At the turn of the century, Teddy Roosevelt made the deification of the sport complete. Though he would later consider banning college football because of its physical and ethical dangers, in the beginning he sang its praises. "Roosevelt idolized those who fought in the Civil War," Weeks says. "He wrote that football could build the same character that war supposedly built."
Clearly football should not be war any more than it should be religion. Nothing is war but war itself. Perhaps we have needed all this time to realize what football is and is not, and whether it can help us as human beings. Many people will tell you that football teaches players how to compete ferociously and how to get ahead in this dog-eat-dog world. They will invariably add that competition is what the world is all about, that you've got to be tough and that only the strong survive.
But the whole notion of competition as an adversarial battle may not be correct. In a May 1984 essay on competition that appeared in Esquire, George Leonard writes, "The worthy opponent is integral to the play, not an enemy but a coconspirator. The conspiracy is revealed in the word compete itself, which comes from two Latin roots, com and petere, 'to seek together.' In this light, competition may be seen as a secret form of cooperation."
Leonard notes a paradox at the root of competition: that to get the most out of any game, one must play all out to win, while at the same time not let an obsession with winning ruin one's pleasure in the game. And cheating is an outgrowth of an obsession with winning. The cheating that accompanies big-time college football deals a crushing blow to the natural pleasure of competition as well as to the formation of character.
Now let me tell you how I feel on a primitive, visceral level about the NCAA. I hate it. I see the NCAA as a bunch of know-nothing, self-righteous stuffed suits who are willing to do just enough to keep the organization running. That's my prejudice, and having stated it, let me set it aside and explain why the NCAA can never bring integrity to the sport.
To begin with, the NCAA was not created back in 1906 to do any such thing. It was set up to pass rules designed to make the sport—which had been responsible for 18 deaths in 1905—safer for participants. It now exists for four basic purposes: first, to establish rules for intercollegiate sports so that all colleges under its wing play the same games; second, to act as a cartel for bargaining purposes with entities like TV networks; third, to deal with whatever outside forces might enter its sphere (in that regard, the NCAA has for years had an arrangement—now beginning to unravel—with the NFL, whereby, in effect, the colleges train the players in exchange for the NFL's agreeing not to take them before their eligibility has expired); and, fourth, to serve as a public relations outlet, devoted to making declarations about the righteousness of its member institutions. It's no accident that the NCAA spends far more on p.r. and promotions than it does on enforcing the rules that exist to safeguard the alleged integrity of college sports.
Listen to the sanctimonious quotes that the NCAA spews forth and try not to think of ostriches. "Our real purpose is to prepare student-athletes to be major contributors to our society," says NCAA executive director Dick Schultz, "while also providing meaningful opportunities for intercollegiate athletics." Excuse me while I gag. "Ninety-nine percent of everything that's going on in intercollegiate athletics is exceptionally positive," says Schultz. "We have to be sure we don't get mired down in that one percent that's negative."
Dear me. Let's make sure we don't get distracted when Washington coach Don James signs a San Diego high school running back named Marc Jones right after Jones has completed a seven-month sentence for striking and partially blinding a 17-year-old. James justified it all by saying, "His background is probably better than most players we bring in." Or when New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, a former college basketball star, tries to get the NCAA to approve an innocuous bill that would require schools to reveal graduation rates for scholarship athletes, so that a recruit can make an informed decision about where he goes to college. The NCAA objected so loudly that you would have thought Bradley had asked its members to line up for body tattoos. Bradley stated that he was "absolutely flabbergasted by the opposition" of the NCAA.
It occurs to me that some things that once seemed to have a place in our lives no longer do. In The Nature of a Liberal College, published in 1937, Henry Merritt Wriston, then the president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., wrote that "vigorous and competitive sports Hike football] belong peculiarly in the liberal college, for its ideal is an adventurous philosophy of life. Mere physical survival is not enough; the goal is life enriched by experience, even the experience of pain.... I know of no youthful experience equal to football and other sports in bringing the fact of pain into its right perspective."
But even Wriston was disgusted by what he saw in the sport. "Honest professionalism is beyond criticism," he wrote. "But to pretend that...one is cultivating the liberal ideal of life is just sheer hypocrisy, and nothing destroys integrity of character so rapidly or so completely. The institution which exploits youth for profit or for publicity betrays its calling; it impairs or destroys its capacity to fulfill its true function."