“Sport and the University” is the current Theme Semester of the college of “Literature, Science and the Arts” at the University of Michigan. For me, as a German exchange student, this combination seems not really obvious at first sight and I was really surprised that my course on political theory also incorporates this slogan in its program. In my home country, we neither have athlete teams representing our university nor have we stadiums comparable to the Big House or to the whole athletic complex. Once arrived in Ann Arbor, this connection has become clearer and clearer to me. It wasn’t a coincidence that the first thing I saw of the University of Michigan was the Big House and its colossal “M” in which fans and students support their team. And when I have a look around my apartment, I can detect Michigan stuff all over the place: a Michigan flag, cups and a lot of Michigan clothes of my roommates – things that wouldn’t be found in students’ apartments in Germany. But why are these differences so striking and which role plays sports in this context?
All these Michigan related things, as its colors maize and blue, as well as the representation of the university, in forms of flags or the “M”, are omnipresent on campus. In Germany, however, comparable things are rarely to find in this dimension and the local university isn’t that present in its city. This difference shows the lesser identification of the German students and of the college community in general with their respective institution. The German university is more seen as a means to an end whereas the colleges in the U.S. stand for a set of values and represent their local area or even their entire state. This comparison raises the question where the differences in the university identification are rooted and which factors contribute to this aspect?
In my opinion, it is mainly the athletic dimensions of the colleges in the U.S. that leads to the tighter connection with their college communities. As already mentioned at the beginning, German universities do not have any official athletic teams at all. Of course, the fewer tuition fees, the looser competition among the German universities and cultural differences may also contribute to the looser connection with the institutions. However, these discrepancies are not that striking enough in order to lead to such alternate levels of identification. Therefore, the comparison between German and U.S. colleges might serve as a good basis for the analysis of the impact of sports in this context.
In the form of athletic teams, the universities becomes something vivid and real which can be actively supported and leaves its more or less abstract existence behind. It is much easier to connect with your college through the athletic teams as for example, the research progresses of your professors which seem less accessible for students or other people and are normally not such public events as for example football games in Ann Arbor. Consequently, the university communities in the U.S. have an easier access to their universities through athletic teams than those in Germany who are lacking such an instrument of identification.
Furthermore, as discussed by Huizinga in his book “Homo Ludens”, sports and play in general inherent a community creating spirit which continues to exist even after the particular games are over. In other words, sports has the ability to connect people. This aspect can be also transferred to the relationship between college and sports and supports the idea that the athletic teams help to create a deeper level of university identification. In forms of shared rituals during the games, e.g. the shouts or the different moves in the student section in the Big House, the college community of the University of Michigan shows its unity. When you have a look on the streets during game day, the members of this community wear blue and maize and identify themselves as part of a whole. They go through the same feelings of joy or disappointment after the games which create an even further sense of community. Sports also connect the former students even after their drop out with their college since they can still observe and support the performance of its athletes. In Germany, however, the university communities do not have the opportunities through such public events to show their connection and unity.
Having all these aspects in mind, I can now understand why this Theme Semester was chosen and how it can be transferred to politics: in both fields, sports help to create unity and constitute an important part of them in the U.S. If we consider Germany again, we can find at least evidence for the connection between sports and politics. During the world cup in Brazil, our chancellor was supporting our soccer team during the finale which was also documented by famous and unusual pictures of the chancellor with the national team. This shows that sports connect people in a powerful and sometimes unconventional way in different parts of our society. As distinct from Germany, this ability is also used in the academic sphere in the U.S. I have experienced myself how fascinating and rousing this spirit of community can be by observing myself and my international friends from all over the world cheering for the football team on Saturdays, wearing maize and blue and shouting “Go Blue” – and that after only one month of staying here.