The state of school spirit


The sound of 103,000 screaming fans exploded around me and out of Beaver Stadium into the small town of State College, Pennsylvania. Penn State sophomore Kevin Haplea had scored a final touchdown for the Nittany Lions to secure their victory, and all around me, people were celebrating.

I returned from that trip with my intrinsically American passion for football awakened. A few weeks later, I found myself at U of T’s last football game of the season. There were 1,098 other fans in the stands with me; only 153 of those were students. On the field, you could hear a single fan if they chose to yell really loudly, but mostly they didn’t.

The contrast is almost surreal. Turnout for university athletics events is one measure of school spirit; while I may be biased by the cinematic enthusiasm I am used to seeing south of the border,  U of T’s spirit seems sorely lacking.

Laurel Reid, a class of ‘81 alumna, points out that U of T has not always been so spirit-deficient. “We used to go to football games every Saturday,” she remembers. “The stands would be full of students, and everybody would go. It was a lot of fun, a lot of shenanigans. It would be like one big party.”

The only shenanigans today typically come from the Lady Godiva Memorial Band. While their attendance record and enthusiasm might make them a model for school spirit, chants like, “There’s three kinds of turds: mustard, custard, and you you piece of…” don’t seem to be the kind of spirit I’m looking for.

What is this school spirit that I’m looking for? If it is, as the motto of an Alberta elementary school states, “what makes school an interesting place to be” — simply a reflection of the character of the students — then the lack of support for the Varsity Blues teams does not mean that U of T has no spirit.

We have our own ways of channeling our school pride at U of T. UTSU’s Winter Week of Welcome has just finished up, and U of T is home to hundreds of organizations that give students an outlet through which they can express their character and U of T pride.

“How do we reach out to the university community and get them to come together for this common athletic cause which is … kind of a thread through a collegiate life?” asks Mary Beth Challoner, manager, events and marketing for the Varsity Blues teams. Challoner believes the answer lies in the new slogan the Blues have adopted: “Bleed Blue.”

“We wanted the community to know that … it’s not just student-athletes who are the Varsity Blues,” says Challoner. “When you come to U of T, you are a Varsity Blue. And we all ‘Bleed Blue.’”

But the campaign, which began at the beginning of the school year, has yet to produce substantial results, and Varsity teams remain scarcely supported by the student body. I’m left wishing that our football games were more like those in the US.

“I don’t think you can compare the football here to football in the US,” says Teo Salgado, manager of regional programs at U of T. “[Those players] are being groomed to play in the NFL.”

The hype and atmosphere around sports in the USA is dramatically different from that in Canada. But it’s not only a love of the game that drives over a 100,000 students, locals, and alumni to every single game at a university like Penn State. Spectators come to show their support for a team that represents their collective spirit against that of

their opponents.

A lack of support isn’t a distinctly Canadian problem. The Maple Leafs have the highest TV viewership in the NHL and, according to Forbes, the second best fans in the league. Last year’s deplorable Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver prove that Canucks (and not just the NHL team-variety) can get as worked up about sports as anybody else.

Dedicated fandom isn’t restricted to professional sports teams either. At the university level, Queen’s University — just over one-quarter the size of U of T — averages approximately three times the turnout that the Varsity Blues do. “If you go to a Queen’s game, almost the entire school is there,” notes alumna Reid.

Perhaps school spirit really is only “inflamed by sporting events … where the outcome has little bearing on the relative worth of an institution.” Ultimately, why should anyone care about the state of school spirit?

Maybe for the money. According to Forbes,  the Texas Longhorns football program was valued at over $100 million in 2011. To put that number into context, two years of football ticket sales at the University of Texas would have more than paid for the construction of our roughly $60 million Varsity Stadium.

And while U of T may never have enough interest in sporting events that a single team could fund the entire university athletics program, as Penn State’s football program does, not all of the benefits are financial.

The quality of a university’s faculty and student body are also helped by strong school spirit, according to a research paper by Xian Yuhao and Liang Jie of Southwest Jiaotong University.

“When you walk off this campus, why should you continue to care about your university?” asks Barbara Dick, assistant vice-president of alumni relations. “Obviously you care about your university’s reputation … so that the value of your degree will show true.”

Dick points to the large number of alumni who donate time and money to the university once they graduate. “You’re not going to [volunteer and donate] as a graduate if you don’t feel that [sense of spirit].”

There are numerous reasons to want more school spirit. If Xian and Liang are correct, the value of our degrees will increase. What’s more, the profitability of the university could increase, and sports games could be filled with fun and shenanigans. A strong school spirit could also build a greater sense of affiliation with a large community of alumni on whom we can depend to share our sense of pride.

Students are responsible for school spirit; we create the spirit of our university. The Varsity Blues marketing department can continue to campaign to get students screaming in the stands. It will all be to no avail, however, if students choose not to participate. If 10,000 of us showed up to support the Blues at their home games, we could really give Queen’s a run for their money.

Attendance at Varsity Blues games is only one way to show pride in being a student at U of T, but it’s an important one. “Sports can play a very important role in creating a shared sense of identity, which I don’t think we necessarily have when we are part of a college or a faculty,” suggests Salgado.

“I think that if students seek opportunities to belong to something that is university-wide … they can start to get a sense of belonging to something bigger.”

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