Last week, Matthew Spalding, professor of Statesmanship and Public Policy, began class at the Kirby Center as he usually did by asking the students if anything important had happened that day. One student mentioned an incident with former Vice President Joe Biden. Another brought up some recent Capitol Hill drama.
Spalding, who also serves as vice president of Hilldale’s Washington D.C. operations and dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government, nodded politely and waited for the class to quiet again. Thinking we had covered everything important there was to cover in D.C., the class turned to him for comment.
Instead, he asked a question: “And as far as we know, Strasburg is pitching tonight, right?”
He was. And that night, Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals won the sixth game of the World Series against the Houston Astros. A day later, they were crowned World Series Champions.
A bona-fide historic run of improbability, with 7th-inning heroics and Baby Shark chants, the Nationals’ journey from a middling 19 – 31 club to the best team in baseball had made them the District’s darling, delivering the first MLB title to the nation’s capital since 1924.
In a town as divisive as Washington, the way October baseball united people was truly remarkable. By day, Left and Right yelled at each other about impeachment, Syria, and the like. By night, they were high-fiving with a hearty “Go Nats!”
On the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program this semester, I got a front-row seat to watch the power of sports play out in a political town — as well as an occasional back-row seat to watch inside the stadium.
Most sports fans are familiar with this power. It’s fairly cut and dry on a certain level. We like to win, we hate to lose, and we love to be great. Cheering on the home team fuels our competitive drive and gives us a black-and-white recess from an extraordinarily gray world. It’s also plain fun.
But sports do something more.
There is a metaphysic to athletic competition which is a bit tricky to put into words — only an athlete or life-long fanatic could probably get close. Three simple ideas come to mind: unity, loyalty, and courage.
In United States history, there have never been more people gathered together, united in purpose, than the roughly 5 million people who attended the Chicago Cubs’ parade in 2016, after winning their first World Series in 108 years. An average Philadelphia Eagles fan could probably rattle off the team’s entire wide-receiver corps before he could name his district representative in Congress. You wouldn’t be surprised to find yourself hugging the stranger next to you after your team hits a last-second three pointer to win the NBA Finals. But you’d be a little embarrassed if you were doing that after the 6 o’clock news.
It’s sad to say, but this semester in Washington, D.C. is the first time I’ve felt the fervor of being with and among an electric fanbase.
There is certainly not fervor for Hillsdale’s college athletics.
There’s one obvious answer for that. The Nationals are a professional team, and they did just win the biggest trophy in baseball. But I think there are a few more subtle reasons why Hillsdale athletics don’t enjoy wild popularity on campus.
Heavy class loads make it hard for most students to attend home games regularly, and even those that do have time choose to spend it in other ways. Students already loyal to a Division I team are generally less enthusiastic about Division II sports. Most Michigan fans on campus would rather see Harbaugh hoist the College Football Playoff trophy than they would the Chargers make a deep playoff run.
None of this is outrageous or even unreasonable. We spend time on what we care about, and at a school of Hillsdale’s caliber, that generally means long hours in the library, practice sessions in Howard, or lectures, debates, and round-tables in Phillips. Throw in club meetings, volunteer commitments, and dorm or Greek events, and you’ll begin to see how showing up to a Thursday night Chargers basketball game can get pretty tough, pretty quickly.
Hillsdale isn’t competing for world titles, and the energy I felt at the Nationals’ World Series parade, which nearly one million fans attended, isn’t likely to happen at a school with an enrollment of about 1500.
Strength in numbers is an axiom which holds true even in the sports world. At a small, liberal-arts college, where students generally prioritize their classes over their home team, much of the team-spirit problem is natural and unavoidable.
This doesn’t mean that the problem can’t be solved.
Though few in number, we can be great in spirit. Cities like Washington, and teams like the Nationals, do not and must not have a monopoly on the power of community built through sports.
Imagine if each of us embraced at least one Charger team, following its season and getting to know its players. How much more love for our school, for our classmates, and for this season of life would we have? We shouldn’t forget that there is more to the liberal-arts education than books. A strong team spirit energizes campus life, strengthens community, and creates opportunities for relationships to thrive.
After watching, embracing, and celebrating a historic Washington, D.C. ball club, and after feeling an infinitely closer connection to the city and its people as a result, I can confidently say that the choice to become a Hillsdale College fan will make me a better Hillsdale College student.
I do think the two are distinct, student and fan, and it seems to me that many of us are proud to be the one but have neglected to be the other. Let’s not make that mistake any longer.
For whichever collegiate sport you love, make the Hillsdale Chargers your team. You have the rest of your life to don whatever colors you’d like, so choose blue and white while you can.
Austin Mock is a junior studying international studies.