Collegiate athletics play a significant role in the cultures of higher education institutions and their surrounding communities. This is especially the case at the Division I level with higher enrollments, millions of dollars in scholarships and sponsorships on the line, and increased regional influence. The pressure placed on individual athletes and their respective athletic programs to succeed is immense, and the repercussions of failure have tremendous and lasting effects on the lives of student-athletes. The gravity of the situation is evident with the constant controversy over the ethical issues that athletic departments ignore to ensure the on-field success of their teams. Now, taking all of this drama, pressure, and controversy and adding the increased stakes of a rivalry, the nature of the sport changes from competitive fun to all-out war. This is a truly startling part of collegiate athletic culture.
After this thrilling past weekend of NCAA Division I collegiate football, there is no more telling and intriguing phenomenon in American culture than the collegiate athletics rivalry. Auburn and Alabama. Oregon and Oregon State. South Carolina and Clemson. Ohio State and Michigan. All bitter rivalries, all duking it out on the gridiron this past weekend. However, the actions of the fans and players alike have simply added to the already-growing argument that collegiate athletics have moved too far away from their roots and purpose: creating student-athletes. The media attention and heightened emotions of these rivalries only seems to bring these problematic actions to light.
This past week at the Clemson University versus University of South Carolina rivalry match-up, fans on the USC side threw trash all over the field once they were losing in some kind of defensive show of pride. Not only did Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney denounce the acts, but he also pointed out that it proved dangerous for his own players and staff. At the same time, the Ohio State University’s starting quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a pre-game knee injury at the hands of a sideline photographer, in what seemed to mimic some kind of twisted Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan assault.
However, these nefarious actions have not only just come about this year. In the Iron Bowl, the affectionate moniker given to the annual University of Alabama versus Auburn University football matchup, both sides have participated in their own illicit actions. While the game is notoriously chippy throughout, the fanbases on both sides also take action, most notably with Alabama fans poisoning Auburn’s famous trees in Toomer’s Corner. This trend is not unique to Alabama, and college football rivalry week brings out both the best and the worst in many institutions’ respective fanbases. In all of these examples though, it is one thing to have school pride, but it is another to do so at the expense of personal dignity, ethics, and the welfare of others.
It is of particular interest to note that these “worst” rivalries tend to follow some common trends. For one, the most bitter rivalries tend to occur in regions of the country with fewer professional sports teams nearby, allowing the public to turn their attention and passion towards the collegiate athletics. South Carolina, Mississippi, Oregon, and Alabama are all prime examples of this phenomenon. Although this does not necessarily solve the problem of over-competitive rivalry – as professional rivalries can be just as bitter and malevolent – it does move the attention away from institutions that have their academic reputations affected by something as ultimately inconsequential as a game. Furthermore, these rivalries logically tend to occur at the largest state institutions, where the universities themselves have greater scope of influence and the fan bases have greater friction. It is for this reason that it is hard to write off all of Division I collegiate athletics as too competitive, but nevertheless, the problems exist largely at the Division I level.
These rivalries and their negative consequences do simply add to the growing argument against the current state of Division I collegiate athletics. Although the increase in camaraderie and school spirit is no doubt beneficial, these is a point at which the universities and the NCAA have lost sight of the true meaning of sport. With all of this pressure, it becomes easier to understand why coaches cheat the recruiting system to get a leg up, or cover up terrible actions of both coaches and players simply because they are too valuable to their program. The stakes are high enough already, and the rivalry games only make it worse. Particularly now, with the start of the collegiate men’s basketball season, it will be interesting to see how rivalries like Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill play out. Nevertheless, it is imperative to keep in mind the true purpose of sport, and to and to seriously examine the use of collegiate athletics and their influence as a justification for nefarious actions.