In a shocking development, a sportswriter based in the Northeast does not think much of college football. As is his wont, Buzz Bissinger has not just written a piece criticizing the excesses of the sport and suggesting reforms. No, Buzz instead scratches his bomb-throwing itch by advocating that the entire sport be banned. And in one of life's little ironies, Buzz pens a piece supporting the academic mission of universities, but his arguments are such that they would get him flunked if they were found in a blue book. This in not the first time that Buzz has shown that argumentation never was his strong suit. I'm feeling fisky, so let the sport commence.*
* - There are three paraphrases from James Bond movies in the first paragraph. Kudos to anyone who gets all three.
In more than 20 years I've spent studying the issue, I have yet to hear a convincing argument that college football has anything do with what is presumably the primary purpose of higher education: academics.
Oh man, the excitement builds. Twenty years of study! This column is going to be the fruit of a life's work. I am sure that it is going to be chock-full of facts and citations as an homage to academia. I certainly hope so, because it would be a major disappointment if Buzz Bissinger has spent two decades analyzing a subject and has nothing more than unsupported allegations...
That's because college football has no academic purpose. Which is why it needs to be banned. A radical solution, yes. But necessary in today's times.
Here is a non-exclusive list of functions that universities perform that have nothing to do with academics: housing, dining, security, media, health care, provision of IT services, and funding of student groups. Buzz, maybe a click on your alma mater's web site would have educated you on this fundamental problem with your argument. Universities provide these functions because they mimic society as a whole. They function as mini-cities, providing for the needs of their students that have nothing to do with classroom learning.
Also, if you use the second definition of academic, professional schools have no academic purpose. Ban Wharton!
Football only provides the thickest layer of distraction in an atmosphere in which colleges and universities these days are all about distraction, nursing an obsession with the social well-being of students as opposed to the obsession that they are there for the vital and single purpose of learning as much as they can to compete in the brutal realities of the global economy.
Buzz, you're defending the traditional mission of universities in one paragraph and then you are redefining that mission into preparing students for the "brutal realities of the global economy" in the second. How many liberal arts professors would describe their mission in those terms? Very few. Again, you are arguing in favor of an academic-focused mission for universities and then you are shifting the focus from academics to vocational training. And I thought that you knew your way around the English language, like what the word "academic" means.
Who truly benefits from college football? Alumni who absurdly judge the quality of their alma mater based on the quality of the football team. Coaches such as Nick Saban of the University of Alabama and Bob Stoops of the University of Oklahoma who make obscene millions. The players themselves don't benefit, exploited by a system in which they don't receive a dime of compensation. The average student doesn't benefit, particularly when football programs remain sacrosanct while tuition costs show no signs of abating as many governors are slashing budgets to the bone.
Ask the average student at a school with a major football team whether he/she benefits from having the team. Unless there is a secret groundswell of support for banning college football among that class of students, then Buzz is just engaging in a paternalistic exercise, telling students that he knows their interests better than they do. In any event, to answer Buzz's question, here is a non-exclusive list:
1. Students who like having a diversion from their studies.
2. Students who participate in non-revenue sports, which are funded almost entirely at major football schools by ticket and TV revenues generated by the football program.
3. Citizens of states like Alabama and Nebraska that do not have pro sports teams, but still want to be able to cheer for a local side.
Taking a broader view of Buzz's question, sports can play a positive role in breaking down barriers and college football is just as good at that as any other sport. (In fact, as the most popular sport in the region of the country with the worst racial past, college football has more of a role to play than other sports.) Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball is often cited as a major step in the improvement of race relations in America. On a more regional level, how important was it that Herschel Walker - an African-American who grew up in tiny Wrightsville, Georgia - became the most popular Georgian in 1980 and remains one of the most beloved products of this State to this day? If the national media were less provincial, then I wouldn't have to make this point because racial pioneers who played in cities not named New York would get credit for helping to change minds.
And lastly, Buzz makes a second contradiction here. He cites a college education as being tremendously important for students dealing with "the brutal realities of the global economy" and then he claims that the players "don't receive a dime of compensation." Really, a free college education isn't worth a dime? Then what the hell am I doing funding my kids' 527 accounts?
If the vast majority of major college football programs made money, the argument to ban football might be a more precarious one. But too many of them don't-to the detriment of academic budgets at all too many schools. According to the NCAA, 43% of the 120 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision lost money on their programs. This is the tier of schools that includes such examples as that great titan of football excellence, the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers, who went 3-and-9 last season. The athletic department in 2008-2009 took in over $13 million in university funds and student fees, largely because the football program cost so much, The Wall Street Journal reported. New Mexico State University's athletic department needed a 70% subsidy in 2009-2010, largely because Aggie football hasn't gotten to a bowl game in 51 years. Outside of Las Cruces, where New Mexico State is located, how many people even know that the school has a football program? None, except maybe for some savvy contestants on "Jeopardy." What purpose does it serve on a university campus? None.
Congrats, Mr. Bissinger, you have made a persuasive argument that maybe the schools in the lower half of college football's Bowl Subdivision should spend less on their football programs. You have not established that the Big Ten and SEC should stop what they are doing. The fact that certain businesses in an industry are unprofitable is not an argument for banning the entire industry. Additionally, the fact that many football programs do not turn a profit just makes them like just about every water polo, volleyball, golf, tennis, and softball program playing at a college or university. If profit-making is the measure, then college football and men's college basketball should be the only two sports offered. You want to take that position, Buzz?
