The origin of Sayre’s Law are up for debate, but the gist of it can be found here.
In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue.
Well let me ask you this: what on earth can be less important than whether a college football team wins or loses a game? Very few things if you think about it. Yet the intensity of such debates fuels this website, causes one man to call another a “retard”, “idiot”, etc, and even triggers murder threats on SEC/ESPN comment sections. Some fans even kill other fans. Google “fan argument death” if you don’t believe it.
Here is some more on the phenomena:
“ACADEMIC politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” This observation is routinely attributed to former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. Well before Kissinger got credit for that thought in the mid-1970s, however, Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt told a reporter, “Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics. We think it’s because the stakes are so small.” Others believe this quip originated with political scientist Wallace Sayre, Neustadt’s onetime colleague at Columbia University. A 1973 book gave as “Sayre’s Law,” “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue—that is why academic politics are so bitter.” Sayre’s colleague and coauthor Herbert Kaufman said his usual wording was “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” In his 1979 book Peter’s People, Laurence Peter wrote, “Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.” He called this “Peter’s Theory of Entrepreneurial Aggressiveness in Higher Education.” Variations on that thought have also been attributed to scientist-author C. P. Snow, professor-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and politician Jesse Unruh (among others). According to the onetime editor of Woodrow Wilson’s papers, however, long before any of them strode the academic-political scene, Wilson observed often that the intensity of academic squabbles he witnessed while president of Princeton University was a function of the “triviality” of the issues being considered.
Walk around any campus and you find a bunch of know-it-all professors who are wildly insecure, having to “publish or die”, hoping to write the next great paper or discover the next breakthrough. Never feeling they get recognition for their “genius”…
Since the athletic department is an extension of the overall mood of a university, I think the mentality leaks over, and we’re left with an AD who makes comments like, “I guess you’re a genius now” [paraphrasing here, I can’t find the quote] after Mike Riley’s on the hot seat and wins a game. There is a lot of contempt in that statement, and it’s aimed directly toward the dissenting fan. This would be like one professor taking jabs at another or sabotaging his experiment, in the academic scenario above. There is a disproportionately large fight over the unimportant argument of (a) winning more football games and (b) who is right and who is wrong.
This spills over into Mike Riley and the media as well. The latter trying to protect the establishment and their own jobs due to the fierce competition over peanuts. These people are not curing cancer or writing “The Republic”…they’re writing about a football game in Corvallis.
To take this one step further, this is part of the reason I don’t donate to OSU. While it’s unspoken, there is a massive contempt between the establishment and the average fan. Unless that fan blindly follows, of course. Dissent is censored rather than encouraged (OSU even went so far to block my Twitter account), small donations are not welcome (I had to write Bob D and explain there was no way to donate $20), receive mail asking for money but never receive mail thanking for a donation, an email detailing steps for improvement rather than just levying criticism completely ignored, etc. Then the comments by the AD, the disdain in the media (i.e. Mamma Machado, et al), etc. All of these people are bottom feeders competing over a small portion of nothingness, and that’s why we see the stubbornness to maintain the status quo and the disdain for anyone who threatens it. Sayre’s Law in action.