For the Love of the Game

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People who like college sports more than pro sports don’t actually like sports. Instead, they like the other things that college athletes do well: represent a community, foster a sense of historical continuity, and create the occasional Rudy-esque story where a regular person gets the glory. All of that is well and good, but none of it has anything to do with sports.

I get it, it’s easier to identify with college athletes, we lived where they lived, we wore the colors they wore, why that could even be us out there instead of young Mr. Ruttiger. None of that is true for professional athletes. They live in multimillion dollar homes, they never have to eat at Arby’s, and we sure as shit can’t imagine playing out there with them.  Rudy never made it to the NFL because a linebacker would have ripped his dick off and eaten it after breaking both his legs Theismann style. And you know why that story would unfold that way? Because pro-athletes are better than 95% of college athletes by an almost superhuman degree.

If you care about sports, if you want to see it played at the highest level, you’ll prefer watching professional athletes. Watching Michael Jordan is where you just might see the platonic ideal of basketball; the same can’t be said of some 5’7, slightly chubby point guard from a forgettable school who gets by on moxie and who plays the game the right way (“playing the game the right way” being code for either 1) I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about or 2) I really prefer white people).

Now your average college sports fan might concede these points (except the racist thing) but will then proceed to list several reasons why college sports is still superior. College athletes play for the love of the game instead of money, they always play hard, and the competition means more. As someone who values rationality you’ll want to counter these arguments. And rest assured these points will be addressed, but if you want to skip ahead, here’s the lowdown – they’re all bullshit.

The idea of college sports teams playing for the love of the game is silliness rooted in an antiquated notion of what the term student athlete represents, where the first word in that description has just as much weight as the second one. Maybe 75 years ago you had some square-jawed kid who took to the field because he just enjoyed being out there and he wanted to fight for his alma mater. That was just college though, when it was all said and done he never expected to do anything other than sell mattresses in his father’s store after graduation. That world does not exist anymore.

When it comes to big time college athletics, the college element is a farce with both the schools and the athletes playing along, pretending that the educational side matters. Schools take this position because they want to maintain the moral high ground while continuing to avoid paying athletes for the shitloads of money they bring in for the school. Athletes accept this position because college is like an unpaid internship you take with the hopes of being hired. College players want to be pro athletes. College athletes are playing for money, it’s just that the money they’re playing for is located in the future. If people really cared about watching athletes who play for the love of the game, they’d go watch some intramural soccer (perhaps a bad example as in reality the only people who watch any type of soccer are fans of boredom).

The next point likely to be made by a college sports fan is related to the love of the game v. love of money issue, but is distinct. The argument is that college athletes always play hard, but you can’t say the same for pros. Those professionals take plays off, sometimes they’re just going through the motions, and it who wants to watch that?  Here’s why that might appear to be the case some times. Evident effort is often indicative of a lack of skill. When you’re great at something, and professional athletes are superlative at what they do, you can make it look effortless. As a thought experiment to illustrate the point, imagine yourself composing music, assuming of course you’re not actually a composer; it probably seems pretty difficult. How can you transform your thoughts into sheet music? How do you make the flute sound good with the violins?  What’s an oboe?  Wow look at you, you’re working pretty hard.  And it shows.  

Now imagine Mozart. It’s highly unlikely he looked like he was shitting a brick when writing a concerto. The reason for that is because he is good enough at that particular task that he can excel at it without obvious effort. Just like professional athletes. Now it is certainly the case that not every pro athlete is playing hard on every play, but the same holds true for college athletes. It might appear to be more true, more of the time for professionals, but that is just because they are better at what they do. It might be reasonable to assume that professional athletes would be a little lazier because, what do they have to play for? They’re already rich, successful athletes. Unless there’s a chance to become an astronaut fuck machine who lives in a house made out of cookies, there isn’t much room to improve on life. But the reason professional athletes are good enough to be professionals is that they are insanely competitive. Internal motivation is always enough, pride still matters even when you’re successful.

Upon seeing the wisdom of this point the nearly vanquished college sports fan will now empty his or her last chamber, make one last run to daylight, and offer up an argument that any number of terrible metaphors could describe. Joe College (or Jane Woman’s College if you like more gender sensitive terms…worse you say? Fair enough) will suggest that on a macro level the college games somehow mean more. There are great traditions, great rivalries, and a sense of historical perspective that is totally lost in the more transitory pro game (who can forget the passion of growing up as a lifelong Memphis Grizzlies fan). That’s a good point, but it is also a non-sequitur. Sports, strictly speaking, is not about tradition, it’s about sports.  To which you might say “that’s a tautology” and to which I say “how my ass tastes.” It is fine to like all of those things, but you should at least recognize what it is you really enjoy.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Mmmm projecting.

  2. eeeey says:

    Not a huge NCAA fan; however, your argument isn’t definitive. It’s an elaborate conclusion with certain valid points, but it’s equivocally shaped with loose ends based on your preferences/bias. The real issue seems to be whether or not it matters. One could argue that College fans also focus on players and their outlook rather than franchise. As a fan of pros, it’s too often the case I see “fans” of the franchise rather than players. Cross your team and the city hates you. Look at Brett Favre. He did a lot for GB. Somehow it’s about some shame he brought to the franchise. Didn’t he pay his dues? Is he not human? …Arbitrary? Maybe. I like to focus on great plays and great players even though the culmination of a great team lends a sense of glory and morale to it’s hometown. Goran Dragic: …a man to pay attention to, but does he belong in Houston? Eek.

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