James Ward is a lawyer, privacy advocate, and fan of listing things in threes. Nothing he says here should be considered legal advice/don’t get legal advice from social media posts. He promises he’s not as smug as he looks in his profile picture.
The cultural disconnects between the UK and the US are funny things. No one seems to mind that I’ll occasionally say “garbage” instead of “rubbish,” though my children will chortle if I call trousers “pants.” (“Ugh, Dad!”). The focus on tea instead of coffee is well-known, but much less pronounced than I anticipated, and as for marmite, well, the less said the better. One space, though, where I find consistent lack of mutual understanding is sports. Americans, though increasingly into soccer/football, don't understand rugby and think that cricket is something that chirps. It's a phenomenon that goes both ways, and never more than with the American obsession with college sports. In particular, why do people who graduated from college decades before still feel such a sense of loyalty and passion for their sports programs?
To be fair, you can see why an "amateur" sport that makes billions of dollars per year in revenues and spawns mega-millionaire coaches (Alabama's Nick Saban will well over $8m this year, alone) might be confusing. And the intensity with which Americans focus on collegiate sports (football and basketball especially) is, honestly, a little unnerving. For instance, on "commit day," when recruits to top football programs have sent in their irrevocable commitments to join the team, many schools have a livestream of their fax machine so that fans can watch as the paperwork comes in and the future of the program comes into focus.
Not that I've ever watched it -- obviously. That would be weird.
So what is it that makes otherwise normal people into rabid college sports fans? Why are we so fanatical, bedecking our kids in team gear from birth and teaching them the fight songs?
I'm going to skip all of the cynical answers and cut to what I think is at the heart of it. We love college sports because there's just a tiny kernel of childhood wrapped up in it, and pursuing it -- even if we never capture it -- has a touch of the magical.
We love college sports because there's just a tiny kernel of childhood wrapped up in it, and pursuing it -- even if we never capture it -- has a touch of the magical.
Now I want to make clear that I don't mean that the Collegiate Sports Industrial Complex™ is an innocent thing: far from it. It's exploitative, monopolistic, and sometimes cruel. Like anything, the context and reality of collegiate sports (especially the financial aspects) are as troublesome and deserving of critique as any other.
But if we bracket that very important work for a moment, I think there is something good and deserving and worthy of enjoyment and even love in college sports. Most of the time, the athletes are genuinely full-time students who do an extraordinary amount of work on the side to get the chance to compete. The swimmers and runners and sailors know there's virtually no chance they'll ever "go pro," and yet there they are, at the gym at 5am, swimming 10,000 metres or taking 1,000 practice shots. It's an enhanced but fundamentally identical pattern to what got them to college in the first place: waking up on the weekends at nine years old to go to practice, every weekend.
Even the athletes in the "big" sports like football or basketball spend virtually all their time in practice. Again, we can't ignore the fact that many schools treat these kids as revenue-generating assets and little more, but that has nothing to do with what the athlete is doing. They're spending their days honing their skill and putting in simply extraordinary amounts of effort.
"Okay," you might say, "but if it's the effort that you like, why not just watch professionals? Aren't they just as committed and don't they get even better results?" Of course, a professional is going to be better, faster, stronger, and far less likely to make mistakes. And that's the point: college sports are still a realm of possibility, of mistakes, of upsets and surprises. That openness is something from childhood that we lose as we get older: life seems determined, overdetermined. We know, roughly, how a professional is going to perform on the pitch or the court, but a college kid can just have a bad day or a great one and it's entirely inexplicable why.
And that's the point: college sports are still a realm of possibility, of mistakes, of upsets and surprises.
That indeterminacy, the chance that anything can happen, is what we love. It makes sports seem a lot more like play, at a time when professional sports are much more like work, and getting more so: fantasy sports have now made even the watching of sports a burdensome task of statistics, and the television hype cycle makes every game feel like it's the moral and spiritual equivalent of the Battle of Britain. We're paying good money for additional stress.
Now it would be a lie to say that college sports don't cause stress -- just ask any Notre Dame fan about ten minutes before kickoff. But the stress is different, and it's almost enjoyable. We love our teams and invest ourselves in them, but always with an understanding that there's more to the story than just the field. For alumni, the sports are always tied up in their own memories of being 20 and the sense of possibility and excitement that going to a game brought. We recreate those experiences every time we go back to campus.
And, ultimately, that's why I think college sports inspire such devotion -- the sense of return.
And, ultimately, that's why I think college sports inspire such devotion -- the sense of return. Going back to college, going back to youthful excitement, recapturing a sense of unknown outcomes and possibility. It's the best part about being young, really, this notion that we're exploring the world and discovering it, and that the people around us are on the same kind of journey. We love the games, of course, but the idea of being back in that place and time, immersed in potential and possibility is, I think, what really drives us. And when we see the athletes -- people we used to know! -- competing and living out their own possibilities, it gives us the briefest taste of time travel.
That's why we love college sports. The traditions and pageantry are wonderful, too, but it's more about the restoration of a feeling of a time and place. When we "Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame" or shout out "Go Blue!" we're calling back to ourselves, and bringing forward a little of the magic of the twilight of childhood.