Super Bowl Sunday Sports Post!

In his Friday column, Brooks cites “a fascinating essay” by Duke professor Michael Allen Gillespie on sports as “moral education,” and then performs a weird detour in which he thinks he’s rebutting or correcting Gillespie’s argument while actually confirming it. Gillespie spells out three dominant models of sport-as-moral-education in western history – Greek (individualized contests oriented toward instilling aristocratic virtues in participants), Roman (spectacles intended to legitimize the government, indifferent to participants), and British (rule- and team-oriented games meant to forge an imperial ruling class).

Gillespie argues, in Brooks’s words, that American college sports have historically represented a “fusion of these three traditions,” but “have [now] become too Romanized” – long seasons, huge stadiums, a “gladiator class” of athletes largely unconnected to the students they represent, coaches willing to break rules to satisfy fans and boosters. Gillespie wants to scale down college athletics to reconnect them with their original purpose as tools of moral education.

Brooks satisfies his pundit’s obligation to have at least one point only by shifting from Gillespie’s focus on the moral education of students and athletes to an entirely different one on social and political integration, but in doing so he makes Gillespie’s argument even stronger. Brooks writes that Gillespie is missing the important role that big-time college sports play in a “segmented society” as “one of the few avenues for large scale communal participation.” Crowds “roar, suffer, and invent chants….” Why, Brooks almost sounds as if he is describing sports in…ancient Rome!

Maybe I find Brooks’s rejoinder irksome and unusually glib because Michael Gillespie was a teacher of mine. Gillespie’s a brilliant political theory scholar who also, as a former college football player now deeply involved in athletic governance at Duke, knows a ton about college sports. (I seriously doubt Gillespie is “missing” how college sports function as mass events.) I’ve participated in the communal pleasures of college sports, but let’s be honest. How much more value do they have as common experiences that help integrate society and polity than, say, American Idol? We’re forced into a much more serious accounting than Brooks gives us once we realize that he’s talking about little more than the viewing fun of lots of people who just happen to all be outside at the same time, in the same place, yelling the same thing.