When the Penn State scandal broke last autumn, a friend of mine offered his predictable analysis: collegiate sports like football and basketball at the Division I level have been thoroughly overrun by commercial considerations and need to be completely re-thought. With each new scandal—like the news in recent weeks that Syracuse played athletes who failed drug tests—the same analysis is offered. When I am able to sit with my kids on the grass behind the end zone watching play the team at the Division III University at which I work, I sometimes find myself in agreement with this view. These are true student-athletes and how briskly the game moves without television time-outs.
Why then am I a regular watcher of Division I football and basketball and an ardent rooter for my team?
What draws us to collegiate sports of the big programs is the shared exposure to contingent phenomenon. We think we want our team to dominate from beginning to end—and most successful coaches, apparently, are detail-oriented control freaks—but the pleasure of watching or being a part of the game and rooting for your team lies in the possibility of surprise. A game is never so anxiously enjoyable as when, but for this or that instance of unexpectedness, it could very easily have gone the other way. We watch with others to have this common experience—whether in jubilation or defeat. When a player makes a miraculous catch or tackle or pass or shot, or when a coach takes the ultimate risk—as Michigan State University’s Mark Dantonio did in the autumn of 2010, calling for a fake field goal in overtime of a game against Notre Dame—what is being illustrated is a pleasurable dimension of sports that eclipses its ruthlessly controlled economic aspects. To share in something unpredictable is to be reminded that it is not all decided in advance. In the transpiring of a game, as in political life and political struggle, there is an openness—an entry point for the unthinkable to occur. As any football fan of Boise State can tell you, the political task of our time is to force this opening in the administrative structures that close it off. Whether the surprise made possible in the opening of the game works in the favor of my team or in the other, this is why I watch.