Athletes have always been revered as superstars in the eyes of many children; these players are admirable performers who provide a feeling of belonging, even in the heart of the eight-year-old who may never see a live contest or meet any team members. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find this desire often continues past childhood, as many adults cling to TV screens every Monday night during football season or tune into AM radio stations to catch the latest hockey match. In addition, it is arguable a large portion of the most-watched programs in history have been related to sports. Sports have dominated our lives for decades and show no sign of letting up.
Last winter, Detroit’s economy got a boost of $273.9 million because Super Bowl XL came to town. Greece spent almost $12 billion hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics. The 2006 FIFA World Cup drew in a television audience of 1.2 billion people, 17 percent of the world population. With numbers like these, it is obvious sports impact our lives, and it is especially evident at Big Ten schools like MSU. It’s clear sports can affect certain locations, and the existence of athletics – and the performances of the athletes – can alter perceptions of these places. [hockey13]
In the local spectrum, it’s undeniable the performances of our major athletic teams have an effect on the thoughts and actions of current students and Spartan alumni. East Lansing certainly showed its pride when the men’s hockey team brought home the 2007 NCAA National Championship, sparking an interesting camaraderie among students. The new bonds may not have been forged over a shared interest over the sport, but they were clearly made in the sense of a common spirit for the university. As for football, tens of thousands of people show up at Spartan Stadium on Saturdays during the fall to cheer for the same colors. They come to experience an exciting, although not always victorious, game of football. “People change on game days,” Spanish junior Katie Hansen said. “Everyone understands. You have this unspoken bond.” Hansen couldn’t imagine her college life without Big Ten sports. Not only do they add a lot of excitement, but they also give the school a lot more recognition than smaller schools.
But why have athletics become so much more important to universities than a friendly competition? “[Sports are] what people who are linked to an institution think people relate to,” sociology professor Toby Ten Eyck said. “They believe it’s what personifies their institution.” Sporting events are social and fun. “Who would want to watch a classroom?” Ten Eyck said.
Matt Trierweiler, a 2004 telecommunications graduate of MSU, agrees. Since he moved to Los Angeles, he has benefited from the Big Ten name. “Even if they don’t know if the program I was in was any good, they’ve heard of the school and that’s all that matters,” he said. Trierweiler is an executive assistant for Liquid Theory, a production company, where he makes pitches, coordinates casting, organizes schedules and helps with the production. “No one in entertainment talks about academics,” Trierweiler said. “Everyone just talks about sports.” He explained schools like Northwestern University, for example, focus more of their attention on their academic standards simply because their sports teams don’t do as well in the Big Ten conference. [sports13]
Because of that desire to have incredible wins, kids are feeling pressure to become great athletes. More parents are encouraging their miniature athletes to pursue distant goals. Beyond the physical benefits of exercise, athletic talent can lead to scholarships and other opportunities that kids might not have been able to get otherwise. At MSU, 750 student-athletes are given scholarship support through the Ralph Young Fund. All donations to the fund are from private donors who can choose which area or program of the athletic department they would like their money to go to.
Although she would have liked financial aid because of her high school academic performance, Hansen understands why student-athletes get so much. “They pour every second into [their sport],” she said. “It’s like their job.” Because they put spend so much time practicing to better the university’s athletic reputation, most athletes don’t have time to work and pay tuition during school.
The fame of athletes can be easily be likened to the fame of Hollywood stars. They become role models through their abilities; being able to throw a ball into a hoop or running quickly in a circle can turn one into a celebrity. “[Athletes] can do things normal people can’t,” Hansen explained. “They can get hit by the biggest, strongest guys and bounce back up.” Ten Eyck said kids also look up to sports stars because their lives are glamorous. Athletes get to have fun for a living, which differs from perceptions of the lives of politicians or firemen, for example. He raised the questions of why kids look up athletes as opposed to other well-known figures, and why kids don’t have the same star-struck appreciation for their parents. The answer to the second, Ten Eyck said, is simply, “[Parents] are around so much.” Athletes are the most attractive alternatives; they have money and popularity. Why would an eight-year-old idolize Al Gore over Tom Brady? [sports3]
Not all MSU students see sports as one of their priorities, however. “I’ve tried to get into sports, but I just don’t see what all the hype is about,” said Cory Garcia, a telecommunications senior with a specialization in film studies. “MSU is not a football team, it is a school. Sports have nothing to do with the place or the people who go there. It is just an activity and people take it too far. I think it is odd that so many Americans allow sports to define our culture.”
Even though sports, in some cases, replace some of our priorities, they still manage to unify. With so many disputes in today’s world, it’s a wonder millions of people will tune into the same channel at the same time to root for the same team. Ten Eyck mentioned that in headlines, “It’s not ‘the Michigan State football team won,’ it’s ‘Michigan State won.'” Every fan is victorious, not just the players.
The bonds produced over common interests in athletic performance can extend after one leaves his or her city of sports idolation. When students graduate and set up house in different cities or states, other fans of favorite teams will likely exist. Trierweiler’s boss, for instance, also went to MSU. “That helped in the interview and when we watch the NCAA tourney,” Trierweiler said. The spirit of competition and the tendency for the success of athletes to translate into pride for the fans make sports an inviable part of a location’s identity. In East Lansing, defeats of the Spartans can reflect negatively on the university, while victories can unite residents. And sparking up a conversation about the latest MSU contest is certainly an easy task for student sports enthusiasts…even if a loss causes a momentary slip in the bond between athletics and the university.

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