Posted: Thursday November 29, 2012 2:43PM ; Updated: Thursday November 29, 2012 2:43PM
Frank Deford
Frank Deford>VIEWPOINT

What's the relationship between conservatism and college sports?

Story Highlights

College sports have been said to be an accurate marker for conservative people

The liberal northeast, by contrast, cares far more about its professional teams

Could this relation have to do with the fact that red states have fewer pro teams?

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The Thunder has started to steal some of the local enthusiasm from the Sooners.
The Thunder has started to steal some of the local enthusiasm from the Sooners.
Greg Nelson/SI

This column is also award-winning writer Frank Deford's weekly sports commentary on NPR.

What do anti-abortion beliefs and patronizing the poultry franchise Chick-fil-A and a devotion to college sports have in common?

Well, according to Trey Grayson, the former Kentucky secretary of state and U.S. Senate contender, who is now the distinguished head of the Harvard Institute of Politics, those are a trio of give-away markers he's found on Facebook to suggest that you're conservative.

In the past, whenever sports have been collated with politics, only Nascar has usually been cited as a giveaway conservative identity fan factor... but the idea, expressed most directly by Mr. Grayson, that rabid fans of college sports can be a distinctively different ideological species from the pro variety is taking on a certain currency.

It was revealing last week that when the Big Ten -- which has always been sort of the mascot of muscular midwest America -- took in the University of Maryland and Rutgers in order to attract television viewers in the New York and Washington-Baltimore areas, the savvy reaction was, doesn't the Big Ten know that the socialistic fans in the European-cozy Northeast don't give a hoot about college sports?

By contrast, the old Confederacy and that flyover part of the northwestern Louisiana Purchase is crazy for college sports -- especially football -- and that, of course, is precisely the conservative heartland. We even have demographic maps made by an associate geography professor named Theodore Goudge at Northwest Missouri State, which show where the Division One football players come from, and you can virtually overlay a presidential election map from this year with Professor Goudge's map and see that college football players per capita equal Republican majority.

But, a caveat. The sectional adoration for college sports may have no relationship whatsoever with either political or Chick-fil-A preference. It may simply be that wherever honest grown-up professional sports abound, attention to second-rate NCAA shamateur sports gets diminished. The Southeastern Conference in particular may be so popular primarily because Dixie possesses so fewer pro teams compared to the East, West and Midwest.

Recently I was in Oklahoma City, which happens to be the most recent American metropolis to get a major-league team -- the NBA Thunder. Previously, Oklahoma lived and died for its state university Sooners. Well, folks, the Thunder is already stealing thunder from dear old alma mater. As somebody in Oklahoma City explained the new consensus to me: "Used to be when the Sooners lost, we despaired for a week. We still care, you understand, but when the Sooners lose now, we tend to say, well, sure, too bad, but we got a Thunder game Tuesday."

Basically, sports is primarily a class thing, and the pros simply play in a higher class than the colleges. It's a better product. Yes, yes, I know college games can be entertaining, and there's loyalty and tailgating, but wherever fans are, give them a choice, they'll gravitate toward the best. So I'm sorry Mister Big Ten, but I don't know a soul who's going to watch Rutgers and Maryland play Wisconsin and Illinois when the Giants and Ravens . . . and even the Redskins and Jets are hanging out in the neighborhood.
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