Very Useful Fetish

Is it just me, or have others noted that “Big-Time College Sports” (basketball and football, primarily) have recently taken yet another leap into a qualitatively different zone? In my neck of the woods, we have the very controversial new Big Ten Network, which hopes to make gobs of money from advertisers if cable companies ever come around to accepting it. And presently we are witnessing an enhanced version of the national game of Coaches Musical Chairs, with coaches jumping to new schools that offer them packages in the previously unimaginable realm of 3-4 million dollars. And if you have had the pleasure of attending a major college football or basketball game in recent times, you no doubt will have been bombarded by a new level of advertising accompanied by relentless appeals for funds.

Observers have debated the propriety of Big Time College Sports in institutions of higher learning for a long time now, and I do not wish to contribute to this growing literature. I must confess that I am a life-long basketball and football enthusiast. I played a year of college basketball, and I can tell you off the top of my head who beat whom (and by how many games, if it was a series) over the last 50 years in the championships of the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, and NCAA Division I Basketball, as well as the A.P. Division I college football champion. (I kid you not.) To me, this knowledge is far from constituting “trivia;” it’s championships we are talking about, after all. So my concern (even chagrin) at the present state of Big Time College Sports does not derive from an anti-sports attitude.

But surely something is amiss in many institutions of higher learning. Major sports programs are becoming – or have become – the tail that wags the proverbial dog. At my school, the sports program funding initiatives are in overdrive while many academic programs (especially in the liberal arts) languish for the need of funds. This situation is hardly atypical. On ESPN and other enabling networks, it appears that universities’ primary reason for being is to support sports programs. Big Time Sports has become a fetish in the nation and on campus.

Commentators have cited many reasons for this state of affairs. Most claim that the national obsession with sports and constant entertainment has carried over into the college realm, capturing the allegiance of campus citizens, alumni, and their relevant publics. Supporters of sports programs counter by pointing to the virtues instilled by athletic preparation and competition. Those students who truly dedicate themselves to athletics and academics are indeed worthy of emulation.

But another contribution of college athletics and Big Time Sports has lurked below the radar screen of commentary: the ways in which such sports provide an outlet for legitimate feelings and beliefs about virtue that the contemporary campus tends to downplay or thwart. This provision is both positive and negative. It is positive because of the virtues sports embody, but it is negative to the extent that the obsession with sports serves as a compensation for other campus failings. Let me explain.

In Culture of Narcissism (1976), the late, astute social critic Christopher Lasch praised athletic endeavors for the way that they preserved virtues that were starting to come under assault in the political and educational realms when he wrote. To be successful in competitive sports, an athlete must work hard, subject himself or herself to appropriate discipline, and be prepared to accept that playing time is based on merit. Results matter a lot more than excuses. Personal responsibility and a measure of courage are important to athletic success; excuses based on victimhood do not avail. And individuals are ultimately judged by their efforts and acts, not their backgrounds. (In the latter respect, Lasch echoed Martin Luther King’s famous maxim about being judged for the content of one’s character, not one’s race.) In Lasch’s view, athletics embody virtues that not only built America, but also make meaningful citizenship and progress possible. But he portrayed these virtues as threatened by the values of the emerging therapeutic society, in which self-esteem, self-indulgence, and a debased notion of equality hold sway over the rigors of responsibility and achievement.

Academic standards for most of the twentieth-century were essentially consistent with the virtues Lasch praised. Standards grew progressively tougher, and universities defined excellence largely in terms of intellectual merit and achievement. Advocates of the therapeutic ethic were rare, and had little official recognition or power on campus. As is now well-known, this changed with the rise of the post-liberal university in recent decades. Today, the concept of merit is challenged in many quarters, and excellence is now prominently associated with “diversity,” not intellectual power per se. Administrative positions and offices dedicated to inculcating and servicing the therapeutic ethic have proliferated throughout higher education. Deans of students are often more concerned with making students comfortable and esteemed than with ensuring that their intellectual horizons are challenged and truly stretched. Policies cater to identity politics rather than to individuals who transcend group ideology; and individual courage is devalued compared to sensitivity and victimhood. We have witnessed what Nietzsche called a “transvaluation of values,” only in a direction that Nietzsche – who taught the difference between what is noble and what is not – would have disdained.

To a significant extent, this transformation of values has been imposed on campuses by special interest groups. Meanwhile, the majority of students and campus citizens probably still value such traditional virtues as intellectual merit, achievement, competition, and courage. Sports provide one publicly prominent vehicle for expressing and sharing these values. Perhaps most importantly, spectator sports might be the only realm in which a sense of community persists on today’s campus. Torn by ideological disagreements over the very meaning of the university and the poisonous differences promoted by identity politics, sports is the one arena that gives us the possibility of a common cause that is also consistent with traditional conceptions of virtue. I have personally witnessed this unifying effect of spectator sports many times. According to this interpretation, the growing fetish of Big Time Sports on campus is -among other things – a manifestation of the attempt to maintain traditional notions of community and virtue on campus.

Thinkers from Marx to Freud to Lasch have taught that fetishes are both useful and detrimental. They are useful because they give us a provisional sense of meaning and commitment in the face of mental and social conflict and incompletion. But they are detrimental, in turn, because they are but compensations (substitute objects) for the more meaningful commitments that characterize more mature personalities and cultures. Fetishes help us to deal with the ravages of life, but they are second rate, not the best that we can do. What if universities were to someday attain a true sense of academic community? Would Big Time Sports then return to its proper place on campus? Or is the cat now irretrievably out of the bag?


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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3 thoughts on “College Sports – A Very Useful Fetish

  1. I have lived most of my life in Michigan and I am a graduate of the University of Michigan’s law school–the law school and I are probably equally embrrassed about that. But even if I had more loyalty to the university than I do, I would feel no more moved to root for its sports teams than I would to root for the University of Michigan Press. Both are eseentially business enterprises that wear the university’s colors.

  2. What’s unfortunate is that the cat is not all the way out of the bag. Big-time sports aren’t undesirable per se (just look at the benefit to Boston of the Sox and the Pats over the last few years), rather it’s the current attempt to connect those sports to scholarship that is the problem. It can’t be done, and trying to do it only hurts the athletes involved (who are being massively underpaid, thereby unconscionably subsidizing the schools) and more generally, as you point out, harms the values of the university.
    Any university would be proud to have its bus drivers win a bus rodeo, or its groundskeepers win a flower contest, or its dining service win a culinary award. Those employees are often permitted to audit classes or take classes at a discount simply because the university is their employer. Why not allow the Big Ten schools to finally and honestly professionalize their football and basketball teams too? There should be official minor leagues in those sports just as there is in baseball, with the teams permitted to be owned by universities and required to be paid market wages. The players could be allowed to take some classes if that were still important to the universities, but they would no longer be required to pretend that they are real students.

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