Wolverines, Trains and Fireworks: College Sport in America.

Wolverines, Trains and Fireworks: College Sport in America.

It’s a small world.

At the beginning of last year I sat next to a girl from the University of Michigan. For an obsessed college football fan like myself, it was like sitting next to someone who had seen Jesus’ miracles. This was Michigan – the winningest programme of all time; a perennial college football super power; a school in which the head coach of the football team gets paid $9 million annually, and is still probably under-paid for his worth.

This girl and I built up a friendship and when I discovered my application to study abroad at Purdue University had been accepted – an experience I highly recommend all readers try – she invited me to Michigan to watch a football game. With Michigan’s campus only a five hour drive north of Purdue, I couldn’t wait. Most people’s bucket lists include skydiving, going to Paris, or getting a tattoo; atop of mine was going to the ‘Big House:’ Michigan’s football stadium which seats – and remember this is a university we are talking about – 112,000 people. Students, locals and fans from across the state migrate to this mecca of amateur competition – that’s right, the athletes do not get paid – every Saturday afternoon for three, sometimes four, hours of American football.

Fast forward several months and there I am at Michigan’s campus reunited with someone I initially met nearly 9000 miles away. It is a small world. Before the game the next day, we went to the unveiling of the basketball teams uniforms. Of all people, DJ Khalid was hosting the event and I, along with a basketball arena full of enthusiastic, yellow and maize clad undergrads, watched him miss 15 three-pointers in a row (he stopped before his twelfth attempt to inform the crowd of a ‘major key:’ “never give up!”). The whole show was financed by Nike, as Michigan, like Purdue and most tier one sporting colleges in America, are sponsored by international clothing monoliths like Nike, ADIDAS, and Under Armor.

The next day, I saw all of it. Movies don’t exaggerate the stereotypes about frat houses at all – there were mansions overrun by hundreds of drunken students partying at ten in the morning, celebrating victory for a game that hadn’t been played yet. Barbeques – they call them tailgates – are going on everywhere. The neighbourhood, a slice of student heaven, is drenched in two colours: gold and maize; the latter, a dark blue, is especially prevalent as the university is handing out thousands of free shirts in the colour with “Respect is Earned” pressed in gold on the front.

Come game time, I am in the fifth row singing the Michigan fight song along with thousands of fans. Michigan’s stadium capacity is unique in that it is the largest in America, but not special in that seven other university stadiums sit over 100,000 people, a feat no professional team in the country can boast.

It is now we can collectively laugh at the relative ridiculousness of the University of Canterbury. Our ‘stadium,’ also known as Ilam Fields, is a public park. Students can buy approximately three different items of clothing at the UBS. Within ten minutes’ walk of my Purdue University dorm were seven – seven! – stores where I could buy Purdue apparel officially branded by Nike. T-shirts, shorts, beanies; anything wearable with enough surface area to accommodate Purdue’s giant ‘P’ logo could be bought. That’s just the Nike stuff. Fake Lego, soft toys, mugs, umbrellas, volleyballs – you can buy almost anything to show support for your academic institution.

Canterbury’s university gym isn’t much bigger than two classrooms. Compare that to Purdue’s gym, a five story cathedral to exercise with both recreational and Olympic swimming pools, an indoor running track, an ice hockey rink, a rock-climbing wall, eight basketball courts, and rooms the size of James-Hight’s first floor full of lifting equipment. Glass walls give students a view of campus while working out, while others rest in the changing rooms fitted with saunas and steam rooms.

College athletes didn’t use those facilities, they had their own high performance centre attached to the stadium. Riding full-scholarships, the football and basketball players get nurtured by professionals educated in the most recent exercise science, and receive the necessary tutoring to keep them academically eligible for competition. They are commodities the university can afford. Through TV contracts and ticket sales, university athletic departments make millions of dollars: In 2015, Purdue athletics brought in $76 million in revenue; Michigan collected $152 million; while Texas A&M was the most lucrative, scoring $193 million. Michigan gathers so much money that this American spring they are flying the whole football team to Rome for practice – for practice!

The money was clearly visible during my game-day experience. Flying down from a helicopter was a para-trooper with the game ball; both before the game and at half-time, the Michigan marching band, a unit 400 people strong dressed to the ultimate in grandeur, played the national anthem and other memorable tunes while prancing up and down the field in a tightly choreographed demonstration of Americanism. Cheerleaders doing flips encouraged the already raucous crowd; a hype video celebrating Michigan exceptionalism played on the big screen and was concluded by a fireworks display. For the next four hours I would ritualistically participate in several dances and sing a number of songs that per tradition students at Michigan had been doing for decades. Saying it was fun doesn’t do justice to the experience I had – it was euphoric. In a slugfest, the Michigan Wolverines beat the Wisconsin Badgers 14-7.

I didn’t study at Michigan. Purdue’s football team was in the same league as Michigan’s but is perennially at the bottom of it. Approximately ‘only’ 60,000 people can fill Purdue’s home stadium. Every game day begins being woken up by the university mascot, a train called the Boilermaker Special, as it rides around campus blowing its obnoxious horn. There are still cheerleaders, fireworks, and the marching band is second to none. Even for a second tier experience, it is incomparable to university sport in New Zealand. Imagine a good high-school rugby game, except instead of only 200 students yelling abuse, chanting, and doing a haka at half-time, there were over 100,000 of them – that’s American college sport.

Canterbury, and all New Zealand universities, should build a sporting culture around their institutions and the competition between them. At Michigan you yell “Go Blue!” to show support for not only the football team, but the university as a whole. At Purdue it’s “Boiler Up!” There is pride. A collective celebration by all students of the culture they inhabit. It honours all those before and all those who will come after. A swagger legitimised by results.

Canterbury has no fighting words. Just silence.

Wolverines, Trains and Fireworks: College Sport in America. 1