Athletics have always played a major role in the world of American scholastic culture, and colleges a major role in American athletic culture — for better or for worse. But college sports have come under fire of late, as nasty scandals have rocked prestigious institutions and rumors of violations fly around every success story.
But college sports still, by and large, constitute an institution we embrace as a culture. So, in the wake of all this chaos, let’s take a minute to remind ourselves why we love the game(s).
1. Teams over players
The original motivation for this article came from the Orlando Magic’s announcement that Head Coach Stan Van Gundy and General Manager Otis Smith would not return in 2012-13. The decision came after years of discord between Van Gundy and superstar center Dwight Howard. Howard’s behavior in the situation, while widely regarded as immature, is nothing new in pro sports. Star players can essentially hold franchises hostage, driving coaches out of town and influencing personnel decisions.
Not so in college sports. Even at the most controversial institutions (looking at you, Kentucky), no player is ever bigger than the program itself and coaches are almost never driven out of town by players. There’s something to be admired about that, and with any luck it’ll last.
2. Team identity
Try and count the number of friends you’ve had throughout your life who have changed their professional sports allegiances based on relocation, success, player trades or some other factor. Now count the number of friends who have changed their college sports allegiances. The second number will be smaller in 110% of cases.
College sports fans are fiercely loyal. When people associate the best four years of their lives with an institution, it’s incredibly unlikely that they simply switch allegiances based on a move or a personnel change. As a result, nearly any school with a strong athletics program has a nationwide fan base the likes of which Red Sox Nation can only dream of. And while alumni are never quite as boisterous as current undergrads, they provide a fanbase that extends far beyond the borders of any campus.
Speaking of boisterous undergrads…
There is nothing — and I mean nothing — like a heated basketball game in a packed house, and college is the best place to go for that experience. NBA teams will fill tens of thousands of seats for playoff games and jam-packed high school gymnasiums always provide a fun atmosphere. But it’s only in college where nearly every factor that defines an exciting game converges to create the sports fan’s nirvana.
A typical college basketball crowd features thousands of loud, alcohol-fueled undergrads, usually brandishing clever signs and singing raucous chants, packed into a space that’s large enough to hold a big crowd but not quite big enough for everyone who wants to get into a rivalry game. I’m not sure there’s anything more American than the massive drop in decibel level when an visiting player releases a free throw with the game on the line, as every fan goes from frantically screaming and waving to deathly still with the flick of a wrist.
Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing professional rivalries out there. Sox-Yanks, Lakers-Celtics, Cowboys-Giants and several other rivalries provide endless entertainment for pro sports fans. But the beauty of college sports is that nearly every team has a rival. From dominant Big Six conference powerhouses to backwater schools in Division II and III, each institution has at least one counterpart, based on geography, conference or history, that it unequivocally loathes. And the biggest rivalry games — Ohio State-Michigan, Harvard-Yale, Duke-North Carolina — make for some of the best sporting experiences in the world. Try as it might, the nasty specter of conference realignment won’t be able to change that.
There’s a reason every college sports information department refers to its players only as ‘student-athletes.’
College sports give free higher education to kids who otherwise wouldn’t get anywhere near one. The education these young men and women receive serves them for the rest of their lives, whether they go pro or not. Should the athletes be paid? Probably. But don’t let that spoil your fandom — in the end, they’re getting one heck of a deal.
Republished from USA Today. Click here to view original article.