It’s Getting Harder to Love College Football

What you won't be seeing on Thursday.

What you won’t be seeing on Thursday.

Our family Thanksgiving schedule will be a little lighter this year, with more harmony and fewer tears. We will no longer be forced to arrange travel plans and meals around events in College Station or Austin. The Longhorn – Aggie rivalry is gone. We are all poorer for it. All of us, except for a few people. A few people are definitely richer thanks to this arrangement.

College football is a unique experience. As exciting as the NFL can be, with all its speed, precision and finesse, there are moments when it feels like you’re just watching someone work. Because you are. By contrast, on Saturday afternoon you are watching young people who for the most part will never earn a penny from sports, play a game.

Unfortunately, our relentless push to commoditize every aspect of our existence is draining away much of what makes college football unique. Our love for college football is being converted to cash in a big way. As traditions are sold out and billions of dollars are traded on the students’ backs, it is hard not to feel like you’re abetting a fraud. It may be too late to save college football, but perhaps the lessons from its corruption might help us rescue other critical social institutions before they are sold off for spare parts.

College football was fun because of it what it represented. The students did it for the challenge of becoming truly good at something. They did it out of loyalty to a community. They did it to push themselves, to experience the thrills, pain, and sometimes disappointment that comes from striving for personal and collective goals. A year as a starting fullback should be an excellent preparation for what life has in store. Watching college football was watching young men grow up.

What happens to a hallowed cultural institution that becomes a multi-billion dollar enterprise? Ask Santa Claus.

When there are TV contracts on the line, tradition and history are too expensive to retain. You won’t have to schedule your Thanksgiving around the Texas – Texas A&M game because the Aggies have now joined the nation’s most elite NFL farm league.

The annual Michigan – Notre Dame game is history. Not enough money in it. The Southwest Conference is no more, gone the way of “three yards and a cloud of dust.” The wishbone was good clean fun, but it lacked the flash that television demands.

It is getting harder to love college football as the game bends under pressure from its business model. The football program at the University of Texas earned a $71m profit on only $95m in revenue last year. Coach Mack Brown earned $5m, which is pretty conservative based on such a spectacular profit margin.

Those margins are possible because the folks doing the work are compensated exclusively at the company store. The guys who make it all happen get paid with an education, sort of. The demands of life on a semi-pro team don’t leave much time for books.  Just over half of the University of Texas’ football players earn a degree. They have more important things to do.

As college football becomes another commoditized entertainment experience, all of the participants are losing. The true amateur athletes, kids whose main focus was an education, are being crowded out as the universities are converted into an NFL minor league.

Those promising athletes are getting a nominal education at best in return for their efforts. Graduation rates are ticking upward as the NCAA works to shine its image, but how many of those players are actually receiving meaningful compensation for their efforts? The value of the institution is being compromised at every level in order to pursue ever greater revenue opportunities.

If college football is just entertainment, and entertainment is just a product, and products are created to make money, then I start to feel a little silly investing emotional energy in the A&M – LSU game. More and more the institution carries the distracting odor of a swindle. It’s hard to tell whether I’m the mark or whether I’m in on the grift.

In that case there’s nothing special about college football. It’s just like pro football, only slower and clumsier with poor quality special-teams play. At least the pros are getting paid and they are delivering a top quality product.

Some schools have managed to keep college in college football. Notre Dame manages a 97% graduation rate while fielding a consistently competitive program. Elite universities like Stanford and Boston College maintain quality teams and quality education, but the sport is moving away from them. The end of the Notre Dame-Michigan tradition is a warning of what’s to come. The business of college football is advancing with little regard for the core mission of the universities that feed it.

It’s hard to say what should happen with college football. Paying the players would certainly be fairer, but it would finish off whatever remains of an institution that once meant far more than money. The arcane rules put in place to protect college athletics from market forces have spawned a densely complex culture of cheating, a tradition almost as old as the sport. How long can Universities, bastions of enlightened rational values, continue this charade? What toll is it taking on the wider goals of those institutions?

College football may be a necessary casualty of a freer, more prosperous world. We are all likely to cling to the remains at least a little while longer. Maybe someday (next year?), when the Longhorns’ helmets are sporting a giant BestBuy logo and the program is playing two additional highly-paid exhibition games each year against the likes of Abilene Christian and the fighting Javelinas of A&M Kingsville we’ll finally have to give it up. Until then we’ll settle for watching the Longhorns play some Panhandle technical college on Thanksgiving evening and pretend everything is fine.

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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Posted in Economics
6 comments on “It’s Getting Harder to Love College Football
  1. Turtles Run says:

    I hope everyone has a great and safe Thanksgiving.

  2. Bobo AMerigo says:

    I admire individual athletes, but don’t give a flip which team wins.

    But that doesn’t stop me from wishing all of you a very happy Thanksgiving!

  3. Craig says:

    The NCAA needs to lose the hypocrisy and the charade of the “student-athlete” and pay the players. The current rules were for a time before college football and basketball were billion dollar businesses. The big football factories make millions of dollars off these kids. “Oh, but they’re compensated with a free education.” Really, how many players at Alabama or Texas or USC or Ohio State actually get a college education? I don’t mean the graduation rate, I mean get a real college education. My guess would be damn few. Those players are there for one reason—to prepare for the NFL. If the universities still want them to attend class, make it in 2 areas. Media relations and how to handle your money, so they don’t join the ranks of guys who are broke after their pro career ends.

  4. Texan5142 says:

    Well, this video is not about football, but it is about true sportsmanship. I got something in my eye watching it.

  5. Turtles Run says:

    I do not watch the NFL because the current product lives up to the acronym “No Fun League” so college football has always been my thing.

    But the money is ruining the amateur aspect of the game. Teams like Texas, Alabama, and the other blue chips compete at increasingly higher levels than the rest of the NCAA. They offer the best recruits more TV exposure, better facilities, and more name recognition. Don’t get me wrong I am all for teams making money but very few do and the disparity is growing.

    These upper-tier teams have morphed into NFL farm teams. For fans of those teams or those without strong team affiliations it is great but for teams that I support (Houston & BYU) all I can hope for is an upset once in a while.

    The major conferences (SEC, Big 12, Pac12, & Big 10) have discussed forming a separate tier of competition for their conferences, possibly free from the NCAA.

    Of course the schools and teams win, but the players will still get nothing or some pittance of pay for their services and sacrifice of their bodies. But I rather watch Rice vs Houston any day over Alabama vs Ohio State, it just feels more like what college football should be like.

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