Thursday, November 29, 2007

Taking the representation too far

Throughout these first few weeks of the season, Davidson College has emerged on many people's radars around the country because of the men's basketball program. A quick glance at a USA Today or or the bottom line of any sports show would find Davidson highly praised for its academics and highly ranked for its athletics. In fact, I have to write an article for this weekend about the way that Davidson basketball's media exposure has been good for the College as well.

While I certainly accept the reality that if Davidson makes a run in the NCAA Tournament or continues to make headlines, the admission applications would rise, alumni giving might be sparked and the athletic program's potential recruits would be awed. However, there is a part of this premise that I don't particularly feel comfortable with. How can a group of fifteen guys completely represent an academic institution through their shooting touch and defensive aggressiveness?

Are you really telling me that there are so many financial, social, and potentially academic consequences riding on a game-tying three point attempt by Jason Richards in the closing seconds of a basketball contest? We have all been suckered into accepting and proclaiming the affirmative because we know that Jason will hit it...and because, as far as we can tell, this equation only points to the good. If the three rims out, we haven't lost anything in the attempt. Sure let's put all of our identity on the shoulders of this basketball team.

However, I am more concerned at the larger premise surrounding this issue. That is, I believe that we currently place way too much emphasis on representatives of a larger group or institution, whether in sports or otherwise.

For example, are Davidson students better basketball players on the whole because their team beat the Appalachian State team last Saturday. No...I wouldn't say that. Are North Carolina or Florida or Ohio State or USC the best universities in the country because of the success of their athletic programs? Not necessarily. On the flip side, are Davidson students all punks because of the inappropriate actions of a few in post-game scuffle in downtown Charlotte? Definitely not.

However, all of these cases have been made implicitly. My friends and I definitely left ASU's Holmes Center on Monday with an air of invincibility and swagger, while most of our student peers in yellow were hanging their heads. Did either of us have anything to do with that game? No way. Curry's 38 points and App's offensive ineptitude was not a reflection of the relative merit of our collective fandom. Yet both groups seemed to accept it to be so.

This is a similar situation with these athletic powerhouses that rule the NCAA championships from sport to sport. Is that institution, and its fans by proxy, that much better than any other college or university? Not necessarily, it just has more athletic money which means better facilities, higher recruiting budgets and more perks for prospective athletes. If I decide to don a UNC sweatshirt one day and watch every game as they advance to another Final Four, am I an inherently better fan or person than I would have been if I would have kept my Davidson sweatshirt on? Of course not. But we've come to let our teams reflect us. Their wins and losses give or take away power from us in relation to one another. UNC's win over Davidson does not make my friend at Chapel Hill better than me, nor would it make me better than him had the Wildcats converted on a few easy layups and dunks. While you might think that my terms are preposterous and that no fans really accept them, I would advise you to look a little closer under the surface. We all love to compare ourselves with each other and athletic superiority, while taken lightly on the surface, forms more of the core of supporters' self-identities than we acknowledge.

Finally, I'd like to mention how irresponsible over-representation can be in terms of bad behavior. When Michael Vick was arrested for dog fighting, there were white people who, publicly or privately, made judgments in their head about what they considered to be the violent nature of all black people. Conversely, when outspoken groups like PETA blew the issue out of proportion, many black people pointed to America's white population and accused them of only being concerned about "dogs and yoga."

Last week, Davidson Dean of Students Tom Shandley wrote an email to the entire student body, asking them to represent Davidson in a positive manner at this weekend's Duke game. The email included a letter from a concerned alum saying that Davidson students were misrepresenting the college by being intoxicated and getting in a scuffle with several older UNC fans after the game. The alum's letter condemned the Davidson student body for being immature and accused "Davidson of exhibiting hostile behavior never before seen...not even from Duke." While I appreciate the fact that the involved Davidson students were in the wrong, and I also acknowledge the absurdity of this particular alumnus' fervor for tattle-telling (he tried to take a pic of the students on his camera phone), I am most concerned about the language used regarding representation. What does it mean that "Davidson exhibited hostile behavior.."? Since when did the University of Duke become such a haven of violence to which all other violence should be compared (the Davidson alum had children at UNC, hence the Duke reference as a yardstick for all things bad)? How can the actions of such a select few come to essentialize the nature of an entire institution?

I do not intend to come across as naive in this post. If you wear a shirt that says Davidson and you do something that is reprehensible, rightly or wrongly, the institution of Davidson and everyone involved in that institution gets held accountable. That is what people do most of the time. However, I hope that we can all be just a bit more careful with how we understand the difference between individual actions and critiques upon the wider groups that they associate themselves with.

Despite what group representations might infer, I am not overly obsessed with domesticated animals, I am not a violent person nor a drunk, I am not an inferior sports fan to someone from Chapel Hill nor am I better at basketball than the guy sitting behind me in Boone, NC. You should make a judgment about me based upon what I truly am, not just who I cheer for.

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