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UNIVERSITY SPORTS IN THE AGE OF THE DSM
April 6, 2013 - 8:55am

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The language of madness is beginning to creep into the commentary on Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, star of The Mike Rice Viral Video Show.  Narcissism, sadism, psychotic rage, all the terms we've learned from the psychiatrist's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now routinely appear, as sports writers and cultural observers express outrage that a mentor of young men at a respectable educational institution could inflict such sustained and intense punishment upon them. 

Equally disturbing is the unmistakable masochism on the part of players, fans, and administrators at Division I schools, where Glad To Be Unhappy has become the fight song, and where the coach is welcome to everything the school has by way of money, integrity, and self-respect.  (“Rutgers spent more money on athletics than any other public institution in the six biggest football conferences during the 2009-2010 fiscal year. Despite cuts to sports ranging from crew to fencing, the sports program didn't come close to breaking even. As a result, more than 40 percent of sports revenue came from student fees and the university's general fund.”)   David Roth writes: "College basketball culture ... doesn’t ... hide the creep-boner it gets from Tough Love Leaders like Rice and his more effective fellow defectives."  Fervent defenses of Rice from some of his former players up the creep factor:  They love him 'cause he hurt so good. 

Rounding out the DSM picture is voyeurism.  A professor looking to reform a sport that causes significant numbers of players brain injury and chronic pain has recently suggested "getting rid of 'greatest hits' videos that glorify particularly gruesome football tackles and collisions."

Nothing in this delectation of violence is out of line for professional sports.  In football and hockey in particular we expect - nay, demand - pain and depravity.  Violence and injury on the field, and hideous behavior off, is the ticket.  (Fans have long since gotten in on the action, to the point where, in Europe, some soccer games must now play to empty stadiums.)  Even our more genteel sport heroes accommodate fans' desire for, if not outright violence, at least maximal moral hypocrisy.  Deifying Lances and Tigers and then undergoing agonizing disillusionment with them is an ever-recurring master-narrative of contemporary American sport.

Game fixing and steroids and gun play and sadism and masochism are all well and good for professional sports; but people seem unsettled when these same things turn up at universities.  Some vestigial sense that universities are different persists, a sense that the professional sports ethos shouldn't entirely apply.  Of course university fans are eager and happy to have a professional level of play on their teams; but they also want desperately to think of their players as fellow students, part of campus life, indeed an embodiment of the school, of some student/athlete ideal. When Florida Atlantic University tried to name its new football stadium after a company that runs prisons, fans found the synergy too close for comfort; the school was forced to cancel the deal.

 

While student fans try to regard players as peers and not (as this ex-regent discovered) thugs, the coaches are often seen (and often portray themselves) as kind but stern sports professors who can't help falling in paternal love with the lads in their charge.

And here's where the DSM comes in handy, because the more abusive the coach, the more he tends to insist that he behaves that way because he thinks of the kids as his own children.  You get to smack your own kids.  Your ego tends to be very invested in your kids, and you may take it very personally when they disappoint you.  This is the origin of the tough love David Roth talks about, the twisted relationship between a perennially enraged father, a father who insists, insanely, that you win every game in the game of life (your quest, after all, may be bankrupting a public university; and then there's the $100,000 bonus Dad stands to get with each win), and a violently resentful son who would like to live in a normal world (he's in college; he might even want to go to class occasionally), but who lives in the punishing bizarre relentlessly demanding world of high-profile, unimaginably lucrative, win at all costs, university sports. 

How strange a world, indeed, some of these players inhabit, where for hours each day they're obscenely infantilized by millionaire superstar bullies like Mike Rice, Bobby Knight, Mike Leach, Tommy Tuberville, Billy Gillispie, and Mark Mangino, and then released from practice sessions into a university that worships them as colossi.  Back and forth every day from (quoting Rice) faggot pussies to Big Men on Campus - such schizoid splits would challenge anyone’s mental balance, and these are young, inexperienced, men.  The cleverest among them must come to recognize their impossible, inescapable role in Division I theater of the absurd.  “The rationale is always that sports helps market the schools by exposure, visibility and positive branding, although having perennial losing seasons and coaches that call players ‘faggots’ seems to argue against any good will the program creates.”  

Being called a faggot by the richest, highest-profile, most esteemed person at a school which, in the wake of Tyler Clementi’s suicide, has announced with a flourish new anti-bullying programs, must be particularly destabilizing.  

It doesn’t help that some of these people – coaches and players – are drinking to excess.  If you were under the pressure they’re under, you might too.  But getting drunk is highly correlated with rapes, hazing, rioting, car crashes, and other forms of non-good-will-generating mayhem.

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When the truth about prestigious, deeply desired, profoundly esteemed, rampantly idealized Division I university sports leaks out of a public university via the simple expediency of filming it (or, as at Penn State, reporting it), all of the people who’ve been working overtime at maintaining everyone's illusions about the enterprise get to work.  The university president, the first line of defense, does his bit by looking the other way.  (Rutgers’ president refused to watch the Rice film.)  The athletic director slaps a wrist or two, and the board of trustees of course does nothing.  For decades these campus constituencies have thus been able to hold the line, to maintain the demented fantasy of healthy-minded university football. 

But the truth has now gotten so ugly – the money involved is so enormous, the mental and physical violence so stunning – that a new constituency has arisen within the university.  Call them the Rogue Indignants.  They’re the people who can’t take it anymore, the people whose reality-driven rebellion the university can no longer control.  They have some of George’s desperate dignity, in Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Martha: Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.

The Rogue Indignants have decided to carry on as though, even in the madly simulacral world of Division I football and basketball - a world ruled by that cosmic epicenter of hypocrisy, the NCAA - they do know the difference.  They have decided not to be walking DSM categories but instead to be morally reflective human beings.

 

 

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