Perspective: D3 Sports Emphasizes Community

Yago Colás, Professor of English

What I really wanted was the t-shirt.

At least, that is what I told myself. After all, I’m not a football fan. I haven’t been to a game in person in over a decade, and I could count the number of games I’ve watched on TV in the same period on one hand. I don’t hate the sport. It’s just not my aesthetic cup of tea; I prefer more fluid sports. Then there’s the whole concussion thing — it’s hard to watch intelligent young men do something I’m persuaded is likely to cause long-term harm to their brains. I say this having spent 25 years teaching at the University of Michigan, where football games are quasi-religious events drawing over 100,000 supporters together under the bright blue skies of crisp, autumn Saturday afternoons. I’m not a football fan. So it must have been the t-shirt that led me to cut short breakfast with my wife and drew me out on a cold Saturday that threatened rain.

I’d first heard about the t-shirts at an Athletics staff meeting in mid-August, just a few days after Charlottesville. Clearly shaken by the events, Delta Lodge Director of Athletics Natalie Winkelfoos shared how her experience facing bigotry after coming out as gay shaped and deepened her conviction that hatred must be defeated with love.

“These are the values of this college,” she said. “They must be our values, and we must communicate those values to our students, to the campus, and to the community.”

Winklefoos brought that sentiment to the official tailgate before the football home opener, announcing that Athletics would give away t-shirts to the first hundred arrivals. They read “Love Will Always Win.” My inability to imagine Michigan’s Athletic Director giving that speech thrilled me. The new possibilities inspired me. I had to get the t-shirt.

Between that meeting and t-shirt day, I went through new faculty orientation, a last week to put the final touches on my courses and stumble around on Blackboard, and my first week of teaching as an English Professor at Oberlin College. I survived the over-stimulating cocktail of anxiety and exhilaration of my first day. I met dozens of eager young students. I assessed my every gesture and word, sprinkling flecks of begrudged praise into a swirl of harsh self-criticism. I survived the chaos of add/drop, the dizzying carousel of students passionately pleading for consent to enroll, only to vanish without a word like figments of my imagination.

That Saturday, I set out to get my t-shirt, nervous with anticipation and worried that if I didn’t arrive by the 11:30 start time for the tailgate event, I’d miss out on my t-shirt. Arriving at Knowlton, I milled around anxiously, looking for what I assumed would be the obviously signaled official tailgate. I wandered lost through a family grilling amidst foldable chairs. They weren’t giving out t-shirts. Outside the ticket office, I ran into the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications Mike Mancini. He would know. He didn’t know. He and his staff of exactly one were doing 30 different jobs that day. With a smile, he suggested I go check Knowlton Athletics Complex’s indoor social space. I saw Natalie with her young son, Griffin. They were blowing bubbles. We talked a bit. She wasn’t sure when the t-shirts would arrive. I talked with swimming and diving Head Coach Andy Brabson — a friend with whom I’ve been playing pick-up basketball, as a townie and faculty spouse, over the past six years. New College President Carmen Twillie Ambar arrived in a track suit, accompanied by her elderly father, who I learned had once been a football coach. She greeted those she knew and introduced herself to those she didn’t with equal warmth. They all seemed focused on things — work, family, friendship, community — possibly more important than making sure I got my t-shirt.

Buoyed by the stream of friendly conversation, I almost forgot the t-shirts. But then they appeared, piled in the arms of Senior Associate Athletic Director Creg Jantz. I rushed to get one for myself, my wife, and my friend Tim McCrory who was working and would miss out. I quickly peeled out of my sweater and pulled the t-shirt over my head. As promised, the word “LOVE” was printed across the chest in large capital letters — the “O” interlocked with a “C” to form the logo of Oberlin College Athletics — and below that, in smaller caps, “WILL ALWAYS WIN.” A wave of relief washed over me. I’d gotten what I had come for. Now I could leave.

But I didn’t leave. The players were pouring onto the field for final warm ups. Though I didn’t yet know most of their names or faces yet, let alone their numbers, 13 of my students were somewhere in that stream. I couldn’t leave them. I’ll wait for the start, I decided.

I think the rain began just after the opening kickoff. First a sprinkle, but that soon turned into a drizzle. By the time my student, senior English and Sociology major Khalil Rivers, broke off a 53-yard touchdown run just five minutes into the game, it was a downpour. Though my new t-shirt was soaked through, I couldn’t tear myself away. Those were my boys. If they were going to slog it out in the rain, they weren’t going to see their new professor duck for cover — though I eventually did go inside, but not until the downpour became torrential!

By the second half, the rain had trickled to a stop, the sun peeked through clouds, and we all slowly found our way back out into the bleachers. As the action unfolded on the field — now looking at my program I could see that there, just a few feet away, was my student Corey, there Khalid, there Zach — there were more conversations, more mingling. There was Natalie again, and there again the new President. There, leaning against the railing, were other students, some mine, some not, some varsity athletes, others not. Some stopped to say hello, and tell me they were enjoying my class. We talked about their interests, we talked about Steph Curry, we talked about the football team’s prospects, eyeing the scoreboard hopefully as they built a 24–0 lead going into the fourth quarter.

For six years, I commuted to Michigan, which meant that it was almost impossible for me to attend my students’ games. I’d have loved to do so. But even if I had, the experience would have been drastically different. At Michigan, the distance between the players and the spectators is measured in dozens of yards, and marked by security tape and uniformed guards. At Michigan, the average fan and an important fan like the president are separated by the plate glass windows of luxury suites and the income disparities these reflect. I make my living in part by skewering the myths purveyed by commercial sports about how they help foster community, even as they ignore the inequalities, injustices, and exclusions they often perpetuate. But not here. Here, I was struck by the diverse group of individuals mixing improbably in such close, informal proximity. Here, I felt all 431 people at the game were equally important. Here, my attention easily moving between enjoyable conversations and the action on the field, I felt myself part of this community. Maybe that was, without knowing it, what I really wanted, and the occasion of this DIII college football game had provided it. My drenched t-shirt and the experience came together. Here, maybe “LOVE WILL ALWAYS WIN.”