Thursday, February 11, 2010

NLI Day, College and Team Loyalty

A seventeen year old high school senior sits before assembled microphones and gazes out at the national TV audience of ESPN-U; a sly smile, looks again at the three hats before him and reaches out, a fake toward one hat, and then plucks the next hat with its distinct university color and logo, plunks it on his head and smiles. So the ritual of NLI (National Letter of Intent) day for football occurs. It's the culmination of weeks of frenzied speculation in local media and sites like Like the hotstove league, it's an off season pasttime of speculation and unbelievably intense recruiting, commitments, rumors of commitments, uncommitments, re-recruiting. The season takes on a frenzied aspect about dreams, hopes and possibilities for teams who wish to stay on top and others seeking to gain their place in the son. This relentless ruthless recruiting now makes college coaching a full time job.

I want to think about a different dimension of sport that NLI day underlines. I continue to grapple with the question of why and how folks like me invest their loyalty and time and identity into sports teams especially when the teams have no organic relation to their own community. But these signings signal a difference. Most of the signings occur at local school, city or state wide celebrations. Families, teachers, principals are all there with festive colors. It's  a success because the young man or woman. They won a scholarship and are pursuing a dream to plan and to graduate with a degree.

College sports actually provides a unique counterpoint to the trend of teams becoming mercenary assemblages brought together for a  single campaign and then disassembled and reassembled into new teams for the next campaign.

NLI day signals an initial intent by a player and a coach to have a continuous relation together with each other, a sport and an institution for a four or five year period.  If all goes well, here, at least, a relationship exists between the athlete, the institution and the fans. The athlete actually attends school, lives on campus or nearby, attends classes and “represents” the institution in a strong moral and symbolic sense.

When alumni roots for their school team, they know that the player is going to class and playing for the same institution that they attended. When a booster or citizen of a state or a a fan who has adopted a team, as we often do, roots for the team, they understand that the kids actually go to that school and if they graduate will carry that school as their alma mater.

Many of the student athletes will not come from the local area where the school resides, but welcome to America. Heck some of them will come from foreign countries as well as foreign states (UW gets lots of kids from California!). But the athletes voluntarily choose to attend the school, they choose that hat, they choose the school colors, that  coach, that conference to attend and play for. As many of us know who attended schools away from our home, this is the United States and the experience of living and learning at that place can engender an identification and memories that help forge our  fluid identity. So rooting for my alma mater, unlike rooting for the corporate shell that assembles teams for a single campaign, is actually culturally different.

Obviously reality can inrude with this picture. Players sign to play and win and get noticed, not just to attend a college. In college basketball 40 percent of all players transfer because they become vagabonds more committed to playing thatn to schools. But in the Olympic sports the transfer rate is 3-4 percent and in football it is 8 percent. Leaving aside basketball with its one and out types and deeply distorted youth culture, most student athletes stay and play at the schools they commit to. Most graduate, even in football the graduation rate can approach 65 percent roughly the same for regular students at large state universities. Most of the players don't go on to the pros but enjoy college and being a part of the team .

Here at least a more organic relation exists between our fans and our loyalties and the players on the team.

(photos courtesy of AP)

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