The Meaning of Michigan State

Monday night, in front of 72,922 people at Detroit's Ford Field, the North Carolina Tar Heels fulfilled almost every preseason prognosis and became the NCAA men's basketball hoops champs. The Heels dominated this tournament, leading by double digits for a staggering 154 of the 200 minutes they played.

But shed no tears for their vanquished foes from Michigan State. The Spartans finished a surprise run to the finals that singed every nerve ending in the state. They played two games in three days in front of tens of thousands of adoring hometown fans and millions around the country rooting for them to cut down the nets.

Michigan State, the team from East Lansing, ninety minutes from Detroit, may have lost to a better and more experienced North Carolina team. But this isn't the story anymore than the story of Jackie Robinson's first baseball game was that he went hitless but scored the winning run.

The buzz about how much the ascension of the Spartans meant to their state has added a sobering note of class politics to the usual

commercial trappings. This has been seen perhaps most dramatically in the comments sections of mainstream sports websites. Normally these corners of the Internet are allergic to introspection. But not for this game and not now. On Sports Illustrated's Fan Nation site, one person wrote, "I'm an MSU alum living in Michigan, working for a struggling company and praying that I keep my job.......but those guys put a smile on my face every time they go out on the court."

Another posted, "I live in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan and the whole state needs this championship. We are hurting bad.... This means tons to the people of Michigan. Go State!" Even North Carolina fans were caught in the moment. "Born and raised in Chapel Hill, naturally a Tarheel fan, ..Obviously I'm pulling for the Heels, but a Spartan victory would not upset me in the least."

Something more substantial than a basketball contest was taking place. It was rooted not in the economic insecurity and hardship of one state, where unemployment is listed conservatively at 12 percent, but an entire country.

Michigan for most of the last two decades, was viewed and discussed as a remnant of this nation's past: high unemployment, an aging infrastructure and an auto industry whose best days had passed. Unless Michael Moore was pointing his camera in the state's direction, few noticed the rust. But now when looking at Michigan we don't see a nation's past but its present and maybe its future. The banks haven't been nationalized, but Flint sure has. We empathize because we sympathize. But as difficult as things are nationally, and as inspired as many have been about Michigan State's run, Detroit, still stands at the vanguard of pain.

I was in the Motor City when the news came down that the government had fired General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner. It was a good thing there was CNN within earshot because that Monday was the day the Detroit Free Press ceased home delivery to save a few bucks. Wagoner walked away with millions. But a city can't walk away from itself. Even some of the surrounding suburbs on the other side of 8 Mile are in tough straits. That could have been said any time in the last twenty years. What makes now different is that the pockets of gentrification that developed in the 1990s also seeing shuttered boutiques, coffee shops and galleries. For working people, it's been a generational journey from union jobs, to service jobs, to no jobs.

The people of Detroit reminded me in some ways of the people from New Orleans and even a friend I have who is Vietnamese. Just as those from NOLA resent being defined by Katrina, and my buddy from Vietnam says , "We're a country not a war," people from Detroit don't want to be defined by crisis, abandoned factories, and unemployment. But at the same time, as in each case, it's impossible to talk to anyone not affected by disasters both natural and man-made. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone hates having a story to tell. In Detroit, autoworkers are being told that the bankers' bonus contracts are sacrosanct, while their union contracts aren't worth the paper they're printed on. People in the city get on a boat to go to across the border to Windsor, Ontario to buy prescription meds. The many casinos that flash their bright lights at the blight across the river seem like a realistic road out of poverty. But the Spartans aren't just another shining bauble of success out of people's reach. They matter. As Jemele Hill wrote, "I know some journalists inevitably will write the traditional Detroit is a disaster zone" columns. And if any crime happens during the Final Four, the media conveniently will forget that crimes occur in the background of every major sporting event in this country -- not just in Detroit. I just ask that people be fair to Detroit and understand what this means for the entire state. Sports won't bring new industries to Michigan or solve its enormous unemployment problem. But this week, no one in Michigan will be feeling blue. Just green."

She is right. In hard times, sports can play a role that's both positive and progressive. On Monday night, the Spartans shot enough bricks to rebuild the motor city and turned over the ball as if they were just leasing it from Carolina. But still, they fought tough, cutting a 24-point North Carolina lead to 13 and banging away until the last minute of action.

As the game ended, and Michigan State players began to hang their heads at the inevitability of their loss, play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz said , "This state has been hit especially hard. They are trying to find a way to make so many people happy." They did, and as long as we can keep our heads up, we have a chance to see the bigger problems and demand solutions. The Spartans this week had a lot of people who had become accustomed to limping walking tall.

