at The Big House
College sports as a spiritual institution
As with soccer around the globe, a much more localized phenomenon is found with college sports in the United States. Michigan Stadium, aptly nicknamed The Big House, is home to the University of Michigan Wolverines, and also to more than 100,000 fans who pack the stadium during chilly autumn weekends. It’s the largest stadium in the United States, and the third largest in the world, but the location is an unexpected one. So how did Ann Arbor, Michigan become the site of such an iconic stadium?
Small, sleepy university towns have become epicentres of spiritual passion, with millions of fans turning out and tuning in for games every weekend. For users of Snapchat, one look at your weekend Stories and the passion is evident — the pregame rituals, the fight songs, the highs of victory and the depths of defeat. This is the world of American college sports. Across the United States, massive colosseums devoted solely to a college’s sports teams dot the suburban landscape. Fervid followers of college football, as well as basketball and other sports, take in games as if they were a life-and-death matter, with passion on-par to that of a religion.
For residents of Ann Arbor, Eugene, Tuscaloosa, or any college town, football serves an existential purpose. The small town similarities can be seen with the supporters of homegrown English football clubs, such as West Bromwich Albion. In these sort of municipalities there is not much to do or look forward to other than football, and so life for many citizens revolves around the sport. Football is to these people what Church is for devout Christians — it is a way to enter a world where what happens on the field means everything. On gameday, generations of students and alumni make the pilgramage to their own “Big House” to partake in a truly spiritual event — a collective effervescence in the air causes every moment to be experienced as a whole.
However, the spirituality created here is simply a machination of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA for short. Essentially, the NCAA can be seen as a faith institution like the Catholic Church, profiting off of undying devotion by legions of believers. Think of it as a form of capitalist spirituality, as coined by Carrette and King. It is interesting to note that the most influential college football programs are located in small town America. Football at these schools have a long history of winning, and the NCAA has transformed these suburban posts into hubs of spiritual consumerism. Legacies of gridiron worship have been turned into exorbitant amounts of capital for the association — the brand of Michigan Football is valued in excess of $700 million, with many more schools in the +$100 million range.
Faith in football has always been a part of college ethos, with new attendees instantly becoming indoctrinated the moment they set foot on campus. If you go to Michigan, but happen to not consume Michigan athletics, then you are seen as an outlier — an atheist in Wolverine world. Conversion into this post-secondary religion is almost natural for any underclassman, but what is being ignored is that this mass consumption has led to the growth of a modern spiritual institution. The religion manufactured by the NCAA fulfills social and existential needs, and for college students seeking an identity or a community, the easiest place to find it is also the largest — at The Big House.