More and more, the universities are saying the hell with the students anyway by scheduling games before classes start, during vacations and in distant states and foreign countries. Recently, I got an invitation in the mail to attend the second annual Emerald Isle Classic between Pittsburgh and Rutgers, to be held Dec. 2, 1989, at Landsdowne Road Stadium in Dublin. I wonder how many students will be at that one. For a while USC and Illinois planned to play in a Glasnost Bowl in Moscow this year, and Georgia Tech tried to entice Western Carolina into playing their November matchup in Toulouse, France. That didn't work out, but good old Tech has found another new way to rake in the cash. The Ramblin' Wreck is selling corporate sponsorships for all its home dates, with a suggested price of $75,000 for the Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Wake Forest and Western Carolina games; $100,000 for Boston College; and $175,000 for the season finale against archrival Georgia. "When you look at the money in corporate sponsorship, it's absolutely unbelievable," says Kevin Bryant, Tech's director of sports marketing and promotions. No, what's unbelievable is the extent to which a fine university will prostitute itself.
So if the games aren't for the players, the faculty or the students, how about the alums, those masses of former students with checkbooks and clout. Is the game played for them? There isn't much evidence to support a claim one way or the other on this question, but in an article for the December 1981 issue of CASE Currents, Frey notes that the one in-depth, scientifically controlled study done on alumni opinion about university athletics does not give any indication that the vast majority of alums care at all about big-time sport. The only disagreement in the study came between the few alumni leaders and the general alumni body.
"Alumni leaders rated athletics much more highly than did rank-and-file alumni," wrote Frey. "Actually, few alumni have any significant input into athletic policy. Most of them, in fact, think athletics are not all that important, particularly when compared to the need for other programs of higher education."
Frey's study documents what I think I have seen with my own two eyes—that a small but powerful group of alumni promote big-time football programs, drown out opposition and get what they want. I would say that this group is composed largely of big-shot businessmen, some of whom previously played football for the school and consider the football team to be an extension of their egos. If the study and Frey and I are correct, then universities are being led into ethical hell by a few loudmouthed, big-walleted jerks.
It's amusing to see what happens when a president does get fed up and takes a stand that's counter to the best interests of the football program. Iowa's Hunter Rawlings did that last spring, when he recommended that the NCAA ban freshmen from playing varsity sports and added that if the NCAA did not enact such a ban within three years, Iowa would act unilaterally. Rawlings, who assumed his job only a year ago, made his statement after learning through testimony at the Walters-Bloom trial that some Hawkeye football players were not what you would call real students. Still, many Iowans were outraged by Rawlings's proposal and called for his resignation. Coach Hayden Fry threatened to quit. The Des Moines Register conducted a poll that showed that 74% of its readers objected to Rawlings's plan. It also showed that only 13% of those people who rooted for Iowa's sports teams had ever taken a class at the school.
Among those who argued against Rawlings's proposal was Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who flat-out admitted that college football is not just a university concern. Football, said Branstad, "is very important and significant," and is "a source of entertainment for many people who never went to college themselves."
There you have it. Big-time college football is entertainment for anybody who needs amusement in the fall. That's its purpose in our society. Former Minnesota president Kenneth Keller beat Branstad to the punch when he told a special convention of the NCAA in 1987, "We in Division I are in an entertainment business, and we can't fool ourselves." It's this role as entertainer that has made universities as unethical as plagiarists, and it is the presidents who have allowed it to happen.
One of the more common responses to the ills plaguing big-time college football is the assertion that we need to get back to the way things used to be, that in that time known as "back then" the sport was clean and pure. It's a seductive notion, but one that's both wrong and dangerous. It's wrong because big-time college football has always been corrupt, though it was certainly less glaringly offensive than in today's era of TV and steroids. It's dangerous because it implies that the solution to college football's woes lies in a reactionary response, that by somehow returning to the presumed integrity of an innocent past we can make everything right again. If we were to return to the past, we would have to change some epic events outside the sport to maneuver the game to where it should be today. Prime among those events is the Civil War.
James Weeks is a doctoral candidate in history at Penn State. He has written a research paper on the Civil War and its influence on the then new American sport of football. Entitled From Appomattox to the Gridiron: The Civil War's Influence on the Rise of Football, his monograph points out that the War Between the States, though it resulted in the death of more Americans than any other war, in time became the romantic linchpin that made football an integral part of the college world. After a decade or so of denial and handwashing following the war, the leaders and shapers of the nation began to see the Civil War through rose-colored glasses. Men like Francis Walker, the president of MIT, and Endicott Peabody, headmaster of the Groton School, in effect designated this new game of football as the war's everyday equivalent. Weeks writes, "In football the nation discovered a convenient instrument of 'the strenuous life,' a doctrine linked by many of the war generation to a revivification of Civil War spirit." Men of letters began to praise the ennobling aspects of football at the same time and in the same spirit that they praised the war.
In his 1895 address to Harvard's graduating class, future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was then a justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court and believed heartily in the need for men to be "manly," declared, "Out of heroism grows faith in the worth of heroism.... Therefore I rejoice at every dangerous sport which I see pursued." The 'sis-boom-bah' cheer that we sometimes hear at college games springs from the post-Civil War sporting crowd's verbalization of a rocket soaring and exploding on enemy troops and the firing army's subsequent roar of approval.