Michigan in the Mirror
It’s time for the University of Michigan to address the role and impact of sports worship in campus culture
It took the women of gymnastics to break through the pretense of shock that Jerry Sandusky brought to the mouthpieces of college sports. In their wake, the end of Larry Nassar is just the beginning. After Nassar was sentenced to die in prison last week, attention shifted from the testaments of his victims to Michigan State University as an institution. Its president, Lou Anna Simon, defiantly resigned only days later. Shortly after, Athletic Director Mark Hollis announced his retirement as multiple allegations of sexual assault involving football and basketball players under coaches Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio were exposed. High from Beaumont Tower, presiding over the lush grounds of Michigan State, the bells are tolling.
On the first day of February ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported on the systemic “denial, inaction and information suppression” of sexual assault claims involving the basketball and football programs that MSU depends on to define and uphold its brand. Protecting that brand is one of the sacred priorities of university leadership. Long-time MSU Trustee Joe Ferguson last week defended Lou Anna Simon during a radio interview. “When you go to the basketball game, you walk into the new Breslin, and the person who hustled and got all those major donors to give money was Lou Anna Simon,” he said according to the Lansing State Journal. At MSU, as at other well-known universities, athletics are sacrosanct. Their facilities, personnel, standing, and operational privilege can appear to matter more to the university leadership than the multifaceted communities they represent as de facto figureheads.
In this, MSU is hardly alone. Its peer institutions in the BigTen and beyond incubate a culture of sports worship that feeds our social psychoses of misogyny, racism, genderism, consumerism, and privilege, and encourages tolerance for their affect on millions of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and fans. When the administration goes silent on sexual violence, everybody at home watching Saturday’s game or flashing the logo becomes implicated regardless of their values, politics, or intent. Because university brands like the Spartans command so much allegiance and profit through sports, our focus on something that is ultimately more or less irrelevant is part of a pathology of athletic veneration that governs behavior well outside the university.
Writers across traditional and social media have long examined these issues from manifold points of view, mapping the territory from the NCAA’s plantation system to victim-shaming on campus and hate speech on the quad and everything in between. There’s little for me to say that they haven’t already, and my point of view is already represented by others. Instead, I want to consider how the University of Michigan represents itself with sports worship.
Holding the mirror
Down the road from MSU, members of the University of Michigan community must be wondering when the other shoe will drop in Ann Arbor. Fervor for the Wolverines is just as intense as it is for the Spartans, and anybody crafting a “not at my Michigan” narrative isn’t paying attention. But this is a distinct risk for the Michigan community. It’s not hard in Ann Arbor to encounter the absurd “little brother” narrative about MSU even outside of athletics. East Lansing, after all, doesn’t have independent movie theaters, Google, a city bikeshare, and woke-posturing organizations to buffer the renowned institution at its center from the rest of a state that went red in 2016 for Trump. Michigan remains distinctive for its solid legacy of social activism and reputation as a progressive, politically mobilized community. But across the university community, the totems, rituals, and symbols of social awareness which on the one hand make it easy to index that progressivism, on the other too-easily permit the University of Michigan, as an institution, to veneer and tolerate the widespread pathology of sports worship that saturates university life. In this area, U of M is not at all different from MSU.
What happens to Michigan State will ultimately reflect back on Michigan. Depending on how the MSU community responds to this opportunity to root out the web of conditions that made Nassar and countless other moments of sexual violence possible, it may be Michigan that becomes the little brother. The administration in Ann Arbor, from Mark Schlissel and Warde Manuel on down to department chairs and student advisors, has no choice but to take a prism to the University of Michigan brand, mythology, and everyday communication to parse out how the culture of sports worship impacts its operations and in turn threatens the integrity and safety of the university today and going forward. Even in Ann Arbor, the Larry Nassar case gives every member and fan of the university the base point to examine their own role in maintaining that pathology.
Without addressing its reliance on sports to represent the university, the policies and values at Michigan that claim to safely support victims of sexual abuse and other forms of violence are red herrings and shibboleths. In addition to policy and creating space for those who don’t benefit from the normative conditions of campus culture, the university must scrutinize, soberly and unafraid, much that it holds dear and which is ingrained in university life.
Despite insistence otherwise, the Greek system at Michigan exacerbates a culture of partying and gendered power that pervades campus life and feeds the hysteria of Michigan athletics by explicitly organizing social activities around sporting events. When television networks broadcasting football games roll B-footage of frat parties at the end of commercial breaks, we should all know that something is wrong.
The fighter jet flyovers and military pomp that open game day at the Big House reinforce the militaristic subtext of college football in America and have no place in student athletics.
The university should set clear boundaries on how the NCAA and its commercial channels such as the Big Ten Network represent the university and its brand in programming and advertising. The aura of Michigan athletics is too-easily commercialized by third party interests, and resists the proactive cultivation of a progressive brand whose value doesn’t depend on the “great men” narratives of athletic heritage.
The use of maize (yellow) and blue throughout university websites, publications, print collateral, and other communications is essentially ritualistic, and helps reify the university as a mythic idea rather than a community of people that continuously define and evolve Michigan’s culture through individual and institutional choices.
The reliance on sports veneration to provoke alumni giving and as a driver for high-level fundraising should be minimized to maximize focus on the academic excellence and extensive social engagement of the student body and the impact of university research.
At the most disruptive, the University of Michigan should consider leaving the Big Ten and transition to an independent athletic program. With its considerable leverage and revenue contributions to the conference and the NCAA, the university could dramatically impact the course of college sports going forward, and set a leading example for the role of athletics at large universities across the country. Already, football faces waning interest as the consequences of so much controlled violence become more popularly understood. Before too long, grounding personal and institutional identities in the hysteria of college football will be a losing proposition.
The University of Michigan is a powerful and valuable brand. So long as its prominence is built on a pathology of sports worship, profit over justice, and tolerance for insidiously toxic forms of campus culture, the brand remains vulnerable and hollow. Before long, the bells could be tolling from Burton Tower, too.