Sports and Ressentiment: Why the Boosters Run Ohio State


William C. Dowling

The national debate over college sports corruption has been dominated by a single theme, "the plight of the black athlete"—remarkably so, given that the debate concerns such more general issues as commercial culture, class antagonism in American society, and institutional demoralization in American higher education.

The theme occurs constantly in writing about college sports. Here, to take an example almost at random, is a passage from a Time magazine story on college basketball published some time ago (April 3, 1989):

Wayne Embry

Wayne Embry, general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is a black former pro who knows the problem well: "Quite often, coming out of school, these kids don't know anything else but basketball. Someone's altered their test scores to get them into school, and once they're in, they're directed to take basket-weaving and plays-and-games, or whatever the hell it is. Tell me what they're going to do in our society. I know quite often college coaches think they're doing these kids a favor. The reality is they're doing them a disservice, and I resent it."

Discussing college sports corruption in terms of the plight of the black athlete has sustained the debate in a state of perpetual irresolution. It is true that talking about the subject in these terms has provided a way of discussing a deeper problem in American society —the problem of ressentiment or hostility to intellectual culture—that would otherwise be undiscussable.

At the same time, however, discussing college sports corruption entirely in terms of the plight of the black athlete has provided a means of recontaining the issue, of diverting the debate into channels of discussion that lead away from the underlying problem of ressentiment as it has been at work to reshape the nature of American higher education.

The unanswered question is what the dynamics of ressentiment look like when summoned into view.

The Code Shattered: "Negligent Admission"

"The plight of the black athlete" has been shattered as a code in several remarkable episodes in which black athletes, as though outraged at having been made ciphers in a debate they sense to be about something else, have demanded that it be taken literally, suing their universities on grounds including breach of contract, negligence, and, in one significant case (Jackson v. Drake University), violation of civil rights.

One lawsuit, Ross v. Creighton University (1991), is notable as proposing a doctrine of "negligent admission," which would, if given status as a legal principle, be what occurs whenever a sports program recruits an athlete with full awareness that he or she is incapable of doing college-level work.

Ross v. Creighton makes poignant reading. Ross, a talented high school basketball player, was brought to Creighton by a coach wholly aware that he was impossibly over his head academically, having scored in the bottom fifth percentile on the ACT while the average Creighton freshman was in the upper twenty-seven percent.

The coach then proceeded to enroll Ross in such courses as Marksmanship and Theory of Basketball, leaving him, when his eligibility had been used up, with a D average and far too few credits for graduation. What happened next, as described in the case record, may be taken as a virtual parable of the problem of "negligent admission":

When he left Creighton, Mr. Ross had the overall language skills of a fourth grader and the reading skills of a seventh grader. Consequently, Mr. Ross enrolled, at Creighton's expense, for a year of remedial education at the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago. At Westside, Mr. Ross attended classes with grade school children. . . . In July 1987, Mr. Ross suffered what he terms a "major depressive episode," during which he barricaded himself in a Chicago motel room and threw furniture out the window. To Mr. Ross, this furniture "symbolized" Creighton employees who had wronged him.


The Structure of Unreality

Still, Ross v. Creighton cannot be interpreted as a story about the plight of the black athlete.

The reason why will be immediately evident to anyone familiar with the problem of college sports corruption.

It is that thousands of white athletes every year are recruited on precisely the same basis that Ross was recruited by Creighton, are put through the same "hideaway" curriculum of empty or contentless courses, play out their eligibility, and then obligingly vanish to make room for an incoming class of recruits at the other end of the process.

The widespread currency of the "plight of the black athlete" theme gives athletes like Jackson and Ross cultural permission to sue their universities, but what such suits bring to light is an anomalous institutional and ideological structure that involves nearly every athlete playing Division IA sports, white and black, plus the athletics departments of their schools, plus, ultimately, the students and alumni of those institutions.

What does this structure look like? It has the form of two concentric circles around an empty or hollow center, that center being an isolated and unreal mirror world of courses, credits, academic majors, and other appurtenances designed to mimic actual academic culture, as Potemkin's facades mimicked actual Russian villages.

This is the world into which Jackson and Ross stepped at Drake and Creighton respectively—the world of Ross's courses in Marksmanship and Theory of Basketball—and it has its counterpart in every Division IA program, as much at Duke and Michigan as at such openly-acknowledged "sports factories" as Nebraska or Ohio State.

