Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Rally ’round

In Culture, William & Mary on October 24, 2011 at 7:31 pm

I was wearing my William and Mary sweatshirt on a plane the other day, and when I stood up to grab my bag from the overhead bin, the older man sitting behind me asked, “Did you win this weekend?”

Excuse me? Win what? Wracking my brain, I realized he was probably referencing the football game the Tribe played two days before. I wiped the clueless look off my face.

“I don’t know, sir,” I said cheerfully, “I was out of town!”

He looked stunned.

“You don’t know?”

“Uh, no, I was gone –”

“Well who were you playing?” he asked impatiently.

Shoot. I knew this. What were the initials? Please stop looking at me like that, sir, um, it was N and H, but it wasn’t New Hampshire….

“New Haven?” I squeaked.

He smiled smugly. “You mean Yale? It certainly wasn’t Yale.”

“No, no, um, I don’t, no…” I trailed off, mortified.

At this point, the lady who had been sitting in the seat next to me, who’d mentioned before the flight that her daughter had attended William and Mary, tried to come to my rescue.

“Maybe she has different interests,” she suggested.

I could have hugged her. This would undoubtedly lead to a discussion about my love of history, my passion for journalism and my involvement in my campus’s environmental programs.

The man gave me an appraising look, then nodded.

“Yes,” he said decidedly. “You look like you’re into lacrosse.”

***

School spirit can be a matter of contention. For some people, the concept is entirely innocuous, exciting, calling to mind the scent of grilling meat and beer and the pleasant chill of autumn. For others, it conjures nauseating memories of mandatory high school pep rallies, where for half an hour in a sweat-stained gym two dozen classmates were glorified as gods merely because they wore football jerseys. This discrepancy stems from two simple facts: school spirit is almost always associated with sports, and there exist, in fact, people not interested in them.

Not everyone understands this. My grandfather, an avid sports fan and a Tribe football follower, laments after every home game he attends about the poor showing in the student section of the stadium. “Where’s the school spirit?” he moans. He’s goading me, and I try to ignore the bait, but I can’t help myself from trying in vain to explain yet again that just because students don’t show up to sporting events in droves doesn’t mean they aren’t proud of the College. Why don’t the football players come out to the band concerts? I counter. Or the Quiz Bowl tournaments? These discussions inevitably turn into arguments and always end with my grandpa smirking and saying with infuriating finality, “Well, you can’t rally ’round the math class.”

It’s hard to argue with this logic. It seems unassailable. You can’t rally ’round the math class. It just isn’t done.

But why not?

With the hundreds of classes and extracurricular activities offered at each American university, and the thousands of possible interests a student may possess, why do strangers on planes expect every kid in a college sweatshirt to care about sports? Since not every student derives his or her institutional pride from the box scores, why can’t “school spirit” be redefined to be more inclusive?

Even at colleges like William and Mary, where a large subset of the student body seems more enthusiastic about their own activities than the football team’s, sporting events receive greater attention and more hype than musical and theatrical performances, faculty and student research or guest lecturers. Non-athletic endeavors are not promoted with equal zeal. (A capella groups prove an exception to this rule on many campuses, and recent media attention from reality TV shows and dramadies like Glee have further boosted their cool-factor. But pop singing has always garnered a strong following.) Parking lots are not put on lock down hours in advance for ballet recitals. Parades are not held when physics experiments yield ground-breaking results. Despite strong evidence that the athletics program is rarely a key factor for most students who decide to attend William and Mary, administrators, alumni and community members insist on treating sporting events as barometers for school pride.

The tie between school spirit and athletics goes way back. Oxford and Cambridge have an annual boat race dating to 1856, and Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate football game in 1869. The connection is also ingrained in popular culture. In the Beach Boys classic song on the subject, “Be True to Your School,” the protagonists’ pride in his academic institution is based on the fact that its athletic program is ranked “number one in the state.” He gloats about possessing “a letterman’s sweater with a letter in front I got for football and track” and a cheerleading girlfriend who “will be working on her pom-poms, and…yelling” at the football game they’ll all “be jacked up on.” To “be true to your school,” then, means to show up on game day and go wild as your guys work to “smash” the other school’s boys.

College sports don’t hog the spirit spotlight equally, however. Depending on the university, football and men’s basketball games are the events most closely identified with school pride. As it’s football season, the gridiron game will serve as the example. Measuring school spirit solely on interest in football is problematic for a number of reasons. Football games reinforce gender stereotypes by making male football players action heroes while relegating even those females who “participate,” cheerleaders and dancers, to supporting roles. Women are therefore unable to ever garner as much campus prestige as men, because they are precluded from the most meaningful opportunity to generate school pride. A system that values football more than other pursuits does not encourage reciprocity; musicians, artists, scientists and writers are expected to show support for football players, who feel no obligation to attend their classmates’ concerts, gallery openings, or lectures or read about their research. Media attempts to bridge the great divide between young sports stars and participants in other activities seem highly unrealistic, for although Zac Efron may be able to straddle the basketball team and the theater department in High School Musical, and those football players on Glee can score touchdowns and win singing competitions, real student athletes are not encouraged to make such overtures. Football programs are expensive and poor financial investments. Very few college athletic programs break even from game revenue alone (William and Mary’s certainly does not), and their losses are recouped by charging all students, even those not interested in sports, nearly-hidden fees on their tuition bills. For the 2011 fall semester at the College, each student paid $742 to cover the athletics program, which comes to more than 11 percent of in-state tuition. Meanwhile, other student organizations are forced to scrabble for student assembly funding. There is even evidence to suggest that, corrupted as many programs are by backroom recruitment deals and corporate endorsements, perhaps college sports should not be a point of pride at all. A recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “The Shame of College Sports,” explores these scandals and concludes that the college athletic system is in need of serious reform. These don’t seem like qualities to rally ’round.

While the crowd dynamics, action and occasional violence of sports games make them seem like natural spirit-raisers, other activities can be just as stimulating, albeit in alternate ways. People who have been taught to value intellectual challenge understand research as a different kind of contest with the potential for equally thrilling outcomes. Good audience members at a show or concert are highly attuned to what’s occurring on stage, feeding off the performers’ energy and riding the emotional highs and lows of the dialogue or music. With the right mindset, it makes just as much sense and is just as easy to take pride in a university’s academic and cultural achievements as it is its scoring record.

It could be argued that the elevation of college athletics programs simply reflects a larger societal obsession with sports, one that’s futile to challenge. But surely universities, bastions of critical thinking and academic inquiry, could reexamine this phenomenon. Surely colleges could make room to celebrate the cerebral, the creative and the scientific with as much fervor as they do their sports teams. Athletic events can play an important role in unifying a university, but to focus on them to the exclusion of all other activities risks alienating those of us who don’t identify with them. Generating excitement about a wide array of interests will make college campuses more enriching and promote appreciation for diversity.

For the record, Plane Man, I was right – it was New Haven University that William and Mary played. The Tribe won that game, and I was glad for the team. But my sweatshirt-donning had little to do with their efforts. I wear green and gold because I am proud of the opportunities my school offers every student to pursue his or her own interests, in the classroom, on stage, in the lab, and yes, even on the playing field. Go Tribe! – whatever you choose to rally ’round.

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