The Dark Side of The Sport: College Tribalism

Written by 

In his newest piece for The Magazine, Br. TJ pens a most excellent look at the way sports has filled a deep human need for tribal solidarity in our otherwise highly individualistic culture. Check it out--it's spiffy good. 

TJ writes: 

And really, all of the seemingly logical justifications for why people identify with a team that I presented a few paragraphs ago also fall apart, if you apply the slightest scrutiny. Kids are just as likely, if not more, to get excited about the victories of their favourite professional team as they are about the school or little league team they actually play on. Average high schoolers might be bullied by the jocks, or feel ineligible to be part of the dating pool because of the social hierarchy the athletes sit at the crown of. The biggest US colleges command the most fervent and loyal fans, and these are the ones where it's least likely that the average student will ever encounter any of the team members anywhere other than seeing them in the stadium.

basketball brawl

I want to focus on that last point about US colleges commanding the most fervent and loyal fans and in particular its potential to express the shadow sides of tribalism.

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. There are two professional teams from my hometown: The Reds (baseball) and The Bengals (football). Nevertheless the two most rabid fan bases in the city are the two university basketball teams: The University of Cincinnati Bearcats (UC) and The Xavier Musketeers (XU). Every year the teams play a game called The Crosstown Shootout--which last year got so heated the players ended up in a bench-clearing brawl at the end of the game (click the link for the video). The game has now been scheduled at a neutral location for the next two years to help reduce the tension. UC is a public school with an image of rough and tumble dudes from the streets. XU is a private (Jesuit) university. So there's a class element involved in the rivalry (public vs. private, lower/middle class vs. wealthy, thugs vs. good guys, etc). Children are indoctrinated into their family's teams from the crib. 

Tribal societies were racked by constant skirmishes and intermittint warfare--the kind seen in a much smaller scale in the brawl above (a few punches thrown and landed, some pushing and shoving, then a scattering of the makeshift armies). The enemey is a great Other. They become a blank canvas upon which we can project our worst fears, prejudices, and hatreds. In the worst case, the other tribe becomes subhuman, degenerate, and able to be killed, tortured, raped, or pillaged. 

Ohio State stadium

It's intense--the kind of tribal identity that TJ speaks about in his piece. It's one I still carry with me even now that I live in Canada. I love college football and basketball. My mother can I attest to the fact that as an 8 year old I was watching an Ohio State Buckeyes (OSU) football game and declared I was going to OSU for university. Which is exactly what happened 10 years later. I remember being in a somewhat altered state watching an OSU football game in-person with 90,000+ other humans. (I've been to countries that have less citizens in total.) 

Rioting after football team losses (and eventually wins) became a major problem when I was at OSU (1997-2000). A favorite pastime was setting things on fire: e.g. old couches or dumpsters. A party trick of mine was to jump over couches on fire in the street (don't try at home kids!). It started because one night I was trying to get to a house which I couldn't get to as the street was blocked by a series of flaming couches. Only way through was over it. From then on, it became a kind of calling card (I should mention I didn't drink in college, so I was sober when I did this and never got hurt--still kids don't do this!). 

The fires got so bad the city Fire Department made a public announcement that they would cease putting out any dumpster fires--students were on there on in putting them out. (I'm not making this up).

ohio state

Before the last start of last season, Ohio State's highly successful head coach Jim Tressel was fired (ahem. "resigned") for lying about his knowledge of infractions by a number of his most prominent players. A major college football TV analyst (ESPN) is named Kirk Herbstreit. Herbstreit is a graduate of Ohio State. He was the star starting quarterback at Ohio State before moving into a sports broadcasting career. Herbstreit has had to move he and his family to Nashville, Tennessee because of saying Tressel should be fired (i.e. for saying the right thing), even though he continues to be a tried and true Buckeye fan. 