In College Sports, Inc., Murray Sperber quotes from a teaching evaluation written by an Indiana University student who had taken P211: Introduction to Sports Management: "This course couldn't be made easier if they tried. The grading is based on 1 exam, 1 paper, and attendance. The paper is a self-analysis of what the person would like to do as a career (1 to 3 pages). The exam is multiple choice and covers 50 vocabulary words that are passed out 2 weeks prior to the exam. Attendance counts for 50% of the grade."

Nonetheless, Division IA recruiting at its most dubious very often brings in players who are functionally illiterate or otherwise unable to meet the demands even of Theory of Basketball or Introduction to Sports Management.

The coach who brought Jackson to Drake University, for instance, was Tom Abatemarco, who had learned his recruiting methods as an assistant to the notoriously cynical James Valvano at North Carolina State.

Valvano's own peculiar brilliance lay not only in recruiting but in setting up machinery within the university to protect his recruits against the most minimal academic standards.

How he did so is recounted in Peter Golenbock's Personal Fouls, the story of Valvano's national-championship-winning program at North Carolina State and the best inside account ever written of a big-time college sports program.

The star of Valvano's team at the time the following episode takes place is one Charles Shackleford, a 6'10" center who had been recruited by over 100 colleges:

Despite Shackleford's severe academic problems, all the players knew he would remain in school. Said a teammate, "Shack was The Man. If Shack was off the team, we were going to lose. Valvano would do that with all his star players. They would be on the team no matter what."

The loophole that allowed Shackleford to remain eligible—and Teviin Binns and Kelsey Weems as well—was the official readmission process. If a student flunked out at the end of the fall semester, he could go before the Academic Review Board and personally petition for readmission.

Each of the failing players went before the Academic Review Board. In addition, Valvano reportedly testified on their behalf that Chancellor Poulton had signed a contract with them giving his approval for them to play in exchange for their promise (1) to attend classes, and (2) to go to study hall.

At the Academic Review Board hearing, the players came one after the other. The members of the review board sat around a long table, asking questions like "Do you think you can continue your education here?" "Are you capable of working toward a degree?" "Are you willing to be tutored and get academic assistance?"

Teviin Binns, one of the players who went through it, said, "all you have to say is ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,' and they let you back in. After they finished asking their questions, I left, they discussed it, I came back in, and they told me their decision.

"They said, ‘We're going to let you back in because you have the capability to maintain a passing record'."

Valvano's Academic Review Board—it really was his board, controlled by him in his dual role as basketball coach and athletic director—is a typical feature of bottom-feeding Division IA programs, those that flourish by bringing in talented players so academically hopeless that they would be unpleasantly conspicuous in more established programs.

Yet, once again, every big-time basketball and football program in the country has its own version of the same machinery. This constitutes the second circle in the concentric Division IA structure: a protective layer of administrative complicity around the empty center of its "hideaway" curriculum for recruited athletes.

The third and outermost concentric circle in a typical Division IA program involves the actual takeover of the normal academic machinery of the university, such that papers are written and handed in, take-home exams completed, and credits awarded on a "ghost" basis, with athletes very often unaware that the work is being done in their name.

This is the dimension brought to light in the recent episode at the University of Minnesota where a tutor revealed that she had completed over 400 pieces of work for 20 basketball players over a five-year period, leading to the firing of coach Clem Haskins and the momentary embarrassment even of an administration long noted for subservience in its relations with the athletics department.

This third layer of protection is present in varying degrees in Division IA programs, but it is absent from none of them. Indeed, its purely structural necessity is signaled by the NCAA rule stipulating that every Division IA program must provide paid tutors for the athletes it recruits.


A Two Worlds Theory

The structure exposed in such suits as Jackson v. Drake and Ross v. Creighton thus represents a complete and self-contained sphere lying at the center of university life that is not, so to speak, "owned" by the university—that is, not subject to the rules and traditions of institutionalized higher learning as it has immemorially attempted to preserve, in Anne Matthews's phrase, "a core of transcendent purpose."

The anomalousness of this situation is felt by most commentators on Division IA sports, their tendency being to explain it in terms of a dominant commercial culture—the TV networks, major corporations, athletics-gear sponsors like Nike, etc.—that has gradually eaten its way into the heart of American higher education through Division IA sports, a "society of the spectacle" entirely willing to see academic and intellectual values collapse so long as sales and advertising revenues remain hugely lucrative.

Thus, for instance, we hear Ted Gup, author of the Time magazine story quoted earlier, predictably lamenting that "an obsession with winning and moneymaking" is "perverting the noblest ideals of both sports and education in America."

There is something right about this picture, and something wrong.

