Why America Needs College Football

Essentializing college football might help get us through these uncharacteristically difficult times of great isolation, division and uncertainty, Matthew J. Mayhew and Musbah Shaheen contend.

September 24, 2020
 
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“The world needs college football!” exclaimed a fellow Buckeye as his face lit up with joy upon hearing the news. After months of deliberation and planning, the Big Ten finally announced the fate of college football in the age of COVID-19: the fall season is slated to kick off on the weekend of Oct. 24. Although many concerns remain about the health and safety of players and spectators, we happen to agree: college football may be an essential element of our functioning democracy. Here’s why.

One of the authors of this piece apologizes for it in a follow-up essay.

As college campuses attempt to find a new normal suitable for the COVID-19 realities, college athletics, especially college football, have garnered much attention. Debates continue about whether players should be required to play this fall season. Although many people have been outspoken about the financial and health ramifications of allowing -- or requiring -- players to gear up, few, if any, have addressed the essential role that college football may play toward healing a democracy made more fragile by disease, racial unrest and a contested presidential election cycle.

Essentializing college football might help get us through these uncharacteristically difficult times of great isolation, division and uncertainty. Indeed, college football holds a special bipartisan place in the American heart.

At a time when colleges and universities have been placed under extreme scrutiny, many people are questioning the very value and purpose of higher education. College football reminds many Americans of the community values that underscore higher education and by extension America itself. One Wolverine does not have to know another one by name -- but the sight of maize and blue accompanied by "Hail to the Victors" unites anonymities through these shared experiences.

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Americans have lost the united sense of who we are as a nation.

This election season has demonstrated how stifled, polarized and dangerous our political differences have become, and college football can remind us of respect -- even in the wake of deep disagreement. We can root for different teams, scream at the players, argue with the refs and question the coaches, but win or lose, at the end of the day, we leave the stadium, watch party or tailgate with a sense of respect for the game and the athletes that train so hard, leaving it all out on the field every time. Indeed, if a player is injured, the entire stadium usually applauds, not just fans from one team.

Deep difference doesn’t have to lead to disrespect.

In addition, football players become beloved community figures beyond the boundaries of the stadium or campus. Football gives players a platform to make statements about issues they care about. We have seen student athletes taking part in protests and making demands for racial equity. We have seen student athletes kneel to protest police brutality. Colleges and universities should take many more steps to empower athletes to engage with the community. Depriving them the opportunity to play doesn’t accomplish that goal.

Finally, let’s not forget how low the morale of this country has been over the last six months or so. People are fed up with the new conditions and limitations that the coronavirus forced onto their lives, and they need an outlet. They need those lost football Saturdays gathered around the TV. They need the socially responsible tailgate as a means of experiencing some modicum of normalcy. This all may not make sense for the people who did not grow up in places where college football was part of the identity of the state. Here in Ohio, everyone is a Buckeye.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that athletes put their lives or their health at risk for the sake of entertainment: players, coaches and fans should strictly adhere to safety guidelines. And to be clear, we frankly hated writing this piece. As higher education experts, we routinely scrutinize and criticize colleges and universities for placing too much emphasis on athletics, and it pains us to admit that college football may play a starring role in the political theater of American life.

That said, to many people, college football represents an America where competition is sanctioned, community is encouraged and disagreement is emotionally regulated. If nothing else, it gives us a reason to cheer.

Bio

Matthew J. Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Higher Education at Ohio State University. He has published more than 75 peer-reviewed articles in journals and is a co-author of How College Affects Students: Volume 3. Musbah Shaheen is a Ph.D. student in higher education and student affairs at Ohio State and a research assistant in the College Impact Laboratory.

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