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October 31, 2013

College football innocence long gone

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — There is nothing quite like the pageantry of college football. The bands, cheerleaders, students, alumni, and loyal fans provide an atmosphere you can’t quite get anywhere else. For a long time the college game also had an innocence about it (at least compared to pro football) but that has slowly faded away. With the advent of cable sports networks, especially ESPN and Fox, the culture has changed where money now rules the sport.

I’ll be the first to admit the idea of “innocence” in college football is basically a myth. The notion of the pure “student-athlete” is a rarity among football players. It is also true that under-the-table payouts have been around probably as long as the NCAA. In the early 1950s people joked about an All-American running back taking a pay cut when he turned pro. Even if the purity of the game was a myth it still seemed like the unseemly side of the game was on the periphery rather than in the middle of it.

No more.

A generation ago college football games only appeared on ABC. You were lucky if your school was on a national or regional broadcast unless you attended a traditional power such as Alabama, Michigan, Texas, Ohio State, Nebraska, Oklahoma or USC. Those schools were on more often than not.

Today, thanks mostly to the rise of ESPN, practically every school is on cable or network TV. The rights fees paid out are in the billions. The networks decide game times so fans don’t know until a week ahead of time if their game will be on Saturday afternoon or evening. Schools gladly sacrifice their fans’ convenience for the money and the prospect of showing off their product in prime time.

The added exposure produces a domino effect where schools pay out big money to lure marque coaches with the somewhat twisted (but apparently accurate) logic that a successful football program will enhance a university’s academic reputation. It’s the same logic that applies to cities that suddenly feel “major league” when they land a professional sports franchise.

It wouldn’t have been surprising if the saying “money is at the root of all evil” originated in college football. It certainly applies to today’s game. 50 years ago you could see a major college football game for 50 cents. Today that wouldn’t cover the cost of the can of soda or beer you’re trying to sneak into the stadium. Even losing major college programs charge $40 to $50 per game (although admittedly, smaller programs still tend to be sanely priced).

The emphasis on the bottom line automatically leads to a system where winning is everything. Academics become secondary even where coaches emphasize education, and the sleaze factor is ever present. Recruiting becomes the biggest game in town. Co-eds who act as hostesses to prospective recruits are often expected to compromise themselves and schools spend millions improving facilities in order to attract the five-star athletes.

This whole sorted affair is examined by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian in their new book, The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football. The two authors managed to get inside access to several big-time programs and present the good, bad, and ugly side of the game. Even when the process is above board and presumably a positive, such as wealthy alumni like T. Boone Pickens and Phil Knight giving back to their alma maters, it is clear that money has taken over the game.

The financial aspect cannot be any clearer than when the book focuses on the University of Alabama. The school has won several national championships lately under head coach Nick Saban and he has a whole process in place that promotes complete success on the football field, in the classroom, and in life. What could be better than that?

The problem is that it feels like it’s past the saturation point. Saban is such an obsessive-compulsive about planning that he leaves no stone unturned. Because he brings in so much money (including an annual salary of over $5 million) he is able to hire assistants that can spend 60 hours a week just analyzing game film and physical trainers to watch over every aspect of conditioning. Football becomes all-consuming to the players whether they like it or not. It makes you wonder if a university is more interested in a winning football program than promoting its academic mission.

I don’t mean to totally demean the game. I still love college football, and Benedict and Keteyian present several positive stories in their discussion of it. It’s just that some of the traditions of the game, such as a reliable kick-off time, are no longer viable. We may be able to see any game we want but the “innocence” is gone.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at co.david@4cls.org.