In Defense of College Football

Oh the horror of college football! (BSD/MikePettigano)

It’s fashionable these days to hate college football. And while it’s hardly difficult to figure out why it’s fashionable these days to hate college football, I must say this: All the hate, most especially the contrived hate (hello, Buzz Bissinger), is starting to piss me off. Because while I don’t mind criticism, I do mind dishonesty. And I especially mind opportunism.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s backtrack a bit.

Yes, we who comprise College Football Nation can and should start with this: Over the past two years, the game we love been sullied by one sordid affair after another, with sad, unseemly and in some cases downright disturbing scandals unfolding at some of its most storied institutions. There was the Jim Tressel thing. There was the Miami thing. And then, of course, there was the Penn State thing, which not only led to the Shakespearean fall of one Joe Paterno, but also left one of college football’s largest and most powerful programs lying in smoldering ruin. Nationally, these stories struck a powerful chord among critics of big-time college athletics: In scandal, they saw opportunity.

Which is why, over the past few months, we have seen and heard so many commentators (and, in the case of Bissinger, attention-seekers) begin to question—quite understandably, I would admit—whether college football, a game that has evolved from campus curiosity to multi-billion dollar business, has become too powerful on our nation’s campuses, and whether American colleges have sacrificed their academic integrity in the pursuit of gridiron success.

It’s not an unfair question to ask, of course; football, is, after all, nothing more than an extracurricular activity (albeit a massively popular one), and as such, the sport should not be permitted to take on an importance beyond the overarching mission of the American university—specifically, educating tomorrow’s leaders. On this, both right-thinking college football fans (of which are there are millions, it should be pointed out) and the game’s critics agree: College football must be placed in its proper context, and the problems that plague the game—and yes, there are many problems, from cheating and academic fraud to oversigning and the endless pursuit of profit above all fairness—must be addressed.

I mean that in all sincerity: Our game is messed up, perhaps more than it’s ever been. And we need to fix it. Now.

But see, for the critics, simply fixing the game isn’t good enough; rather, they’ve gone on the attack. Because they see an opportunity to tear something down—something that they either don’t understand or don’t want to understand or perhaps even despise. And for some of them, the opportunity is simply too good to pass up.

In a recent Slate commentary bemoaning the practice of "oversigning" in college football, Josh Levin summed up current elitist opinion when he wrote that anybody who isn’t completely cynical about college football these days is "either willfully stupid or the host of an ESPN studio show." Meanwhile, noted author Buzz Bissinger, a man who basically owes his entire career to the game of football and those who play it, went a step further, writing in the Wall Street Journal that college football must be banned entirely, that it must be eradicated from our college campuses, that only when the game is dead and buried will our universities be able to get back to the good work of educating the leaders of tomorrow.

College football, Bissinger and his growing cadre of allies say, is a menace. It is a cancer that has distracted colleges from their true mission. And the only way to cure this cancer, they say, is to cut it out. But closer examination of their arguments turns up contradiction, dishonesty and a form of anti-football prejudice.

***

Bissinger states quite directly that college football has to go because "it has nothing to do with academics." Which, of course, is both entirely true and completely irrelevant. After all, college basketball, the second-most popular sport on American campuses, has nothing to do with academics, either. Nor does soccer. Nor does lacrosse. Nor does crew.

Which brings me to perhaps the most important point, albeit one that mostly goes unspoken when the debate over college football’s worthiness is undertaken. Underlying all of these anti-college football arguments, it would seem, is a sense of wariness about college football players themselves—a slight hint of the notion that most or at least some of these young men do not belong in college in the first place, and would not be in college were it not for the allegedly corrupt college football programs that brought them there.

Thanks in part to the recent scandals and thanks in part to long-held beliefs about the game itself, college football players, like the game itself, have quite clearly been stigmatized. They have been profiled as dumb, lumbering jocks, uninterested in anything but bashing heads on Saturday and enjoying their four years of on-campus fame (if not fortune). In the minds of the critics, these student-athletes aren’t that at all; they are athletes only, individuals who are at once taking advantage of a corrupt, errant system and being exploited by it.

The critics may deny it, and I am quite sure they will, but there is little question in my mind that perceptions of what football is (and what it isn’t) and what college football players represent (and what they don’t) play an enormous role in shaping his new debate—this debate over whether college football, a game that has been played in this country since the 1860s, should be allowed to continue. To put it bluntly, at the core of these arguments is good old-fashioned elitism. And that’s not good enough.

***

Over the past few months I’ve heard countless arguments for why college football needs to go. I’ve heard it has to go because it’s too expensive. I’ve heard it has to go because it distracts universities from their work. I’ve heard it has to go because it’s too big, and too powerful, and too dangerous, and too exploitative. And yes, I’ve heard it has to go because it "has nothing to do with academics."

But make no mistake. In reality, these arguments simply mask the real reason why Bissinger and his fellow crusaders want the game gone. They want the game gone because they don’t particularly like college football and disdain those who do. They don’t like how the game is played. They don’t like what it stands for. They don’t like that it’s so darn popular. They don’t like that alumni embrace their football teams with such sincere joy and that students turn out in greater numbers for football on Saturday than they do for lectures on Wednesday. And whether they want to admit it or not, they don’t like college football because they believe college football wrongly allows some young men to enroll in college—in some cases, very good colleges—who otherwise would not be there.

Yes, college football, the game I love above all others, is flawed. It is deeply, deeply flawed. It has been distorted by money. It often treats its athletes shabbily and in many cases makes a mockery of higher education. The schools that play it sometimes cheat to win, and the men who coach it occasionally make terrible mistakes. College football today is a big, complicated, messy, cutthroat business; as such, it must be tightly regulated, just like any other big business.

But for all of its flaws, is a great game nonetheless. It is America’s oldest and greatest and most inclusive sport—one that is enjoyed in every corner of this country, from the bustling Northeast to the deepest South to the Great Plains and on up to the Pacific Northwest. It has tied the generations together, given its fans decades of wonderful Saturday experiences, built some of our greatest sporting institutions and traditions, educated thousands upon thousands of young men and, yes, helped fuel the growth of the American higher education system, which now stands unquestioned as the greatest in the world.

The game may well be said to be in crisis. On that point I will not argue.

But when an institution as grand as college football goes astray, the proper course of action is not to destroy it.

Rather, our aim should be to save it.


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Editors' Note: We thought it'd be fun to introduce Tim this way. He will be our newest staff writer at Black Shoe Diaries. We are very excited to have such a distinguished college football writer as part of our community. Everyone give Tim a big welcome. And until we have our traditional Welcome post for Tim, visit his profile here.

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