Sunday, November 30, 2008


I voted for Barack Obama and was happy when he won, so happy that I exchanged fist bumps with like-minded friends. As far as I’m concerned he needn’t walk on water to be a successful president, just run a competent administration and show some respect for the truth. He’d be a big improvement over the gang we’ve just had on both those scores.

But although The Elected One is almost two months shy of taking office, I already find myself in disagreement with him. That’s over his call for an annual, eight-team playoff to determine a national major-college football champion. What’s he doing messing with that stuff, anyway? Maybe he’s still in campaign mode and hoping to win over some of the Joe Six-Pack types who join the cheers for such things.

Or maybe his proposal reflects a disappointing lack of understanding of today’s college-athletics’ scene. As anyone who has spent much time around them knows, the trouble with the big-time college “revenue” sports—football and men’s basketball—is that they’re too much about sports and not enough about college. School administrators, alums and even some faculty members have bought into the notion that success on the gridiron or hardcourt confers a status that can’t be gotten elsewhere. To that end they’ve created a monster business that’s taken on a life of its own and diverts resources and attention from what should be their real mission.

To support it they’ve built physical plants that match or exceed in grandeur those of the sports pros, down to (or up to) multi-million-dollar workout facilities and the glassed-in “luxury” boxes that line their stadiums’ rims. Their head coaches receive seven-figure annual income packages and perks that mock their frequent self-descriptions as humble educators. These cats typically have a half-dozen secretaries and offices large enough to house an Olympic swimming pool. It’s easier to get a private audience with Condoleezza Rice than with some of them.

The young men who star in the shows the big-timers produce are no more than grist for the mill. They’re recruited with the promise of receiving a proper academic life-launching only to be immediately saddled with a regimen of practice, game-film watching, weight training, games and travel that amounts to a full-time job and then some. Under such circumstances only the brightest and most highly motivated individuals can obtain an education worth the name, but, sadly, most of the kids involved are neither. Most drift away from campus once their athletic eligibility expires or are whisked out the door with a diploma that’s just a piece of paper. Don’t put much stock in the claims of schools that purport to have high athlete-graduation rates; for my money that means their athletic departments have too much sway over their academic counterparts.

Like those of the pros, college revenue-sport schedules only change in one direction: longer. Hey, if you don’t open the store you can’t do business. Back in the Stone Age, when I went to college, the college-football regular season was nine games and there were maybe a half-dozen New Year’s Day bowls. Now the NCAA-sanctioned Division I regular season is 12 games and there are enough bowl games to provide ESPN with nightly programming from middle December through the first week in January.

That’s not all, though. “Pre-season” games, usually connected to some charity but with the schools getting their shares just the same, aren’t counted in the 12. Neither are the championship contests held by conferences that have been split into divisions. Throw in a bowl and 14-game seasons aren’t uncommon.

Even incorporating present bowls into the mix, the eight-team playoff Obama espouses would tack on another game or two for the teams that qualify, often running their seasons to 15 or 16 outings. Sixteen games is the length of an NFL season, isn’t it? It’d extend the college season through January, making it six months in duration. And this in a sport where the players get the stuffings kicked out of them weekly.

As Obama pointed out repeatedly in his campaign, the U.S. educational system’s many shortcomings have caused us to fall behind other nations in preparing our youth for the knowledge-based economy that’s developing worldwide. Encouraging the further growth of the college-sports behemoth wouldn’t help us a bit there.

1 comment:

Mike Levy said...

Hey Fred,
Like you said, you've been around this a long, long time. Times have changed and so has thinking. Hell, that's why this country elected Barack Obama...Change! Old thinking doesn't necessarily hold up in modern times. Colleges make lots of money out of their leading sports and not all of that money goes to athletic programs. Proceeds from sport related funds go into education and improvement of campuses. That's a good thing. And if it wasn't for college athletic programs, many kids who would never get or think of getting into a university have an opportunity to attend. That legacy could alter their personal lives and the lives of many in a very positive manner. Besides Fred, these kids are not dumb to the situation. They know what they are getting themselves into. They've trained and practiced for many years in order to get their big break, that of getting into a university athletic program. So as you can see, I'm all for a National Championship (especially being a Gator fan). Nothing wrong with extending the college football season (I prefer it to watching the pros). Nothing wrong with giving the universities that participate a little more prestige. Nothing wrong with the capital that National Championship will generate.

Mike. (go Gators!)