10 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Good Show

I couldn't agree more. As an MSU alum who had to leave the state so that my the-future wife could get a job, the Spartans showed us just how powerful sports can be in lifting a community's spirits. Not one of those players (or their masterful coach, for that matter) displayed the despicable sense of entitlement that many professional athletes today seem to wear as a badge of honor--an entitlement that is particularly distasteful to us Michiganders who understand what it is like to fear for our jobs. Humble, thankful, and graceful in defeat, I'm truly proud of my Spartans.

Damn

I've known you for eleven years, and I thought I was kind of immune to being emotionally effected by your writing. This has me misty. I'm seriously starting to tear up. This is the best thing you've ever written. Beautiful.

Your friend,
Damian

Second Damian's emotion

I felt the same way, Dave. Great, great work. This is such an important story to tell.

-Jesse

sad tales...

Not sure on any one's opinions on Micheal Moore, but this did remind me of his flick "Roger & Me". Terrible situation!

Michael Moore

CDF - why are you tip-toeing around Michael Moore? Who cares about the opinions of simpletons? Moore's films have tackled subjects in a strong and provocative way because that's how you speak truth to power. The core essence of every one of his films have proven to be spot on and correct.

Stick your chest out, make a point. You're right.

Solutions, not sympathy

The people of Michigan need real solutions to their economic problems, not teary eyed, feel good stories related to basketball games. Thankfully we have a president that understands that and is working toward preserving an auto industry that failed to manage its future.

Americans speak of Detroit and Michigan as though it's a third world country and not part of America. Their problems are our problems and more needs to be done to develop and sustain this part of our country.

Solutions, not sympathy (Part 2)

The people of Iraq and Afghanistan need real solutions to their ongoing problem with US occupation-slaughter-and destruction, not teary eyed, feel good stories related to the US Military and their ongoing murder spree. Unfortunately we have a president who sold change like Madison Avenue sells soap and has now taken the reigns of empire and continues the bloody slaughter and is failing to manage the future.

Americans speak of Iraq and Afghanistan as though it's a playground for killing brown people as well as strengthening one of the Empire's distant outposts... and not part of the civilized world. Their problems are our problems and real change by a real progressive leader needs to turnaround the horrific effects of an empire hellbent on world domination.

What is the sincerest form of flattery?

Steve, you're stuck in the Bush "error". Steps have been taken to exit Iraq and I don't believe this brown president is interested in killing brown people. I think he sincerely believes the forces in Afghanistan are a threat to American safety. Also, judging from his interactions with leaders from around the world, he's not interested in world domination or converting everyone else to christianity either.

However, you do have a point about his inability to change the course of the nation in less than 3 months on the job. It's going to take time, lots of time, to fix what Bush broke. Is he the messiah liberals and progressives hoped for? I never thought he was. I never believed "the system" would allow it. But, he's a hell of a lot better than the alternative (McCain).

Flattery? Er, no...

No, not stuck in the Bush era, rather stuck in imperial America with another puppet at the reigns of empire.

Obama's "choices" for his cabinet and furniture have all been somewhere between mediocre and disastrous - his financial choices are the same bastards who carefully raped and pillaged the American taxpayer and US Treasury - going back to Clinton's neo-liberal goons axing Glass-Stiegel and gutting the regulatory firewalls. And keeping Robert Gates on in Defense is like asking Charlie Manson to stay on and help prosecute the next serial killers.

Just being "better" than the murderers in the last neo-con regime ain't saying much. The arrival of the Obama Administration has crippled the U.S. anti-war movement, which has neither the fortitude nor political depth to confront imperialism with a Black face. The Out of Iraq caucus on Capitol Hill might as well call itself the Out of Action caucus, since it canít figure out a way to respond to Obamaís expanding military budgets and wars. National anti-war organizations cling to the fiction that Obama is really seeking a military withdrawal from Iraq. The anti-war movement has hit rock-bottom because of its failure to challenge this particular president, an imperialist with charm, a warmonger with a winning smile.

Ask the US soldiers killed since Jan 20 if Obama is any better than... Ask the hundred or so dead Pakistani civilians killed by drones since Jan 20 if Obama is any better than... Or the dead Afghans since Jan 20.

And now Mr. Change wants to let the Bush Crime Family and their henchmen off from prosecution for war crimes, torture crimes, shredding the Constitution, etc - because he wants to look forward? Jerry Ford looked forward on Nixon, Clinton looked forward on Bush and Raygun's terror in Latin America, Middle East, etc... and now the new guy in the club wants to look forward, change-hope, change-hope... I think you can see how looking forward has done for the Republic.

Peace, bro...

dmt

COOL...!!!!

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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