College football is the arranged marriage of two entities: An institution of higher learning and an athletic industry. It is corrupt and illogical and wildly entertaining and lucrative, which means a legion of lawyers and ad men and sports journalists are handsomely paid to defend and promote its corruption and illogic while the rest of us watch. The beauty of the scheme, from the standpoint of a business student or a sociopath, is that the players themselves get paid nothing.
Actually, that’s not true. As we are endlessly reminded by the various Quislings in the employ of the NCAA, they receive scholarships. These “student-athletes” are given a chance to succeed in the game of life! Yes, in between the 40–60 hours a week they spend practicing and recovering from practice and working out and attending team meetings and studying the playbook—never mind travel, media duties, and games—you can just imagine how much time and energy they have to devote to course work! After all, what matters most at Auburn is not that their star running back is primed and ready for a nationally televised Bowl game, but that he’s primed and ready for that pop quiz in Anthropology. You can imagine how concerned all his coaches must be about his academic progress, given that their own career trajectories depend entirely on climbing the national football rankings.
Fun fact: Up to a third of Division I football players never graduate.
I don’t mean to be flippant. I’m sure there are many college players who pursue their studies strenuously. My point is that the system doesn’t require them to. The notion that they’ve enrolled in college to learn more about the world of ideas is a fraud we all consent to so we can watch them compete on Saturday.
And it’s a fraud that degrades the essential educational mission. It suggests that what really matters, what makes a college worth attending and supporting, isn’t scholarship or research or intellectual transmission, but athletics. Which is why, when you hear the name of a large state school such as the University of Texas or Florida or Michigan you don’t think of a college at all. You think of a football team.
To return to the issue of free labor, let us consider the recent claim, made by football players at Northwestern, that they be considered employees of the university, and thus allowed to unionize. This is not, as the media has reported it, a “controversy.” The players recruited by Northwestern work over 40 hours per week, even in the off-season. In any other context, we would call that a job.
The NCAA is desperate to fight this case, because it would crush the fragile foundational myth of the “student-athlete.” It would make college football seem too much like what it actually is: one of the nation’s fastest-growing industries. The top ten programs alone increased their revenues (self-reported, naturally) from $290 million to nearly $800 million in the ten years from 2001 to 2011. That’s more than 150 percent growth.
In 2012, ESPN paid $7.3 billion to broadcast the newly implemented college football playoffs for the next twelve years. Major conferences such as the SEC and Big Ten have launched their own hugely profitable networks. I would estimate the eventual total revenues for the nation’s 125 major programs (TV rights, ticket sales, merchandise, video game licensing) at a gazillion dollars.
Boosters point to all this moolah as a justification for the programs. Look here, they say. Our football team is keeping this institution afloat. The truth is that it’s tremendously expensive to run a football program, what with multimillion dollar coaching contracts and recruiting visits and so on. The Stanford program, for instance, generated $25 million in 2011–2012, and spent $18 million. Ohio State spent $34 million. Alabama spent $37 million. In one year.
To be sure, the biggest programs do turn a profit. But that profit doesn’t provide financial aid for underprivileged philosophy students, or new labs for the chemistry department. It goes mainly to other athletics. More significantly, as economists Rodney Fort and Jason Winfree have noted, only a small share of the nation’s college football programs turn a profit at all. And most of it goes right back into the business.
Andrew Zimbalist, a leading sports economist at Smith College, notes that spending per student at schools with major programs stands at roughly $14,000 per year. The figure is over $90,000 for student athletes. In the country’s most famous conference, the SEC, schools spend nearly twelve times as much on athletes as they do on students who came to study, say, engineering or epidemiology. Colleges with big football programs also spend hundreds of millions on big stadiums—subsidized by (wait for it) taxpayers and even other students in the form of student fees.
This is a point the writer Malcolm Gladwell makes, that virtually nobody else seems to care about: Every college in America is supported by taxpayer dollars, and granted tax-exempt status. We do this because we value the collegiate mission, which is not to have a number one football team, but to graduate students who will go about the dull business of contributing to our society.
So who really benefits economically from college football?
Not only is it an ideal developmental league, it’s a humongous free publicity machine. The college game turns players such as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, Jr. and Johnny Manziel into brand names before they ever set foot on a pro field. Much of the reason the NFL dominates the sporting landscape is because its minor league system is, itself, the third most popular sport in America, and will probably overtake baseball before long.
Of course, when we think about the big money and glamour of the college game, we’re really thinking about the elite teams. What fans rarely see, and almost never think about, is how the game operates in the hundreds of smaller programs where players run even greater risks with no chance of going pro.
I am (of course) a total effing hypocrite when it comes to college football, because over the past five years I’ve become increasingly sucked in by the Stanford team, which is not my alma mater but where I sold hot dogs and watched John Elway gallivant so many years ago. The reason I got interested in the team was pathetically predictable: They got very good.
Last year, I decided to stop watching them. I kept seeing players get concussed during games, which I find more disturbing at the college level because I’ve actually taught undergraduates. It also dawned on me that the Stanford administration had made the disheartening decision to build an elite football program apparently because being an academically revered university wasn’t cutting it with the folks in corporate branding.
Then again, I’ve never felt an insane devotion to the college game, like Evan, a respected endocrinologist who runs a medical research lab at Harvard. I think of Evan as the kind of guy who does not suffer fools, or foolishness. And yet he has, over the years, been so infatuated with Michigan football as to haunt the message boards that serve as grievance depots for the truly afflicted. He told me he first got hooked his second year of medical school at Michigan. “Everything else basically sucked but at least there was this event, once a week, that everyone cared about. It was like you were instantly part of this huge tribe. I got wrapped up in it very quickly.”
Sure, I said, but you were studying to become a doctor.
“Yeah,” Evan said, unconvincingly. “There was this part of me that realized that players were getting hurt, and ripped off, and that football wasn’t the proper purview of a world-class university. But there was this other part of me that just felt unmitigated glee when they won. And those two parts of me are often not talking to each other.”
Evan said his passion for Michigan had started to ebb—until his son became a fan. Three years ago, they took a trip out to Ann Arbor to see the Wolverines beat Ohio State, an experience both of them look upon as a kind of holy pilgrimage. Why begrudge them this? After all, I still bond with my dad over sports. It’s a language to which we can always safely return. But it’s also true that I now often wish we had found more personal ways to connect, ways that didn’t do such harm to our principles.
This excerpt is drawn from Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond, to be published by Melville House on August 26, 2014.