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PENNING: Athletic clothing could be about something other than sports

• Dec 14, 2017 at 2:30 PM

Years ago, when I was in my doctoral program at Michigan State University, another student shared her experience driving from her home in Canada to the campus in East Lansing. As she was crossing the U.S.-Canadian border, a border agent asked her what she was doing in the country. She said she was going to graduate school.

Then came the tough question: “Are you a Spartan or a Wolverine?” He intended to be conversational. She panicked. “I don’t know!” she blurted.

As I said, she was from Canada, and apparently the colleges and universities and high schools there do not have mascots or athletic teams. At least, our neighbors to the north do not seem to make such a big deal about college sports.

Such is not the case here. This is especially evident this month, as we move into college football bowl season, and basketball season is ramping up. These two popular sports get lots of attention in the media, and on our clothing. The mascots and logos of various colleges can yield lots of conversations and even arguments.

Recently, my wife and I were in the Grand Haven Starbucks. She was wearing a University of Michigan hat and I was wearing a Michigan State shirt. Another gentleman looked at us and smiled and said something to the effect that it was odd we were together and wearing the apparel of different universities.

Another time I was wearing a Spartan jacket and someone I don’t know at all started talking to me at length about the recent game. “What?” I asked him. He just looked at me. Then I looked down at myself and realized my Spartan gear was an invitation for him to commence sports talk.

I’m OK with that. I’m a sports fan. I’m not as rabid as I used to be. But I also wish more people would realize that I, and possibly others, wear the apparel of certain universities for something other than sports. Maybe, just maybe, they are or were a student there.

I mean, people realize that a university or college is a type of school, right? And schools teach classes, right? Maybe people wear school clothing because they are proud of their personal academic achievement, and not just because they are a sports fan.

In my case, I tend to confuse people by alternating the clothing of rival sports teams. I have a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University, a master’s degree from Western Michigan University and a Ph.D. from Michigan State. One of my nephews had open heart surgery at the University of Michigan Mott’s Children’s Hospital, and another nephew is currently a student at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Add to all of that the fact that I teach at Grand Valley State University. I have hats and shirts and sweatshirts from all of the above, and wear them often.

One time, a U-M fan chided me for wearing a Spartan item. They went on about comparative win-loss records, strength of schedule and so forth. I waited for him to stop. Then I pointed at my Spartan logo and said simply: “I got my Ph.D. here.” It was almost as if I blocked a last-second punt and ran it in for a touchdown to win the game against all odds. Or something like that.

This is why I like to see college apparel that does not just have the name of the university but some academic part of it. For example, you may see a university logo, but underneath it says “College of Engineering,” or “Business School,” or “School of Communication,” or even “Physics Department.” It’s a reminder that schools are, you know, about school. Sports is called “extracurricular” for a reason.

So, as we enter a season where you might hear “on Donner and Blitzen,” I say go Spartans, go Wolverines, go Chippewas, Broncos and Lakers. I may or may not be cheering on a team; it could be I’m encouraging students.

A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.

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