The Adults in the Room

If you’re a fan of college basketball, you probably weren’t expecting a fight night when you tuned into the Michigan/Wisconsin game on Sunday. But although it’s not yet March, it looks like the madness has already begun.

The game ended like all college basketball games typically do: after Wisconsin defeated Michigan 77-63, both teams lined up to shake hands before heading to the locker rooms. But when Michigan head coach, Juwan Howard, and Wisconsin head coach, Greg Gard reached each other, things got tense. Gard appeared to grab Howard, and Howard retaliated, resulting in a brawl on the court in which Wisconsin assistant coach, John Krabbenhoff was eventually struck in the head. The Big Ten Conference has since suspended Howard for the remainder of the regular season and fined him $40,000, while fining Gard $10,000. It is a black eye for both programs in more ways than one.

Naturally, there has been a flurry of media coverage around the fight, and I think it’s important to not overlook the role the athletes played here. When Howard and Gard began to get heated, athletes from both teams took active steps to break up the fight, including some putting themselves in harm’s way to physically separate their coaches. Which leads to what is quite possibly my number one pet peeve within the the college sports industry: the proclivity of broadcasters, fans, and coaches, to casually call college athletes “kids.”

Language use like this is such a big deal that it’s a huge topic of interest in my dissertation in progress, which discusses how paternalistic language functions to control, infantilize, and ultimately harm college athletes. In an academic sense, paternalism refers to practices in which authority figures infantilize subordinates by controlling their conduct under the guise of protecting them. In a non-academic sense, paternalism looks like enforcing punitive team rules, like monitoring and censoring social media use or banning romantic relationships to keep athletes out of trouble and focused on their sport. Calling college students “kids,” similarly implies that they need such restrictions in place for their own benefit.

Language, even casually used, is often rooted in ideology, and thus has the power to shape mass belief. Kids are not responsible. They need to be controlled and protected for their own good. So conceptualizing college athletes as children obligates them to all kinds of restrictions and guardrails, some of which are codified in state-level NIL laws which monitor and prohibit certain economic activities, while others are found in team policies that track athletes to make sure they attend class or make them stay in hotels for home football games to keep them all in one place and in bed on time.

Isn’t it ironic that coaches can literally throw punches and never once be called “kids” for it, while the athletes who break up these brawls are infantilized through both language and policy initiatives simply for being college students? On Sunday night, Howard and Gard showed us who the true adults of the college sports industry are–and it wasn’t them.

Katie (M.K.) Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin where she studies NCAA discourse and policy. She is also a freelance sportswriter and creative writer on the side. She is the author of a new book ‘Surviving the Second Tier’ available on AMAZONTwitter and Instagram@leverfever.

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