Preface: Despite what the reader may think, this is not a lament on the state of the celebration of Christmas. That topic is in the queue for future treatment. A reflection on college football follows.
Having grown up in Texas, I was infused with enthusiasm for football; as inescapable a part of the culture as The Alamo, country music, and of course, revival preachers and the Southern Baptist Church.
My hometown team (and later alma mater) is the Baylor Bears, who had about five winning seasons in the last half of the twentieth century. Recently Baylor’s teams have had more success than I could have ever imagined as a child: a Heisman Trophy winner, and now, back-to-back conference championships. So, at last, with a quarter-billion-dollar stadium to call home, and a season in which they were serious contenders for a shot at the national championship, the Mighty Bears seem mighty indeed. No more “wait until next year.” Baylor University has finally arrived in the promised land of big time football.
But, as with all promised lands, there are new challenges and new grief to bear. The 2014 Fiesta Bowl gave me the greatest disappointment of my 57-year fandom: a one-sided loss to a relatively unknown upstart University of Central Florida. I later learned that rather than bringing a windfall of profit, the University barely broke even on their appearance. The expenses of travel for the team, band, and official entourage plus the cost of 8,000 unsold seats of their ticket allotment resulted in a financial disappointment as great as the on-field performance. As an ever-hopeful Alumnus I can only hope that this season’s Cotton Bowl appearance, sited in the heart of “Bear Country”, will be both an on-field and back-office success as great as last season’s disappointment.
Speaking of disappointment, who is more disappointed than the TCU Horned Frogs? Not only were they Big Twelve Conference Co-Champions (sharing the title with the Mighty Bears, from whom they received their only loss); they were also ranked #3 until the selection committee met and selected the Ohio State Buckeyes to take their place in the inaugural national championship playoff.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Urban Meyer and his coaching staff put on a National Championship quality season winning their Big 10 division title under the leadership of their second-string quarterback, and the Big 10 championship game, decisively, with their third-string quarterback at the helm. Clearly a demonstration of great talent, great play, and great coaching that rivals anything Alabama, Oregon, or Florida State bring to the show.
The new grief that TCU has the misfortune of experiencing first-hand is the new reality of life in the promised land of big-time college football. Whereas collegiate athletics in general and football in particular were once undertaken for the sake of the university; now they serve a new master. At one time, the Saturday afternoon game gave students, faculty, alumni, and friends an occasion to come together for a few hours, loosen their neckties and clerical collars, yell and cheer, and loose themselves in a collective experience of support for their team and their colors. Attending the game, whether win or lose, strengthened the bonds of friendship among the fans, the affiliation of the fans for the school, and the support of the alumni for their alma mater.
Now, the teams have become the minor leagues for the National Football League. The colleges have undertaken the expense of and liability for maturing each year’s crop of aspiring athletes without compensation or support of the NFL.
The promise of great riches from big time football is as elusive as the Rainbow’s End. Baylor’s $250,000,000.00 new stadium lies less than 100 miles from Texas A&M’s $400,000,000.00 renovation of Kyle Field. Salaries for the coaching staff run into the millions, as does the cost of equipment and practice facilities. I suspect that if the fully-loaded cost of the football programs at the top-tier schools were revealed, few if any would show great riches. Great revenue, great expenses, but hardly great profits.
The selection of The Ohio State University over Texas Christian University for the national playoff is explained by the spectacular conclusion of OSU’s season and the triumph over adversity it represents. The cynic in me suspects that the driving reason is the selection committee’s conclusion that a match-up that included The Ohio State University would draw a bigger television audience than a contest with Texas Christian University no matter how spectacular TCU’s performance might be. Name recognition, the number of alumni spread around the world, and a long history of success carried the day in favor of The OSU.
The bottom line for big-time college football is the bottom line of the accounting ledger; not the college’s accounting ledger, but the accounting ledger of the broadcaster of the game. Big time college football has ceased to serve the interest of the college, its faculty, students, and supporters. Big time college football has become a content provider for the entertainment industry. As a result it is more important that a star quarterback be kept eligible to play in the championship game than that he be held to account for his behavior off the field be it merely boorish or clearly criminal.
The show must go on.
The risk of life altering brain injuries is a small price (read no price to the broadcaster) to pay for the audience-pleasing play of a talented young quarterback.
The show must go on.
The criminal misbehavior of a Jerry Sandusky was kept secret for decades to preserve the reputation of an iconic coach.
The show must go on.
As the evidence mounts, the conclusion is inescapable: college football has sold its soul to the highest bidder.
College football has had its critics for a long time. In 1897 the Religious Herald of Richmond Virginia reported that its editor “agreed with another editor in failing to see what pleasure cultured ladies and gentlemen and university professors could derive from ‘that dirtily clad, bare and frowsy headed, rough-and-tumble, shoving, pushing, crushing, pounding, kicking, ground-wallowing, mixed-up mass of players, of whom any might come out with broken limbs, or be left on the ground writhing with ruptured vitals’”.
In that day, the focus of concern was on the physical and moral well being of the participants of the game. Today, it is time to reflect on the moral well being of the institutions that are “left on the ground writhing with ruptured vitals” and on an entertainment industry that demands their complicity.