The Sports Life of the Political

Curator's Note

A few years ago I ran into a recurrent acquaintance at a wedding. Someone I’ve never known well, but for a long time. Someone who knew that I finished my PhD at NYU, stuck around a few years teaching composition while trying to find a tenure track job, only to leave for visiting positions at the University of Michigan and Northwestern. The question finally arrived: where are you now? As in, where have the winds of inconsequence taken you? I answered: Oklahoma State University.

“Wow,” he said, “good school!”  

How would he know? He never said this about Northwestern, for instance.  

But then it dawned on me: what he knows because of college sports. He was remembering OSU’s appearance in the Final Four in 2004. But was he wrong to say so?

What his response indicated to me was not that OSU and Michigan were on the same level of academic distinction, but that they could be—that the only thing that prevented it from being so was a failure of the imagination of the ones who worked there, which in this case, means the stubborn refusal of professors in the humanities to take seriously what televised sports does for the institution—namely, its function as an instance of the political, as a representation that could become a place.

I know the problem: donors who give to sports never give back to the humanities. But that’s not really the point. However indirectly, the national presence of a university on television makes it possible to recruit good faculty because it is a place that appears. And if it keeps on appearing, and good people keep coming, then sooner or later people feel better about sending their students from outside the state, and it could become Michigan. And if you have a faculty of imaginative, talented scholars, demands can be made on the institution for support. But if we merely hang our heads every time a major donor gives only to our athletics programs instead of us, then we will continue to occupy the losing side of the jock/nerd dynamic. Instead, if your school appears, make use of that appearance as an instance of the political, as an opportunity to say: “Yes, it is a good school. It is a place.” And it may become so.  

Norfolk State, the ball is in your court.


 Brian, your post gets at something very important concerning the role of the victim in contemporary politics. I think to some degree folks in the humanities have had to band together, rally the troops, in order to gain more visibility with regards to the lack of institutional and public support. While this is no doubt needed, the approach for gaining such visibility never seems to do much good--outside of some good old fashioned cathartic venting. It is, as Slavoj Zizek might state it, the right step in the wrong direction. The problem, and where I find your post most compelling, lies in how scholars in the humanities seem all too eager to position themselves as the victim, as opposed to the victor, especially during moments like Norfolk State's NCAA tournament run. By assuming this position there is the risk of being isolated by those you are directly affiliated with, other faculty, staff, and students that identify in some capacity with the school in question. This act is effective so far as it warrants attention, but it also creates a difficult situation. As victim, testimony may be heard as legitimate, morally correct, but also the victim is simply too weak or inconsequential to enact any change. It is the perfect bind of neoliberal politics: I am owed recognition because I have been wronged, but I am not responsible for changing the circumstances because I don't have the power, influence in the first place. It is a comfortable position. The change that a Norfolk State might work toward, though, won't be comfortable but it may be possible if they embrace their victories on the court, as opposed to decrying them.

This makes me think about Debord's 12th thesis on spectacle: "Its sole message is: 'What appears is good; what is good appears." 

It seems to me that Brian is encouraging those of us who study the humanities to understand ourselves as competitors. (Do you agree, Adam?) Debord (or a certain reader of him) might claim that the chief problem of spectacle is that it forces humans to live the life of the market. I wonder how the "instances" Brian describes relate the political and the competitive in a way that creates an opening in Debord's tautology of appearances.



I saw something similar as Brian was describing last year when I talked with a recent friend who taught at VCU. Their men’s basketball team had just made a surprised run to the Final Four and she was shocked that the upside for her was she no longer had to “explain” her school. I agree that humanities professors need to acknowledge the power of television to make our schools real places and also like Adam’s suggestion we need to not present ourselves as victims. Since spectacle forces us to live the life of the market as Debord via Rob suggests, I think we should embrace the visibility sports gives higher education, but in a strongly confrontational way. The reason college sports is so popular is because they sell a specific identity and cultural experience to viewers. (As Tuesday’s game showed, it is most definitely not a better product). The appeal of education and its promise of knowledge, improvement and beginning is so strong it has endured for centuries. Humanities and those who work in schools need to look at themselves has being in a position of power with an incredibly valuable “brand” that shouldn’t be given away so cheaply. Understandably, part of the rejection from humanities educators seems to be entering this kind of corporate speak and turn education into a product. However, I think this conversation shows we know that is already happening and we have to enter that discourse in order to influence it.

Rob, I think we are competitors. But I'm not sure if Brian wants us simply to think of ourselves as competitors--after all, many view athletic programs as "the competition" within the university and that humanities must compete with athletics for funding, etc. What I think is important is not to take on the role of the victim, which could be understood as a desperate attempt to secure attention but only in the position of one who has already lost. Brian's point seems to me more involved with using athletics as a way to gain a greater presence and, possibly, mobilize the media attention to attract talented faculty, build intellectual community, and elevate the brand (as Sudeep suggests) to include more than simply sports.

To speak to Sudeep's reply directly: I think this is right, we must give up something (moral superiority?) in order to enter the discourse, but the question remains concerning influence. If success in sports can potentially create an intervention, shed new light on a place, than it seems imperative that those within the university are represented, including the humanities. My point concerning the victim is that this will, in fact, garner attention but at what cost? For me, it would seem that the price paid is the legitimacy of that representation to be taken seriously. It is one thing to garner attention, it is another to simply be placated. The approach that gets around that bind just seems, to me, like one the humanities is still struggling to imagine.

I think you're absolutely right, Adam. The trouble of identifying oneself as a victim is that administrators will be all too happy to agree. In fact, they expect as much from us well before we even open our mouths. The question of competition, I agree, is difficult. It's not so much that OSU will surpass Michigian, as it will use the appearence of competition merely to eke out an at least respectable and respected co-existence. Academic competition is, in itself, sort of boring--and best left to others. So in that sense, I intend no isometric relation between the game and academic life. There was a great story in the New York Times a few weeks ago, amidst all the Linsanity talk, about what it's like to attend sporting events between two Ivy League teams. The writer mentioned the oddness of suddenly hearing one side of the arena taunt the other side by shouting: safety school!



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