What’s the deal with college sports?

David EideOpinions Columnist

Since the fall sports season is finally starting to kick into high gear, I’ve been thinking a bit about the role sports play in higher education.  I’ve come to realize that sports are such an ingrained part of the college experience these days that we never actually stop to think about how they got that way or what role they’re actually intended to play.  

Believe it or not, team sports in college is a relatively new innovation historically speaking, only really becoming popular in the 19th century in British colleges.  Of course, this doesn’t imply that people weren’t playing sports beforehand, only that they didn’t do so in organized teams or with a well defined set of rules.  Believe it or not, the first sport to be played on a competitive team level was actually boat racing where teams got started at Yale and Harvard in 1843 and 1844 respectively.  Personally, I think it’s a damn shame that competitive team boat racing didn’t catch on a bit more and has remained restricted to expensive Ivy League schools, but I digress.  Eventually these boat teams started to compete against each other and were shortly joined by baseball teams as sports rules were formalized, and it took off in popularity.  A whole cavalcade of sports followed, including rugby which eventually evolved into the sport of football that dominates the American sports scene.  Soon the need arose for an organization to administer and keep track of all these college sports and their teams and so the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was founded to fulfill this need.   There’s a bit more history than this, but it really isn’t necessary for the sake of the article, all you need to know is that college sports continued to grow in popularity over the 20th century until they became the juggernauts that they are today. 

Why then, dot sports continue to play such a huge role in so many institutions of higher learning?  An easy explanation is that college sports essentially serve as a feeder for the various national sports leagues like the NFL or the NBA, with various teams recruiters eyeing up the best players for the draft.  While this is a fair characterization to some extent, I think it fails to capture the reasons behind the broader appeal of college sports.  After all, the vast majority of people who play college sports will never make it into the major leagues, and it still doesn’t explain why college sports are so big with the wider student body.  If I had to put my finger on it, I’d say that college sports provide a unifying experience that is fairly uncommon at most colleges.  College is a lot more splintered than high school was since everyone is pursuing a different major rather than having a unified curriculum.  In effect, the only time the entire student body is invited to spend time together as Gustavus students rather than as MCS majors or English majors is during campus wide events, of which sports games are some of the biggest.

I think this explanation makes a lot of sense, after all, even small colleges with genuinely awful sports teams often still invest a lot of money and care into their sports teams despite the lack of any major return on investment.  Ultimately, I think it comes down to a combination of a genuine love of sport from the athletes, the significant financial and prestigious advantages offered by collegiate sports to institutions, and that ever nebulous concept of ‘school spirit’ that keeps us coming back to college sports.  At this point, sports in college have become so ingrained to the fabric of their institutions that they have ceased to simply be tests of athleticism and a means for competition between schools and have evolved into a broader cultural phenomenon.  To be sure, this isn’t the only potential explanation for the predominance of college sports but it’s the one that I think offers the most expansive explanation.

I think it’s also interesting to consider the future of collegiate sports, specifically which sports are the center of attention.  While I doubt any of the current big sports are likely to decline much in popularity, I think potentially we might see other sports slowly rising up as our culture shifts and morphs.  The big one everyone is always talking about, e-sports, could blow up and to some extent this has been happening, see the multiple stadiums for e-sports events popping up around the country or the fact that Gustavus converted the Gibbs computer lab into an “e-sports center”.  Personally I’m skeptical, as I don’t believe a ton of people will be lining up to pay to see a big e-sports match, plus there isn’t really a consistent rule set since so many games have an e-sports scene.  Still, I think it’s a fun thing to speculate about because surely the way we interact with college sports will grow and change just as everything else in our society inevitably does.