Saturday, September 5, 2015

Confessions Of A Former College Football Fan

There was a time when watching this video was food for my soul

Today the Nebraska Cornhuskers played the first game of their football season.  In my youth this day was a minor holiday, as were all Husker gamedays.  While I maintained various sports allegiances, Cornhusker football was more like a religious obligation requiring adherence to rituals and worship.  Going to Memorial Stadium to see a game (which I have only done half a dozen times) was like a major pilgrimage.  In the days before expanded cable I spent many a Saturday afternoon listening to games on the radio while raking leaves or on the road to my grandparents' house, not wanting to miss a single play.  I still remember being somewhere on interstate 80 and hearing the call when fullback Bryan Carpenter ripped off a 47 yard touchdown run to turn the tide of a tough game against Missouri, and feeling total elation.  When Nebraska won the national championship after the 1995 Orange Bowl, I probably felt happier than I ever had up to that point in my life.  I had also felt horribly down in the preceding year, when the team came within a field goal of beating Florida State to get the glory.  In the early days of video on the internet (pre YouTube) I would watch Johnny Rodgers' famous punt return against Oklahoma over and over and over again, feeling the goosebumps each time.

These days things have changed.  I haven't watched a down of today's game, even though it's on TV.  In fact, I haven't even bothered to check the score.  It just doesn't matter a whole lot to me, and I say this as someone who obsessively checks his phone during Mets games, so it's not like I've given up on sports.  I don't really hate college football or won't watch any games this season, it's just that I don't care about it all that much anymore.

It's happened gradually over time, and I have been asking myself why.  I think some of the first seeds were sewn in 1995, the year that the Huskers went undefeated and demolished their opponents in fearsome fashion on the way to a second straight championship.  That year two star players made headlines through horrible acts committed against women, and both were allowed to play in the Fiesta Bowl and celebrate on the field.  Running back Lawrence Phillips went to the apartment of his ex girlfriend and assaulted her, dragging her down the stairs by her hair.  Defensive lineman Christian Peter raped a student who now is a public advocate calling for abusive athletes to be brought to account.  Coach Tom Osborne, a man I had always respected for his integrity, sheltered both of these players.  Unfortunately, I was too weak and ignorant back then to do more than feel uncomfortable and not ask deeper questions.

Over the years these stories kept multiplying, and they still do.  My real skepticism came when I was a grad student and heard a talk by Murray Sperber, a professor at Indiana University who wrote the indispensable Beer and Circus.  He demolishes many of the myths about college sports bringing in revenue to universities.  There a handful that do make money, but it typically goes right to the athletics department.  At the vast majority of schools, sports cost a lot of money.  As a grad student I also knew TAs who'd been brought into the basketball coach's office to be leaned on to give a better grade to an athlete, and athletes who should've been academically ineligible allowed to play.  (Of course, I also had plenty of athletes who were fine students.  The problem isn't them, it's the system.)

I also noticed, both in grad school and as a professor, that the waves of austerity wreaking havoc on academic departments didn't seem to faze the athletics wing of the university.  At one school the faculty were informed of cuts to research, travel, and library money while in the same speech the president proudly crowed about new beacons to be installed on the newest dorm, which would alert everyone when the piss-poor football team won a game.  (And yes, this was in Texas.)  At another faculty were told to excuse their students from night classes on a Thursday if they were attending the game that night, which was nationally televised.  The school's priorities could not have been clearer.  Add to that the knowledge that football itself can cause catastrophic brain damage.  Also add that on the college level players are completely exploited, not getting paid while their coaches are often the highest paid employees of their respective states.  The players make a lot of money for a lot of people, except themselves.  The vast, vast majority don't go pro, and while they get scholarships, their schedules make it hard to study and at many programs the graduation rates for players in the big money sports are abyssmal.

The only foreseeable solution from my point of view is the abolition of the NCAA and college sports in their present form, but that will never happen.  There are too many people out there who are just like I used to be, fanatically devoted to their teams to the point that that devotion is a key element to their identity as human beings.  For that reason, the juggernaut will live on, I just know that I won't be around anymore to watch it.

Postscript: my good friend Brian Ingrassia wrote an award-winning history of how college football's structures came to be.  Talking with him while he was doing his research gave me a lot of insight.  Please buy/read it.

1 comment:

Brian I. said...

Thanks for the plug! I really appreciate it.