This is another dark side of tribalism--if you cross the tribe, if you are seen as a traitor, you are ostracized from the tribe. Doesn't even matter if you were being ethical or wise--you're dead to us. 

jerry sandusky

The most recent and darkest expression of this college sports tribalism comes from Penn State. If you don't know the story, Jerry Sandusky (left above), the long time defense coordinator for Joe Paterno (right) has been accussed (by multiple former players) of sexual abuse. If you have never seen the interview Sandusky gave to Bob Costas, you will see a human being who literally has no emotional understanding of his actions. He literally doesn't get it. He admits in the interview to sexual attraction to young boys. It's just about the creepiest thing you'll ever see. 

Meanwhile Paterno is the winningest coach in college football history. He is canonized in college football history. Or was. Until rumors swirled that Paterno knew of Sandusky's abuse and tried to cover it up. Students at Penn State rallied in defense of Paterno's firing by the University (Paterno was a huge benefactor of the school). Paterno then died in early 2012. A report was released last week showing pretty clearly (to me) that Paterno did know and tried to cover it up. Paterno's family has said they will conduct their own investigation (along with former players who still defend him). 

Again here we see another dark side of human bonding into groups based on deep emotional connection. When someone becomes a chief, a lord in that system they begin to buy into their own image. They can easily believe they are above the law and justify immoral and/or illegal acts. And their die hard supporters will never accept their flaws and unjust actions (or inactions as the case may be). 

So while I am still a fanatic about college sports these dark sides can't be ignored. They are real with serious (and in some cases extremely destructive) consequences. But hey it makes for a good story: there's money, corruption, cheating, lying, sex...all the good stuff. 

Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy


  • Comment Link me Tuesday, 17 July 2012 17:04 posted by me

    sports teach a group mentality, fraternities, gangs, all the same, only nicer names. Arts teach independent thinking, change the world and examine ideas. ever wonder why governments support sports. lol

  • Comment Link Michael Milano Tuesday, 17 July 2012 18:41 posted by Michael Milano

    I would also add that part of the problem is the homogenous makeup of these teams. Everyone has similar backgrounds, gender, etc. So there is no one to provide an "alternate" view. The same ideas, views and attitudes just feed on themselves, becoming corrosive and corruptive. You have guys with 4 years of sports indoctrination (from high school) then they get more of the same in college. With no one there for checks and balances. Even the coaching staff are former athletes themselves so they all have the same moral, intellectual corruption. Add to that the corrupting influence money has on college sports and you have a recipe for Sandusky.

    I think every sports team should be required to have a certain number of women and gay men on staff.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 18 July 2012 18:45 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the comment. That's a good point around the groupthink that can happen as a result of the "our team" mentality.

    In martial arts (speaking really generically) I've always thought they've had a much more explicit discussion of the ethics involved in the practice. I only took a few Tae Kwon Do classes in university but I remember the teacher (Master Ko) constantly reminding the students, particularly the very skilled ones, of the ethics involved. We would spend time meditating, we even sometimes did something like a loving-kindness or tonglen-type meditation on the suffering of the world.

    In the US particularly there is a strong culture of evangelical Christianity within sports (at all levels and among both genders) and that I think attempts to replicate the religious structures of earlier human tribal forms. But, by and large, from my experience, it doesn't have some of the clearing effects that the meditation and so on do.

    As to the Sandusky case, it strikes me as very similar to the code of silence we see among police very often. Nobody wants to be labelled a snitch.

  • Comment Link Michael Milano Sunday, 22 July 2012 23:46 posted by Michael Milano

    I agree. In many fraternal organizations (sports, law enforcement, etc) there is a collective bargain that takes states the organization's survival is paramount to anything and everything, including what is right and just. It's better to let some injustice or crime go unpunished than to "damage" the collective. Being a "rat" is worse than letting a child rapist have continued access to children. It's just a screwed up way of thinking.

  • Comment Link Robert Lyons Monday, 30 July 2012 19:17 posted by Robert Lyons

    Want to share here the latest from Chris Hedges, "The Perversion of Scholarship" ~

    Thank you!

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 31 July 2012 19:42 posted by Chris Dierkes

    HI Robert, thanks great piece by Hedges. I hadn't seen that one and totally on point.

Login to post comments

Search Beams

Most Popular Discussions