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Why I Love College Sports

Purdue guard Chris Kramer, Academic All-Big Ten

The stereotype about Gay guys is that we’re unathletic and disinterested in any game that doesn’t include a punchline about Bette Davis. But the reality is more complex; I love high school and college sports, and I continued to run and work out long after my more athletic brothers quit. Gay guys do have athletic ability—all people do, if they’re encouraged to develop that part of themselves. Witness the Special Olympics, where even people with developmental limitations can shine athletically. We don’t do a very good job in this country of bringing out the athleticism of every girl and boy. There’s only one model of physical education, where the football coach is forced to teach a PE class, so he barks and acts mean, an instant turnoff to the majority of Gay boys because that kind of playing isn’t fun.

Still, some of us make the best of it and are better at some games than others. I used to love playing baseball and football in school, partly because I was good at it, and because, without teachers around, it was fun. I was friends with everyone and we loved playing games. And yes, it’s true, a girl who can play gets instant respect, she’s someone you want on your team.

So to me it’s completely natural to keep cheering for my friends and my school, even as it became obvious in later years that I wasn’t good enough to be on most of the teams. I’m a distance runner, a cross-country boy, not a basketball player. So I love the school-based athletic system in the United States, which is far more democratic than what’s available in other countries, where private clubs run everything. I will always cheer for my school.

This year I’ve got some thing to cheer about. I’m a fan of Purdue University’s teams and a third-generation alumnus. The campus is 45 minutes from my house. Purdue taught my mother to play golf, which she kept up for the rest of her life. This year our football team had a losing record but some outstanding performances, and our men’s basketball team just beat Tennessee to win the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands. Some observers, Dick Vitale among them, are saying Purdue could be a Final Four team this year.

I hope to live long enough to see Purdue win the National Championship in college basketball. The NCAA Tournament is the most exciting event in American sports, and this year the Final Four will be held in Indianapolis.

It’s important to me that the players are students and not professionals. I don’t like the behavior of many professional athletes, nor do I trust the games to be honest; there’s too much money involved and it’s easy to bribe a referee or for a player to shave points. The structure of professional sports has a built-in conflict of interest; the people supposedly policing the games are paid by the team owners. The college game separates those two functions. In the U.S., the National Collegiate Athletic Association exists apart from the coaches, players and schools. And while there’s a lot to criticize about the NCAA’s policies, I believe in its mission to provide athletic opportunities for students in three levels of competition.

I’m reminded of all this by some recent factoids, including a wonderful story about the athletic director at the University of Notre Dame in today’s New York Times, a guy named Jack Swarbrick. Notre Dame’s football team, one of the most successful in college football history, has been struggling for several years, and it looks like Swarbrick may have to fire the current coach. He naturally wants to field a successful club, but within the amateur limits of the college game. He not only wants those kids to win, he wants them to graduate.

Swarbrick said that Notre Dame’s competing for national titles and Bowl Championship Series berths is important for both college football and college sports. He said he hoped to honor his friend (Myles) Brand [late director of the NCAA], who died of cancer earlier this year, by showing that a football program can be at the top of the N.C.A.A.’s Graduation Success Rate, in which Notre Dame finished tied for first this year, and also compete for the national title.

“The day I conclude that’s not possible is the day that I leave this job,” Swarbrick said. “Because that’s why I’m in this job. Proving that thesis is what excites me, because the opposite for me is too painful to contemplate. That means that the American scholastic sport model is dead. And I won’t accept that.”

Swarbrick gets it exactly right; these are college students. They are there to go to school. Sports are extra.

Here’s another bullet point: these kids can indeed be extremely successful both in sports and in the classroom. Yesterday we found out this:

Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan was named second-team Academic All-America by ESPN The Magazine and CoSIDA.

The defensive end, who carries a 3.38 grade point average, led the Boilermakers in sacks and forced fumbles.

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was selected the Academic All-America of the Year.

Purdue end Ryan Kerrigan, Academic All-American, is majoring in math education

Academic All-America is an incredible honor. Here’s how it works: track the grades of everyone who plays, eliminating everyone who lacks a B average; of these smart athletes, pick the best players. The winners are double-certified gold.

Kerrigan had a great season, and he’s pulling his weight in class too. Purdue fans have to be proud of that—yet his achievement is repeated every year by golfers, swimmers and divers, tennis players and athletes in every sport.

One of my all-time favorite players at Purdue was a pharmacy student; that’s six years to get a doctorate. And man, that kid could play! He was a point guard in basketball, from a small town in Indiana, and thrilling to watch. Some years ago Purdue had a basketball center, a big lumbering oaf who was a civil engineering student. These scientific-technical programs at Purdue are very high quality (Purdue pharmacy has been rated the best in the world), and here are players devoting 40 hours a week to school and 40 hours to sports. Kids like that are awe-inspiring.

When you know the kids, you can’t help but cheer. And it’s the same whether you know them in high school or more distantly in college; they’re not one-dimensional people.

They remind us of the kid we grew up with who was a pretty girl, the class valedictorian and the star of every musical; or the handsome boy who was class president and starting quarterback all four years. We all admire people like that and strive to be like them, in sports or other endeavors.

My friend Stephen, who’s a retired academic, hates that sports eat up so much of the university budget. He’s getting by on 75 or 100 grand a year while the football coach is making $4 million; the athletic complex gets a $100 million upgrade while the science labs are cramped and outdated. These are valid arguments, but he misses the point: sports not only bring in as much as they cost, they provide a method for the community to support every student on campus.

There are no venues for cheering the finest literary essay of the year at Purdue; but that essay may have been written by a sprinter or volleyball player. And when we cheer for our team, we also cheer for our school—more deeply, I believe, than even the team, because of what the school represents, a place of learning for all kinds of kids.

I get as thrilled by Purdue’s All-American Marching Band playing at halftime on the football field as by a guy who catches a ball or makes a tackle. College football is full of spectacle; besides the band there’s the Golden Girl, the Silver Twins, the flag corps, the dance team, there are all kinds of students out there. And no, I don’t know what the baton twirler’s majoring in, but I know she goes to a great school—and this is my only opportunity to cheer for her. So cheer I do, because it’s her public performance.

If my friend Stephen, a linguist, competed at the Artificial Intelligence Bowl, I’d buy a ticket and fly out there every year. But sports are what draw the crowd. People like watching bodies fly around, even if a silly pigskin is the cause of it all.

Of course there’s an underlying eroticism about it all; have you ever seen a man more drop-dead gorgeous than this guy?

Purdue running back Dan Dierking, Academic All-Big Ten

But here’s what to know: he’s the son of former Purdue star Scott Dierking, who went on to play professional ball; his mother graduated from Purdue, his sister goes to Purdue. This is a Purdue family; these are our kids.

So you’re darn right I’m going to cheer my lungs out every time they do something good. His sister deserves that as much as he does, or his father and mother.

It was my mother who taught me the words to the Purdue Fight Song when I was in second grade and she was going to pharmacy school. Cheering for the Kramers and Dierkings and Kerrigans is the only way I have of screaming my head off in sheer unadultered pride in my mother and what she did in 1961—she came home with a Purdue diploma.++

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