What is right is that college sports corruption cannot be understood until one has seen that the impersonal forces of a money or market society are obviously in play in producing such TV-revenue- driven spectacles as the annual NCAA basketball tournament ("March Madness")—or, more importantly, in creating a nation of millions of spectators whose main idea of university identity comes from the athletes running back and forth on their TV screen.

What is wrong is that any notion of blind or impersonal market forces fails to do justice to the role of ressentiment in sustaining the spectacle, and specifically to the sense in which commercial culture is felt to be a symbolic means of expressing "ownership" of the university by spectators who would otherwise regard it as an alien and disturbing cultural presence.


The Rights of the Ignorant

In America, a sense that university education represents a "higher" level of intellectual consciousness that threatens the ethos of mass democracy goes back to the beginnings of the republic.

It is nicely caught, for instance, in the bitter irony of a letter written to The Port Folio magazine in 1806 by a North Carolina correspondent, reporting that the "enlightened legislature" of his state has just stripped funds from the university because it has "discovered that education was inconsistent with democracy; that it created an aristocracy of the learned, who would trample upon the rights and liberties of the ignorant, and that an equality of intellect was necessary to preserve the equality of rights."

The theme is as old as de Tocqueville: in a democracy, anything that promises to set a person or a group apart as superior to the average will be felt as deeply disturbing or threatening.

This is why even public education, in its earlier phase, constituted a problem for American democracy.

The University of Illinois as described in Mark Van Doren's autobiography, for instance—Van Doren went there in 1910-1914—is still an institution designed to serve Illinois youth more intelligent, studious, or intellectually serious than their non-college-attending counterparts, and still relatively unself-conscious about restricting admission to those who can do the work.

Nonetheless, over the longer term public universities can be brought back under political control by the same means reported by the North Carolina correspondent above—by denying them funding on "populist" grounds, or insisting on a great emphasis on practical or vocational training, or finally, as has happened in our own time, by lowering admissions standards to a point where any distinction between secondary school and university level work is erased.

This is the context in which selective private institutions, precisely as they escape direct political control, constitute a special problem for mass democracy -- preeminently the Ivy League, as it symbolizes an imagined world of purely intellectual values, but also colleges like Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore.

It is a purely structural antagonism toward the Ivy League and similar schools that takes us to the heart of big-time college sports as motivated by ressentiment in Nietzsche's sense, as the response of those who, as he says in the Genealogy of Morals, "are denied the real reaction, that of the deed, and who compensate with an imaginary revenge."

The antagonism is structural in the sense that it need never rise to the level of conscious motivation, but also that big-time college sports cannot be understood without recognizing that it is there. When Nebraska or Oklahoma plays Ohio State in a post-season bowl game, the unseen opponent of both is in some sense always Harvard.

Even a few years ago, the notion of big-time college sports as an expression of ressentiment would have had to remain conjectural merely, a missing piece that needed to be fitted into place before one could grasp certain otherwise unintelligible aspects of the situation.

Today, with literally hundreds of sports boards on the internet, each devoted to a specific college or university team, one need only spend a few hours monitoring the heated and continuous debates among boosters to catch the note of ressentiment at every turn.

It is especially remarkable when a school with a big-time sports program is caught in a major scandal, as recently happened when a reporter from ESPN came into possession of documents suggesting that football players at the University of Tennessee, voted the previous year's "national champions" by sportswriters, had, like the Minnesota basketball players, had papers written for them by tutors.

Happy Ohio State fans celebrate football victory by making "number 1" sign for TV cameras

The reaction of students at Tennessee was immediate and, to anyone who follows big-time college sports, wholly predictable. Overnight, a large rock on campus was painted with the slogan ESPN SUCKS, a picture of which appeared next day on the front page of the student newspaper.

Happy Ohio State fans turn over automobile in Columbus to celebrate the same victory, demonstrating what, in faraway New Jersey, Rutgers AD "Pat" Hobbes understands to be "BIG TEN PRIDE."

No clearer expression of the ressentiment theme could be found, one imagines, than the angry responses provoked on a Tennessee sports board by an alumnus who mildly protested against the crudity of what the students had done. Here is one typical answer from a self-identified Tennessee undergraduate, with spelling and punctuation intact:

It doesn't matter what we do they can make us look like trash no matter what. Im sick of people like you guys because you let someone go on national radio and call us trailer trash and then you have the nerve to kiss their ass thinking that will convince them were not trash. They dont care. We will always be trash to them. So screw em. Your the idiots that keep us from getting the respect we deserve.

