I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and graduated from the University there in 1987 and so many of my friends on Facebook have strong ties to the place and the school. Understandably, then, my feed over the past week has been dominated by pro-Badger statuses, images, and story links, which culminated last night in a euphoric, celebratory extravaganza. I was, in this particular group, the odd one out in rooting for a Kentucky victory, even though I have no ties whatsoever to that state or school; even though in most cases I’d probably find reasons to root against Kentucky. When I expressed this, in a kind of lazy way, some of my friends took issue with my position. So I’m feeling the need to clarify it, maybe most of all to myself. First thing, my fandom is irrational.
I am not loyal. I do not bleed the colors of any academic institution, state or nation. My fandom is driven by a complex and inconsistent array of subjective micro-inclinations and micro-aversions, past and present, that swirl together in the moment of a game and cause me to tilt in favor of one team or another. Some of these micro-inclinations and aversions I am aware of in advance, some I become aware of as they arise and some only reveal themselves upon reflection. Some I can articulate clearly, so I cannot. His hair irritates me because it reminds me of the hair of some kid who gave me the stink eye on the way home from school when I was six. You never dunk.His jumper is ugly. I don’t like your colors. You never attack the basket. I do like your colors, but your uniform design ruins them. I don’t like upsets. I like sustained, dominant excellence. You are too disciplined. I like iconoclasts. A story I read about you charmed me. I story I read about you irritated me. You just benefited from a shitty call. You’re in the lead. You’re behind. You seem tense. I could go on and on but you probably get the idea. Not only am I not loyal to any team, coach, university, state or nation, I’m not loyal to a particular style of basketball or set of basketball elements. I’m not even loyal to my own conscious preferences.
I was in the Wisconsin field house on March 3, 1979 when Wes Matthews, my very favorite player, hit a half-court buzzer beater in the final game of the season to beat Michigan State and my other favorite player, Magic Johnson, ending State’s 10 game win streak just before they’d put together six more to win the national title. We rushed the floor and some player cut down the nets. It was like our own national championship at a time when it seemed 1941 would be the last forever. Later that summer, Wisconsin assistant coach Bo Ryan told me, as he handed me a trophy for something or other during the Badger boys’ basketball camp, “we’re gonna keep our eye on you.” Maybe they did. But I never heard from Bo again. In college, I’d play noon pickup games in the Field House, sometimes against some of the current Badger players that Bo Ryan did keep his eye on. I held my own. My late father was a huge Badger basketball fan from the mid 70s on. Last year, as I watched Kentucky beat Wisconsin in the semi-final on a last second shot, my father lay dying in a hospice bed in a nearby nursing home, with just a few days left of his life. He had no idea about the result of that game, but I’m sure he’d be happy that Wisconsin avenged that defeat last night. So my personal, emotional relationship to Wisconsin basketball is complicated.
On the other hand, I’m also a college professor who has spent a great deal of time and energy studying the history of basketball and, especially, the stories or myths that have circulated about the game pretty much from the time of its invention. These stories originated as ways of arguing for the moral and social virtues of the new sport to a public that still needed convincing. And so they stressed that basketball was designed so as to cultivate hard work, unselfishness, humility, intelligence, and leadership. Leaving aside the question of whether or not and under what conditions participating in sport can durably shape an individual’s character and contribute positively to social good, it is demonstrably the case that over time the myths of basketball culture evolved into normative truisms that sought to preserve a version of the game against the tide of tactical, technical and stylistic changes being brought to it by an ever-more diverse population of players, especially African-American players. In each successive period of basketball history these stories would hype particular players, coaches or teams as embodiments of what basketball should—tactically, technically, stylistically and morally—be and, conversely, they denigrated other players, coaches or teams as examples of what it should not be allowed to become. These myths fed off and fed already existing prejudicial stereotypes about Black men so that their impact, given the growing popularity of the sport in the landscape of American popular culture, was broader and deeper than narrow tactical debates about the relative effectiveness of different approaches to the game on the floor.
