In a phrase often, though likely mistakenly, attributed to Oscar Wilde, Britain and America are described as ‘two nations divided by a common language’. There are many ways in which America departs from Britain, and indeed the European continent, in cultural matters. Yet sometimes the spheres where the two cultures are typically thought to overlap are those in which the most pronounced differences are found. And this seems to be most true in the realm of sport.
On both sides of the pond, athletic colosseums are abound with tens of thousands of spectators each week, who frantically spur their respective teams forth to a victory that may one day culminate in that ever-elusive title or trophy. Once the season is over, the process begins anew, and the cycle is repeated ad infinitum. There exists therefore some form of tacit agreement, one might suggest, concerning the indispensable place of sport in civil society. The seemingly eternal return of physical competition to the daily lives of many could be said to play a kind of cultural catharsis.
In Europe, the dominant game, and arguably the only one popular in more countries than any other, is football. Millions of viewers tune into the Champions League Final, and millions more follow their club team’s progress through their domestic leagues over the course of the year. Sponsorship is big money, and television contracts are sacrosanct. The same is the case with America’s ruling sport, where the money is even bigger and the attitude infinitely more commercial. But this is really where the similarities end, and also an appropriate point at which to take note of some differences – both big and small. It is commonly known, for instance, that in the US football is rather known as ‘soccer’, and despite the popular European game involving the use of feet to manipulate an object that is spherical, the same moniker is mysteriously employed in American parlance to denote a game in which an ovoid is thrown with one’s hands. Yet such transgressions of common sense can be excused, because, flippancy aside, the transatlantic divergence over the question of sport is not made evident by the language in which it is presented, but the institutions through which it is channeled.
The institution in question is university, or ‘college’. There is simply no comparison between student sport in the United Kingdom and its superabundant counterpart in the United States. In America, sport can get just as big at college level as it is on the professional stage. Events like college football’s ‘Rose Bowl’ and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s basketball ‘Final Four’ are valued around $85m, equal to the entirety of a globally contested Winter Olympics. In Europe, the major sporting events are left to the big guys – the professionals, the elite, the masters. Moreover, the American college system is also a precursor of, and filter for, the professional industries. Michael Jordan first became a household name after his storied career at the University of North Carolina, where he majored in cultural geography. In contrast, hardly a single professional European athlete has been to university. Why is this?
In searching for an explanation one’s first port of call is likely to be historical. Student sport in the United Kingdom is less of a big deal largely for reasons of social structure; the evolution and endurance of a long-standing and deeply embedded class system, and, more specifically, the manner in which this system has historically been moulded and maintained through educational institutions. In prior times, undergraduate education in the UK held a notoriously privileged status, accessible only to the upper classes, and largely perpetuated for the express purpose of ensuring a safe passage into the high offices of state for the sons of gentlemen. Whatever sport was played – usually cricket – was treated recreationally, even if approached competitively. Games like football were played by the working class, and while some clubs had turned professional by the end of the nineteenth century, the megabucks now offered by the Premier League only came into play twenty years ago, due to the emergence of Sky Sports and other major television broadcasters.
Sporting culture in British universities bears the stamp of this divide. Football is now the most popular game, and the best teams might occasionally compete on a national level, but the games are ill-attended, and hardly any student unaffiliated to their university team is ever likely to know, much less care, where they stand the rankings. The place where sport is important is a parallel universe, played out on television screens and watched in pubs, and in a lot of cases attended by those without a degree level of education. The fact that the only nationally spectated university-level sporting event is the Oxford-Cambridge boat race is rather telling.
In the US, sport developed differently. Evolving from a mixture of football and rugby played at school, it was Walter Camp who formalised the rules of the game most recognisable as modern day American football. It became clear not long after the major academic institutions were founded that inter-collegiate sport would be a central feature of the American educational experience. Some of the reasons for its flourishing were purely practical. For one, the sheer financial might of the academic heavyweights, cultivated by their private status, would enable the construction of resplendent sporting arenas – the first of which was Harvard Stadium, built in 1903. Moreover, the country’s size naturally lent itself to such grandiosity. Most early campuses were set-up outside of the major metropolises, and not every town or city would develop a professional sporting outfit, enabling college teams to monopolise local loyalty with little or no competition.