The message ends, almost poignantly, with "WE STILL WENT 13-0! they cant take that away!"


Sports as Imaginary Revenge

Still, the voice that dominates the boosters' boards of Ohio State and Nebraska and Tennessee is not that of fans who see a winning football team as revenge against a world that despises them as "trailer trash."

On the contrary, following these boards over a period of months yields an impression uncannily resembling that made by literary characters like Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, or, in Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, the quintessentially American Peter van Degan, a bluff and self-confident New Yorker—he is rich, successful, and opinionated—moved, as Wharton drily observes, by "contempt for everything he did not understand or could not buy."

The dominant voice in sports board discussion tends to belong, in short, to the locally important citizen, Chevrolet dealer or beer distributor or insurance salesman, member of the Wolfpack Club or Buckeye Club or Scarlet R, whose own sense of personal identity is strongly invested in the football or basketball program.

It is because boosters of this type see the university so entirely in terms of its athletics program, and athletics so entirely in terms of a TV-dominated commercial culture, that one is able to glimpse in their personal investment something like van Degan's contempt for anything he does not understand, which in their case is the university imagined as (in Ann Matthews's phrase) "a community of people slightly removed from the world, who make and share knowledge."

This is the academic or intellectual culture, its roots going back to ancient Greece, that boosters identify with the Ivy League. Any mention of athletes' SAT scores on an Internet sports board, for instance, as happens when fans from different boards are trading insults, will inevitably provoke the angry retort that supporters of the school in question are not "Ivy League wannbes."

This is the background against which having a basketball team seen on TV during "March Madness" or a football team that plays in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl demands to be seen as symbolic or imaginary revenge against an alien intellectual culture.

The naming of post-season bowl games after products or corporations—the FedEx Orange Bowl, the Equitable Liberty Bowl, the Toyota Gator Bowl, the Chick fil-a Peach Bowl, the Southwestern Bell Cotton Bowl—has been taken as a symptom of the takeover of American consciousness by commercial culture.

This is correct, but what it misses, when big-time college sports is the issue, is the sense in which commercial culture also represents a symbolic form of "ownership," a powerful and reassuring sign that one's university—especially one's state university—is not an outpost or citadel controlled by an alien "higher" culture of ideas or knowledge.

The fans who view the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on television, in short, are watching not only a football game but a demonstration that the same culture that generated The Jerry Springer Show and cable-TV wrestling has been able to penetrate, and to hollow out from within, the university as an institution.

To see the relation between big-time college sports and American culture in this light is to be given an unexpected X-ray view of the structure of American higher education.

From this perspective, for instance, the Ivy League rule against athletic scholarships will appear less as a mark of purity than a bargain of invisibility, the ideological compromise through which academically distinguished institutions are permitted to go their own way in a mass democracy so long as they agree to keep a low profile within the dominant commercial culture.

In the middle of the spectrum will be private institutions that would like to maintain a degree of student selectivity and intellectual standards but which—this is what I take the cases of Drake and Creighton to illustrate—feel the need of sports visibility as "product advertising" in a society increasingly responsive to a consumer model of education.

Then, at the other end of the spectrum, are the hundred or so state institutions in which the process of direct public control has sometime since reduced the university-as-such mainly to a shell or outward form. The world of "March Madness" and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl belongs primarily to them.

As anyone who has watched a TV bowl game knows, the telecast typically includes an odd ritual moment, a 30-second halftime spot showing the "academic" side of the universities whose teams are competing against each other.

It will show a biology major peering through a microscope, a professor jotting down a blackboard theorem, happy students streaming across a campus plaza, a solemn voiceover proclaiming that university X is a "world leader" in various areas and has "a tradition of excellence" extending back many years.

It would be easy enough to take this moment as an unwitting acknowledgment that in the world of sports factory schools any notion of the university as an academic or intellectual community has become marginal, bearing the same relation to athletics as does, in terms of symbolic proportion, a 30-second spot to a four-hour spectacle of football, marching bands, commercials, and play-by-play commentary.

Yet any deeper understanding of big-time college sports must begin, I think, from a recognition that this vestigial 30-second spot really represents something else. It represents the very triumph of ressentiment, the booster world of the Buckeye Club and the Wolfpack Club, a mass or consumerist culture glorying in its power to negate anything that it perceives to be, as Nietzsche says, other than itself.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Transaction Publishers

Notes to sources may be found in Social Science and Modern Society, vol. 37, no. 3 (March/April 2000): 29-34.

Click here to go to William C. Dowling's "Big-Time Sports as Academic Prostitution"