The most recent example is the University of Maryland. The president there, Wallace D. Loh, late last year announced that eight varsity programs would be cut in order to produce a leaner athletic budget, a kindly way of saying that the school would rather save struggling football and basketball programs than keep varsity sports such as track and swimming, in which the vast majority of participants graduate.
Imagine that you are the head of a household where the family budget is in the red. Your employer has cut your salary, so you are having a hard time paying for all of your expenses. According to Buzz, the solution is to quit your job entirely because it isn't bringing in enough money to cover your expenses. Mr. Bissinger might be able to string sentences together, but he would be a total failure teaching home ec.
Part of the Maryland football problem: a $50.8 million modernization of its stadium in which too many luxury suites remain unsold. Another problem: The school reportedly paid $2 million to buy out head coach Ralph Friedgen at the end of the 2010 season, even though he led his team to a 9-and-4 season and was named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year. Then, the school reportedly spent another $2 million to hire Randy Edsall from the University of Connecticut, who promptly produced a record of 2-and-10 last season.
In an interview with the Baltimore Sun in March, Mr. Loh said that the athletic department was covering deficits, in large part caused by attendance drops in football and basketball, by drawing upon reserves that eventually dwindled to zero. Hence cutting the eight sports.
Lehman Brothers made serious mistakes prior to the Great Recession, so let's ban the financial services industry. Our military did not win the Vietnam War, so let's get rid of the armed forces altogether. The Philadelphia Eagles have never won a Super Bowl, so the NFL should contract them. Maryland made a series of mistakes in the management of its football program, so let's do away with college football.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are the medical dangers of football in general caused by head trauma over repetitive hits.
This is true, but it is an argument for either banning football altogether or at least making changes to the rules of the game to make it safer. It is not a specific criticism of college football.
There is the false concept of the football student-athlete that the NCAA endlessly tries to sell, when any major college player will tell you that the demands of the game, a year-round commitment, makes the student half of the equation secondary and superfluous.
Any major college player? Really? There is a legitimate criticism buried within Bissinger's hyperbole. Major college football is a time-consuming activity. It is hard for players to balance their academic and athletic demands, especially when many of them come from families and school systems that did not prepare them for college. However, there are ways to solve this problem that do not involve banning college football (and thereby depriving many of the players whose interests Buzz professes to have in mind of attending college altogether). For instance, the NCAA could mandate that players get time after the expiration of their eligibility to complete their degrees. But what fun is suggesting measured changes when Buzz can make outlandish claims because he comes from an area of the country where college football is an afterthought and he is confused by a world where the sport has replaced baseball as the second most popular in the country.
There are the scandals that have beset programs in the desperate pursuit of winning-the University of Southern California, Ohio State University, University of Miami and Penn State University among others.
Congrats, Buzz. You have made the case for paying players. On a related note, two recent Super Bowl winners were found to have cheated, one by stealing signals and videotaping opponents' practices and the other by employing and then covering up a bounty system. Let's ban the NFL! Numerous recent World Series champions were populated with players who were using PEDs. Let's ban baseball! As long as there are rewards for winning, there will be players and teams that will cheat to gain a competitive advantage. Let's ban rewards for winning!
I can't help but wonder how a student at the University of Oregon will cope when in-state tuition has recently gone up by 9% and the state legislature passed an 11% decrease in funding to the Oregon system overall for 2011 and 2012. Yet thanks to the largess of Nike founder Phil Knight, an academic center costing $41.7 million, twice as expensive in square footage as the toniest condos in Portland, has been built for the University of Oregon football team.
Always important to feed those Ducks.
Yes, when I think of Oregon students, I think of a group that hates their football program and would vote to ban it in a heartbeat if they had a chance.
The first fallacy of Buzz's argument is that Phil Knight was going to donate that amount to the University of Oregon regardless of whether they had a football program. Yes, that money would be better spent on purely academic purposes, but we live in a world where people spend too much money and attention on sports. That obsession pays a portion of your salary, Buzz, so pay for your ticket and don't complain.
Second, at least Oregon's program is being funded by private sources. The Minnesota Vikings are currently shepherding a bill through the Minnesota legislature that will amount to a nine-figure subsidy from state government for a new stadium. That amount dwarfs the sums about which Buzz complained earlier in his piece, but somehow, I'm not holding my breath that a Philadelphian will realize the implications of his "logic" and advocate that the NFL go the way of the USFL by government fiat.
I actually like football a great deal. I am not some anti-sports prude. It has a place in our society, but not on college campuses. If you want to establish a minor league system that the National Football League pays for-which they should, given that they are the greatest beneficiaries of college football-that is fine.
I like football a great deal; I just don't like it when it is played by rubes in the South and Midwest. I love that Buzz sees the NFL as the greatest beneficiary of college football as opposed to, you know, those of us who watch and love the sport. You mean that there are people out there who like college football for its own sake as opposed to as a proving ground for future NFL players? Heaven forbid!
Call me the Grinch. But I would much prefer students going to college to learn and be prepared for the rigors of the new economic order, rather than dumping fees on them to subsidize football programs that, far from enhancing the academic mission instead make a mockery of it.
The Grinch? No, Buzz, you are not the Grinch. The Grinch could strong coherent thoughts together.