So in contrast to Europe, college sport as a major national institution predates the emergence of professional sport on the same scale. And with the commercial burgeoning and technological advances of the 20th century, it soon became part of mainstream American culture – the rest is history. Yet if college sport’s current largesse has been caused by factors peculiar to American history, the effect it has had on national culture is utterly unique.
The standing of professional sports in society has long been something of an anomaly, and people’s attitude towards the industry as a whole tends to be shrouded in a haze of ambivalence. Classed neither among the traditional professions nor the arts, its unparalleled social prominence seems to bemuse and delight in equal measure.
But the form of culture it promotes depends on the way it is structured, and this is what makes it interesting. Channeling sport through college provides it with a welcome context, a kind of anchor by which to define and justify itself, so to speak. At university, sport gains its popularity from the communal spirit felt from being part of a shared institution, instead of the tribal affiliation typical of support for a team based on territorial representation. The popularity of professional sport is of course largely derived from the latter sort of association, in both Britain and the States. But at least the American system does not exist on parallel terms to the country’s academic framework, but runs through and works in tandem with it.
The effect of the college context on sport’s cultural significance in American society is difficult to define but impossible to ignore. The magnitude of college sports might even be seen as a reflection of what it is to be American. Indeed, some have argued that the phenomenon is in effect a microcosm of the American dream pursued in adult life. It illustrates the ideal of the ‘self-made man who works hard’ to fulfill his self-prophesised destiny. To extend the metaphor, crossing over the goal line from the gridiron field might as well represent the threshold lying between a life of arduous struggle and the home of one’s dreams.
However, dreams of perfect outcomes can all too easily turn into a nightmare of unintended consequences. Complaints that sport has come to overshadow some colleges’ academic vocation are not new. Many schools are wary of young athletes neglecting their studies to the detriment of their future, and seek to enforce minimum academic standards as prerequisites of sporting participation. This familiar parable served as the theme of the 2005 high school basketball biopic Coach Carter, starring Samuel L. Jackson as the resolute team mentor who insists on the priority of his players’ class grades.
But even when a balance would seem to be struck, the power wielded by the sporting sphere on campus can be unnerving. Duke University’s legendary Basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski (known as Coach K) is widely considered to wield more influence, or at least hold more of a presence, than the university’s top authorities. Indeed, in 2004 the wonder-coach had to be dissuaded by the school’s president from accepting a $40m deal to join the LA Lakers of the National Basketball Association. To note that sporting staff at British universities seldom find themselves in a position to turn down such offers wouldn’t quite capture the spirit of a fair contrast.
And nor is the money involved impartial to its surroundings. In many cases the average amount expended on a student’s academic career when compared to the tidy sums allotted across athletic departments can seem worryingly pitiful. In a world where winning is prized above education, and big executives devise commercial enterprises worth small fortunes, reminding oneself that such a drama is being played out on the fields of a university campus can have the effect of reducing the revered spectacle to something of a pantomime.
But the American system is not just a curious alternative to the British attitude, which often manifests itself in a form of self-satisfied restraint, but in many ways remains a supreme improvement on the traditionally divisive place of sport in civil society. Sadly, it is not one that Europe is never likely to emulate. Had British universities the means to construct mega-stadiums for student sport they would likely scoff at the idea, and notwithstanding the recession, that’s a great shame. Cheering for your college sports team imparts a sense of identity, and unifies students without respect to background or study subject-matter or any of the other things that ordinarily separate them. So one might conclude by saying that treating the whole ambit of American college sport like some kind of elaborate joke is too easy, and also rendered puerile when the typical spirit of student crowds in campus stadiums is compared to that found in professional arenas, where the prevailing atmosphere has traditionally been, and is still on occasion much less funny. As Oscar Wilde did actually say, sometimes frivolous things need to be taken seriously, so if our animal appetite for hyper-competition has to find refuge somewhere, I’d much rather it be harnessed in college than unleashed after graduation.