I used to appreciate sports more. I had a varsity jacket in high school, practically collected Under Armor workout gear and was able to name a handful of professional athletes. You’d hardly know it from the confused look on my face as I somehow found myself watching Thursday’s NCAA Tournament games.
When I got to the University, one of the first things I did was buy season football tickets. I even managed to sit through the entire Appalachian State game last year. But that hardly lasted.
By October, Michigan sports became eerie to me. On football Saturday mornings, with the entire town wearing matching T-shirts, “Hail to the Victors” sounded like a national anthem and the marching band seemed surreal and nationalistic, like a Soviet demonstration. Surrounded by my classmates singing the fight song, I didn’t understand what we were fighting for. Why do people identify with their favorite team so strongly? They aren’t the ones down there running on the field. Sports seemed so arbitrary and overblown.
These feelings lasted my entire freshman year, as well as during last year’s football season. Needless to say, I didn’t waste money on any kind of tickets again.
But around the time of this year’s Super Bowl, my boss at Ambrosia Cafe, Ed, decided to take me to task. “You lefties,” he told me, “only feel this way because you’re bad at sports yourselves.” He describes himself as the only liberal who sees value in them. He sees beauty and heart in athletics, and asked me to look at them as I would at art or music.
My main problem with sports is how commercial they’ve become. Clearly, athletics carry a lot of power, and hundreds of millions of dollars at our University are spent on them. People have to pay through the nose for season tickets, signed merchandise and ESPN6. But Ed defended sports, saying commercialization happens to all forms entertainment. “Just look at the music industry,” he said.
He’s slowly convincing me that, at the heart of the game, something more meaningful is going on. What that is, he didn’t tell me what it is. But he challenged me for saying that sports don’t mean anything.
He told me about moments in sports history when athletes had everything to fight for. In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field events that were all but a referendum on Third Reich eugenics. When Joe Louis knocked out German Max Schmeling in the same year, it sent the same message home. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Ed asserted that Western Texas’s victory against the University of Kansas catalyzed the desegregation of southern collegiate basketball teams.
He told me about the history of the game. Once, sportsmen worked as grocers in the off-season, before the multi-million dollar contracts we have today. In some sports, players still do.
Last Thursday, my friend and I went to our boss’s house for the Clemson vs. Michigan basketball game.
Four kids hollered and jumped up and down in front of the television, cheering on the Wolverines. One of the boys had never seen a basketball game before, and yet he was pointing and booing as loud as the rest of them. It wasn’t until then I realized the power of competition.
It was difficult to see through the commercialization of something like March Madness, but the Wolverines’ return to the playoffs felt like an appropriate time. Michigan was banned from the playoffs in 2002 and 2003 after it came to light that former basketball booster Ed Martin had paid off players in the ‘90s. Not since 1998 has our team made it as far as we did Thursday night. And we made it to the playoffs, fair and square.
My boss likes collegiate sports because of the distance they keep from huge returns. He appreciates the guys who aren’t playing for money but for love of the game. I realized that I may not love the game as the players or true sports fans do, but I can appreciate the way their passion brings them together.
I’ve decided to give sports another chance. Maybe it’s the terrible economy. Maybe it’s the way I felt in the last 30 seconds of Thursday’s game. Sports can bring people closer together and overcome boundaries that few other mainstream pasttimes can. I’m still dubious about franchised goods, multi-million dollar contracts and Madonna love triangles, but I think I can finally stop arguing with Ed. Sports have spirit, after all.
Meg Young can be reached at email@example.com.