From the Editor

Drescher: It’s time to check passion for college sports

September 1, 2012 

Warren St. John grew up in Alabama and went to college in New York. He remembers listening to the Auburn-Alabama football game on the radio and being depressed after ’Bama lost.

“I’d gone off to Columbia to study humanism and the great books – to become a rational being,” he wrote years later in his book about hyper-devoted Crimson Tide fans. “Crying one’s self to sleep over the failure of a group of people you’ve never met to defeat another group of people against whom you have no legitimate quarrel – in a game you don’t play, no less – is not rational.”

There’s much to be said in favor of big-time college sports. There’s also much to be said against them. The abuses at UNC-Chapel Hill show the dirty underbelly of high-dollar college sports, including the role of agents and the efforts of the athletic-industrial complex to keep players academically eligible.

Our recent report showed that former UNC football star Julius Peppers never had at least a 2.0 grade point average at Chapel Hill. But under UNC’s rules at the time, Peppers was eligible to play.

‘Extreme brand loyalty’

Big-time college sports (football and men’s basketball) are entertainment enterprises. They wouldn’t exist in their current form without loyal fans who spend lots of money on tickets and lots of time watching television.

Based on email I’ve received, many of these fans have their personal identities tied up with the success of their school’s teams. “I didn’t believe it could be done, but you’ve reached a new low with the Julius Peppers ‘story’ you son of a b---h,” wrote a Carolina fan who graduated from UNC in the late 1970s. “I absolutely loathe you. Hopefully, Julius will sue the crap out of your sorry rag.”

I cannot say for sure (he declined my invitation to talk on the phone) but I’m betting my Carolina pen pal feels better about himself when UNC wins and worse about himself when UNC loses.

That’s not unusual. A survey of University of Kentucky basketball fans found 33 percent of respondents said this statement best described their level of interest in Kentucky basketball: “I live and die with the Wildcats. I’m happy if they win and sad if they lose.”

Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter wrote about these hard-core fans in his 2011 book about college sports. “These consumers exhibit extreme brand loyalty,” he wrote. “Psychologists describe them as being heavily identified with a particular team or university and have shown that the self-esteem of these ardent fans can be affected by their team’s success in competition.”

Good tradition, within reason

This is good for the athletic departments because it gives them loyal customers to pay the bills, including those rising coaches’ salaries. But it’s bad for these hard-core fans. If their emotional well-being depends on a “student-athlete” from their school hitting a free throw at the end of a game, they ought to look for a new passion.

If you like college sports, this is the best place in the country to live. I go to about 30 games a year at Duke, Carolina, N.C. State and occasionally at smaller schools. I almost always take a family member, as my dad took me. My father, a former college baseball player, had the right attitude: Respect the other school, respect the other players and coaches, respect the game.

The beauty of sports is watching well-prepared teams compete with everything they have. If that’s not enough for some – if only a Duke or a Carolina or a State win makes them feel fulfilled – then I feel sorry for them.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com Twitter: @john_drescher

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