Do US University Athletics Foster Cross-Cutting Cleavages?

File this under “half baked thoughts that have been kicking around my head for a few years” and “bad versions of American Exceptionalism,” but here it is.

In January of 1983 I left the American University campus and made my way to the center of Georgetown to watch folks celebrate the Redskins’ Super Bowl Victory. What was amazing was the racial diversity at the intersection of Wisconsin and M.  Normal racial and class boundaries were out the frigging window as folks celebrated John Riggins’ bounce outside the tackles to put away the Dolphins and bring the city its first Super Bowl Championship.  I have no clue whether other pro sports Championships have produced similar temporary dissolution of these boundaries, but it planted a seed in my mind.

The next step in my thinking was reading reports of hooliganism associated with European sports clubs, and conversations with folks raised there about the intense local focus of such dedication.  This dynamic gets played out wonderfully in an ESPN commercial titled “Born Into It,” which has the tagline “These Man United and Man City supporters prove that rival fans are often more similar than they think.”  I may be hopelessly ignorant here, but my best guess is that the associations that European sports clubs produce likely reinforce political (and social, economic) cleavages more than they cut across them.  And that got me to thinking about the possibility that in the US university athletics might produce associations that cut across political (and other) cleavages, particularly among those who attend college (an already, and increasingly, large share of the US population).

First, I hope the reader will stipulate that the major revenue sports (football, basketball, and baseball) produce near religious fever.  This is not to deny that the US is a religious culture.  It certainly is. Nevertheless, as Alan Levinovitz puts it in his recent post at Slate,

It is not my place to criticize the status of athletics in America. On that, our nation has already made a near unanimous decision. As Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel puts it in his book What Money Can’t Buy: “From Yankee Stadium in New York to Candlestick Park in San Francisco, sports stadiums are the cathedrals of our civil religion, public spaces that gather people from different walks of life in rituals of loss and hope, profanity and prayer.”

The purpose of Levinovitz’s post is to make the case that US universities should break their tie to major revenue athletics.  Folks can read his article to see what they think.  I want to raise the possibility that, despite the major problems (see, for example, Taylor Branch’s excellent “The Shame of College Sports“), in the US major college athletics have a largely unappreciated positive civic impact: by creating deeply held associations that cut across political cleavages they contribute positively to tolerance in American political life (something that seems to be waning of late).

I work with lots of folks who actual study American political culture.  Perhaps some of them will weigh in and let me know whether there is something to my half baked speculation or whether I am all wet.


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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