The Psychological Meaning of College Football


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    1-24

ABSTRACT:  College football has grown into a behemoth money-maker, even though it might seem to be out of place in an institution of learning.  The fundamental reasons are the primacy of the physical for human beings, our needs for security and self-esteem, and the human capacity to live though others

College football has grown into a major factor in university funding and in alumni loyalty, and while we can understand college students playing pick-up games in backyards and even competitions between teams representing various universities (given the tendency of people to want to compare themselves to and to best others), that a university’s football team should be the primary point of public information and interest about the university, rather than its educational courses, is still peculiar, given the university’s primary mission of education.

There are a number of factors involved in understanding this peculiarity.  The most fundamental is to be seen in human development, where the physical is certainly predominant over the cognitive.  Although considerable brain activity is involved in humans reaching higher levels of functioning and cultural development as a species, humans can survive and even thrive using their bodies and only a small fraction of their cognitive capacities.  Our first senses of self are physical and not through our minds.  Development takes place mainly physically up until the person is ready to reproduce.  Cognitive development is slow and continues even beyond reproductive age, and people can survive and reproduce adequately using only their bodies and simple conditioning responses, even though cognitive development adds a myriad of options for further refinement of living and for cultural transmission of knowledge and skills.  It is not surprising that most people identify themselves as their bodies these days rather than their souls (even if they see souls as relevant to their ultimate place in the universe).  We are completely unable to imagine life after death as purely spiritual but insist that somehow we will have our bodies even then.

The second factor is that every action and every direction that we take as individuals involve assessing how it can be consistent with and aid our sense of security, the value that others place on us, and our sense of self-esteem (how we value ourselves).  When we take a job, the exchange of work for pay which will support our physical survival is assumed (every job provides this), but we obsess over how a job will make us look to others and to ourselves and how our functioning in the job and what we produce will affect our value and our valuing of ourselves.  We seek to gain value because our team has won, even though there is no rationale for this aside from simple association.  

It is so much easier to perceive and assess the physical actions we take and the physical products of our actions (build a house, repair a TV) than it is our cognitive actions and their products (a plan, a thought, a feeling?).  The worker whose work is mainly physical that produces something visible goes home each evening knowing what he has done, while the white-collar worker is none too sure what he/she has done or of its value.

Another attraction of football is the aggression involved.  Being aggressive (both physically and cognitively) in the pursuit of our goals feels good and yet our own aggression is so greatly enjoined and contained by our social rules (to prevent violence), we seldom get a chance to really express that aggression (which is why chopping wood can be a release in a way that hitting someone else cannot).  In football we can be more aggressive than we usually can be, while still being ultimately constrained by the rules and referees.

Given the difficulties of laying to rest our fears and given our difficulties in feeling secure in our value (which we have to deal with every day of our lives), the game of football offers us clarity and hope.  There is a score that says who is worth what, and we can always improve our team and win next year.  How could we make these comparisons with other universities with regard to the knowledge we gain from our education?  This would be horribly complex and ambiguous, whereas football (or any game) gives us measures to compare.  Football is fundamentally physical, while knowledge is largely cognitive.  To the extent that an alum identifies with the university and wants to feel value from that identification, the exploits of its football team provide an irresistible opportunity to feel good.  The College Bowls on TV offer a cognitive competition with a score, but they don’t hold a candle in popularity to football.

To gain value from our team’s winning, the team must represent us as well as the educational institution, but it is hard to see rationally how this is the case, since most team members are not even residents of the institution’s state before being recruited for the team, and players have opportunities every year to transfer to another school and “represent” them!

We do not play the game of football ourselves, of course, so how can we benefit so much from watching others do it (who supposedly represent our institution and therefore ourselves)?–because of our human capacity to identify with other human beings and to live through their abilities and accomplishments.  We cheer on the team in hopes that it will bring us value and security.  We imagine ourselves in the role of player, powerfully throwing obstacles aside and showing our superior skills for the admiration of others.  The winner of the cross-town rivalry is unquestionably or more value than the loser, for a clear time period (from now to the time of the next game).

The money from TV has built the college game up to a pinnacle of success, and the play of the better teams can now be enjoyed for its teamwork, planfulness, and strategy, but the basic benefit is from using our superior strength to force the ball down the throat of the other team or executing the coordination of a perfect forward pass.  If we win, we are better than they are, and that makes me of superior value!  Soccer emphasizes better running, endurance, and footwork, but it will never replace the bloodthirstiness of football.  One can make the argument that the Romans benefited similarly from watching fights to the death in their arenas.

How we value education versus physical dominance shows clearly in the prominence of physical game outcomes in our valuing of our time in university, and our needs for support for our own feelings of value shows clearly in the importance that we give those game outcomes.  As a species we are almost certainly never going to lose these elements of being human, but the university does not have to degrade its educational mission by prostituting itself to the entertainment industry.  Teams, amateur or professional, that represented our cities or states would serve these psychological needs just as well as university teams.  Universities could preserve their dignity and enhance their cognitive influence by offloading their football teams and probably their basketball teams as well.

In addition, people would benefit more from participating themselves in some competitive physical activity, which both feels good and helps us to feel good about ourselves.  We are a nation of watchers instead of a nation of participators.  People of all ages would be better off being more active, and volleyball, badminton, and others can serve these needs much better than watching others play football.


Ed. competitions