College Athletics and Football Bowls

The Sunday sports page announced the end of the college football season today. It ended in the perfect way, with the best of the Pac-10 and Big-10 set to meet in the Rose Bowl on January 1, just like when I was a kid and when my father was a kid. Tradition has re-gained the upper hand in our neck of the woods, if only for a year.The college game has always been about tradition; witness the great annual rivalries and the excitement that surrounds them. But then came TV-money-driven hysteria surrounding post season programming, with the crass commercialization of student-athletes and their institutions. I wish for the older and better times of a few New Year’s bowls aligned with specific conferences, honorary post-season funfests called the Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Rose Bowls. All the rest is ugly commercialized excess.

The concept of a national champion in college athletics is silly. What’s the point? Where’s the benefit? Each team should be satisfied with its body of work through its regular season. Striving to be the ‘greatest’ and earn megabucks leads to the excesses in sports, from steroids, to coaches’ outrageous salaries, to revolving door coaching positions, to athletes who become phoney students for a year or two to rachet up their professional potential, with not a scholar in a carload. All of this distracts from the educational mission of the learning institutions and debases the institutions themselves. Yet the universities have no internal resistance to this debasement; the money’s corrosion continually wins the day.

We live in a society where sports, often exaggeratedly violent, provides a vicarious thrill to tens of millions of sports fans and sports addicts, those voyeurs who aggrandize their own lives through spectating and titillate themselves by gambling. Although we argue that such activity does not make for a healthy society, this preening excess it is here to stay for a while. This mentality begat the professional sports/entertainment industry, which creates a lot of high paying jobs, and is probably healthy for our economy even if not healthy for our minds and souls.

The problem is that the coercive effect of all this money and all this testosterone-related behavior doesn’t just remain at the adult level of pro sports. It corrupts society to deeper levels, from angry parents bullying coaches, referees, and players in youth sports activities, to colleges and universities where coaches make orders of magnitude more money than other faculty and the pressure on coaches to perform causes all sorts of unethical behavior.

Now we have the Big-12 and the Pac-12 and playoff games. Conferences are being engorged to sixteen teams, making it impossible for each to play the others. Seasons are getting longer; more games means more money at the expense of less education. All these changes are made in the interest of more lucrative TV markets and cable TV contracts. It’s all about product and money. Our brave new world has surely lost its way and its soul.

This is all old news, but we are extremely slow learners and the forces of evil grow exponentially through modern megamedia. The University of Chicago, under the leadership of Robert Hutchins, dropped out of the Big 10 conference and dropped football for precisely these reasons 70 years ago. Hutchins considered that sports had become too big a distraction from the University’s main purpose. That seems an over-reaction, replacing an excess with a void. And I doubt any university could summon the collective will to repeat such a performance, probably wisely so because money did not flow into the U. of Chicago’s coffers at the desired rate for decades after this decision.

We should seek a middle ground, restricting college sports to true student athletes, limiting sports recruiting and scholarships to the same level as academic recruiting, limiting coaching salaries to match regular faculty, and abandoning all quests for ‘national championships’. Let conference championships suffice for the universities. Let there be more lifetime coaches at institutions and fewer win or get the boot situations. Let bowl games be about the sport, not the glitterati, fashionistas, and hype that fills the bloated half time slot. This seems close to the philosophy maintained by the Ivy League over the past 60 years.

It will take a coordinated effort by all Div I institutions and the NCAA to bring this about. The culture is so strong that it would take leadership beyond what I think is available. But I can dream of a day when universities are entirely focused on educating, with sports being just another educational offering, leaving it to the professional sports/entertainers to stage ever more grandiose post-season challenges and spectacles for their adoring fans. For any chance for this to happen, we must begin providing a new type of sports education that changes the warped values that lie at the root of our current system. Change the values to change the culture.

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