I was in jail.
Michigan State University police station, actually, waiting for a transfer to Ingham County Jail. I had let a fix-it ticket for my Honda’s busted exhaust turn into an actual ticket while saving up for a new exhaust, and then the old exhaust fell off completely while driving downtown which drew the attention of the local constabulary and it turns out I had a warrant from the unpaid ticket and . . . yeah.
This was in the Hazy Period of my life. I was as done as I was going to get with college but hadn’t yet bothered to spin the numbered wheel of The Game of LIFE or add people-pegs to my little plastic car. I was taking stock of that decision, or lack thereof, when a fresh-faced lad sporting a blue cardigan and khakis was seated next to me.
I asked him what he was in for. “Rioting,” he said.
I asked him what in the hell he’d been rioting for.
“I . . . I don’t know,” he said. “I’m from Connecticut. I thought . . . that’s just what we do here.”
* * *
Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the student sections at Michigan State. The Izzone is bigger than ever, packing the lower (and part of the upper) bowl, but instead of making the Breslin an impenetrable fortress of intimidation the Izzone picks their spots. They make noise, sure, but they save themselves for big games and big situations.
The southeast corner of Spartan Stadium doesn’t fill up anymore, despite MSU not losing at home since October 2009. Think about that: this fall’s class of Michigan State juniors have never witnessed Michigan State lose at football, yet AD Mark Hollis is openly considering shrinking the student section.
The students are passing up no opportunity to add salty words to their chants, because ha ha why not? FIRST DOWN, BITCH! That’s clever and funny! As Jim mentioned earlier, they also have no problem wheeling out the “Little Sister” chant to against Michigan, because apparently being a girl is worse than being a boy. Besides, we can’t be each other’s little siblings. If students are going to be sexist idiots, they should at least make sense and call Michigan “Big Sister.”
What’s wrong with kids these days?
Part of it, as Hollis said, is cultural. His twelve-year-old doesn’t ever “sit down for two hours and do anything.” But if college kids can’t pay attention to their football or basketball team establishing itself at the top end of national awesomeness, then we might as well give up on humanity now because nobody will ever pay attention to anything ever again.
Part of it is a trend across all sports: going to a game used to be the ultimate populist spectacle. Entering Spartan Stadium meant joining a seething mass of humanity, the lower bowl a cauldron filled by the bloodthirsty hoi polloi. Now, sporting events are more like joining a fancy club with steep dues. The kind of people who go to games are the kind of people who can afford to drop hundreds, or thousands, on tickets and concessions and apparel—and frankly, those people are less likely to stand up and holler from kickoff to gun.
Those are also the kind of people who can afford to send their kid to Michigan State. Tuition keeps going up, and every year the percentage of (highly profitable) out-of-state and international students grows. More and more kids from Connecticut are showing up expecting nonstop multi-sport Spartan domination . . . and nobody screams their lungs out with joy when they get what they expect.
I don’t mean to suggest that students who aren’t from Michigan can’t be Real Spartans. In my experience, how green your blood is depends entirely on how green your heart is—what Michigan State means to you personally.
But of my Spartan friends, many are legacies; their parents moved from wherever to the Lansing area and stayed here. Coming to Michigan State meant establishing themselves as independent adults—and the potential to reach a standard of living much higher than they were raised in. In turn, they taught us to be Spartans and hate Michigan and all that good stuff. When my eldest child started school, I found to my delight kids still display partisanship by chanting, “Michigan, State! Michigan, State!” and jabbing a thumb down (or up), then up (or down) in time with the words, just as I did when I was a kid.
For me, the success of Michigan State athletics, and the rivalry between the two schools, was expressed constantly around me in the home and at school and at church . . . it absorbed the entire community. Nick Saban’s last season here, the amazing 9-2 Citrus Bowl year, seemed as close to glory as Michigan State was ever going to get. Crowds packed Spartan Stadium to the brim, and the team started calling their home “The Woodshed” because they almost never lost there.
Now they actually never lose there.
When I see current MSU students from parts unknown on Twitter with “Proud future Chicagoan” in their bio, it makes me wonder. Coming from money elsewhere, heading for money elsewhere, stopping here to party in between . . . how much can Spartan triumph possibly mean? Who cares about taking pride or being classy when they can just show up drunk and have fun and leave halfway through to go drink? Or, hey better yet, just leave the paid-for ticket in their pocket and keep playing another few hours of flip cup?
For this generation of Spartan students, going to a top bowl game or beating Michigan or going to a Final Four isn’t a jumping-up-and-down screaming, fandom-defining moment, it’s just what we do here.
* * *
The final part of it rests squarely on the shoulders of the power brokers in college sports. Mark Hollis, Jim Delany, and the NCAA as a whole, I’m looking at you. How can students think football games are special when they don’t mean anything? How can you expect thousands of college kids to show up and scream their brains out as Michigan State puts it in cruise control against FAU or Chicago State for the umpteenth time?
When I rant and rave about “diluting the product,” this is what I mean. College athletics has stretched itself to the breaking point. Universities and conferences are desperately trying to board the TV money train while their arm is shackled to the boring old concrete pylon that is a century of amateur college athletic tradition. That money train is pulling away, and either they need to let it roll away, or break out of their college handcuffs once and for all.