When you ask various University of Michigan students why they chose this school, you will receive largely similar responses. These responses tend to be “I just felt at home here,” “the academics are great,” “I like being at a school with so many students” and “I love the energy of a big sports school.” I will proceed from here with a focus on the last statement and its implications.
Over Halloween weekend, I went to East Lansing for the Michigan vs. Michigan State football game. As we all know, the two schools have a longstanding rivalry. When Michigan State beat us 37-33, I stood along the sidewalk waiting for my bus to arrive and take me home. Waiting for the bus, thousands of Spartans were running through the streets. They ran up to my friends and me, cursing us out and insulting our looks. I saw two couches being burned in the streets, windows being smashed in and multiple fistfights breaking out, including some fights between college students and fully grown adults. This behavior was definitely offensive, but I am sure if we Wolverines had won the game we would have acted in a similar manner.
When we think about what is truly driving such behaviors, there is a moment of self-reflection where we must laugh at ourselves. Millions of people either sit in a stadium or cozy up on their couches to watch a game with relatively simple rules. Some fans are so loyal to their teams that they tattoo their alma maters on their bodies or travel thousands of miles to sit in a stadium and watch the action firsthand. With upward of ten million average viewers watching college football each Saturday, it is obvious there is a great nationwide appeal regarding sporting events.
However, where does such appeal come from? Why is there such a strong rivalry between Michigan State and the University of Michigan to the extent that we are willing to physically fight each other for our team, call each other names and verbally attack one another?
While sports today primarily serve to entertain and provide us with the feelings previously described, they were first used in history as preparation for war and hunting. Historians believe sports began around 776 BC with the first Olympic games in ancient Greece. The games included chariot races, wrestling, javelin throwing, discus throwing and jumping. Knowing that sports arose in such a rugged, violence-driven context, it makes sense why they have remained extremely physical, both for players and for fans.
From the time we were children, we played games and had imaginary friends knowing they were not truly a part of reality. Despite knowing games are not reality, the extreme actions some sports fans take can quickly transform games into a reality with real-life consequences, sometimes in the form of a bloody nose spawned from a Spartan or Buckeye’s fist. There was even an instance in 1926 where a Texas A&M fan, Charles Sessums, was killed by a Baylor fan during a halftime riot. It is thought that he was either struck in the head or hit with a club or piece of a broken chair. The only possible answer to our diehard loyalty for our teams lies in the idea that sports are a social construct.
Sports foster a sense of identity for people; their self-esteem lies in whether their team wins or loses. A game’s result can fuel anger in the form of violence or the desire to taunt the opposing team. Psychologically, we do this to protect our fragile egos. We use sports as a form of emotional expression and an escape from real-world problems. Devotion to a team also gives fans a sense of belonging and community. Maybe we do not care so much about the actual game, but rather enjoy the escape, belonging and emotion involved with such games.
Here at the University of Michigan, we have a very strong alumni network surrounding many sports, especially football and basketball. I speak mostly of football because we are in the midst of football season with one of our greatest rivalry games coming up on Nov. 27 — Ohio State vs. Michigan.
Even though this game is over Thanksgiving weekend, the Big House will still be packed with fans. U-M fans will come back to Ann Arbor from all around the world because our football program does an excellent job of uniting U-M alumni. It gives them something to come back for, scream at the top of their lungs for and feel the nostalgic sense of pride they felt when they were students here themselves. They are content in knowing that once you are a Wolverine, you are always a Wolverine. People desire a sense of community, and Michigan football provides exactly this.
So next time you hear someone speaking of their love for Michigan’s energy regarding sports, you might laugh internally thinking about all the drastic ways we behave for a simple game. I am sure we will experience some very extreme cases of fan loyalty this Nov. 27, 2021. Have fun and I hope to see you there in the crowd of 110,000 socially programmed fans.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.