These narratives are really important to me and not just because I study them. In fact, it’s the other way around, I study them and try to teach students how to identify and critique them because issues of social justice are important to me, because I believe that these issues are shaped by the beliefs we hold, consciously or not, and because I believe the beliefs we hold are shaped by the stories we tell and repeat. So what does all this have to do with Wisconsin vs. Kentucky? From my vantage point as a student of these narratives, the coverage preceding and the discussion during the Wisconsin vs. Kentucky match up was very familiar. It employed a rhetoric, assigned to the two teams and their coaches, that was similar to what was employed in the early 1990s to talk about Duke vs. UNLV or Duke vs. Michigan. It was similar, moreover, to what was employed in the NBA in the late 70s to talk about Portland vs. Philadelphia or in the early 70s to talk about New York vs. Los Angeles. In all these cases, one team is cast as embodying a right way to play, its players described as hard working, humble, self-sacrificing, unselfish, and intelligent and another team as athletic, naturally talented, undisciplined, and uncohesive. In addition, in all the college cases I mentioned including the Wisconsin Kentucky matchup, one team is characterized as a better embodiment of the ideals of amateur, inter-collegiate athletics while the other teams is demonized as a quasi-professional outfit masquerading as a college team, with no respect for the values of amateurism or higher education.
So the first question, we ought to ask is whether these characterizations are true, from the available evidence. I hope it goes without saying that nobody on either team was born a basketball player or is naturally talented. Everyone on both teams worked their asses off to get to where they are. In terms of intelligence, I imagine it’s distributed among the players on the two teams pretty much in ways we’d also find among any randomly selected group of adolescent athletes. As far as I can judge from observing them, both teams’ players were unselfish, self-sacrificing and team-oriented. Players on both teams tried hard all season long and in last night’s game. As for embodying college values (and setting aside broader arguments about the current structure of intercollegiate athletics in general—suffice it to say that neither Kentucky nor Calipari has a lock on what’s wrong with college sport), it’s not clear how that might be measured. Wisconsin certainly had more upperclassmen in their rotation, which some people take to mean that their players really love being college students and representing their university. Maybe. Or maybe they don’t have other options. Apart from Frank Kaminsky, who clearly could have gone pro last year and chose to stay in school, I don’t know of any Wisconsin players who could have gone pro last year. On the other hand, several Kentucky players were viable pro prospects last year but chose to stay in school. Another way to think about college values is in terms of academic success. Well, by every current measure (Federal Graduation Rate, the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate and Academic Progress Rate), Wisconsin’s men’s basketball program falls short of Kentucky’s. All of this seems pretty obvious to me. And, even if it’s not, it’s certainly easy to discover facts that debunk the prevailing stories.
We might wonder why stories that are easily falsifiable are not only compelling to people, but happily passed along by so many people? It’s a good and worthwhile question and I have some speculative ideas about the answers, but I’m gonna leave that aside for the sake of length. But I do want to point out that when we take into account the racial composition of the two teams involved (Kentucky predominantly Black, Wisconsin predominantly white) the inaccuracies of these characterizations begin to be more than just harmless exaggerations: they become ways of reinforcing harmful racial stereotypes.
That’s why when I declared myself to be rooting for Kentucky, I was declaring myself against the mythical narratives that had attached themselves around this Wisconsin team, and against the social (especially racial) implications of those narratives. I was declaring myself for all those who have been marginalized and disempowered by such stories. Of course, rooting for a team over another probably isn’t the most effective way to combat prejudicial sports myths. After all, the Wisconsin players didn’t choose to be the latest characters in these stories. I teach college basketball players at Michigan and I imagine the Wisconsin players to be not too different from my own students, and not too different from the Kentucky players: human beings who have dedicated a great deal of time and energy into honing their craft. And just for that reason they are worthy of respect, regardless of one’s particular allegiances, regardless of the story lines that the media grafts onto them. But for me that’s all the more reason to assertively reject these narratives, not only because of their racial implications, which is reason enough in my opinion, but also because they diminish the full humanity of all the athletes, and of those of us who enjoy their play. So by all means root for the players and teams you like. But can we try to beware at least of not perpetuating false and harmful stories to pseudo-rationalize those preferences?