1. A Killer Business Model
So tonight it’ll be Oregon vs. Ohio State for the college football championship. I’m going to pass. A big part of the reason is that I just watched Amir Bar-Lev’s sickening and fascinating new documentary, Happy Valley. Early in the movie we meet a Pennsylvania State University student named Tyler Estright who’s being interviewed in his dorm room, dressed in a Penn State t-shirt and a Penn State cap turned backward. The wall behind him is adorned with pictures of Joe Paterno, the university’s legendary football coach who, shortly before this interview, was fired amid revelations that one of his long-time assistants, Jerry Sandusky, was a serial sexual abuser of young boys.
“How could they do this to Joe?” Estright cries, echoing a common refrain in State College, Pa. — known as Happy Valley — that Paterno was unfairly punished for another man’s sins. “Look,” Estright continues, “I feel bad for the victims, okay? I have to say that so people don’t think I’m an idiot. But the thing that made me maddest was that the NCAA took away Joe’s wins.”
Though Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison, Estright derides an on-campus candlelight vigil for the victims as “fake.” Later, watching television as Penn State and Nebraska players kneel together on the field for a prayer before the kickoff of the first game in the post-Paterno era, Estright barks, “Get up off your knees and let’s play football! That’s what we do here!”
Eventually, Estright’s disgust with the unfairness of Paterno’s treatment and the ensuing National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions shades into fury when the Penn State players start wearing their names above the numerals on the backs of their jerseys. This seemingly minor change is, for Estright, an unpardonable contravention of everything Penn State football supposedly stood for under Paterno: selfless devotion to the notion that the game of football, if played correctly, builds better people and a better world.
Also buying into this questionable notion is an artist named Michael Polito, who painted a brazenly religious mural of Penn State football worthies on the wall of a downtown building. A God-like (and haloed) Paterno is at the center, with a Christ-like Sandusky at his right hand, both of them surrounded by angelic coaches and players. After the convictions and the firings and the sanctions, we watch Polito paint over the image of the disgraced Sandusky. Then, after much soul searching, Polito paints over Paterno’s halo but leaves the rest of beloved Joe Pa intact. Painting over that halo, says Polito, is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” There is also much lamentation when the statue of Paterno is removed from its hallowed spot in front of the football stadium and unceremoniously hauled away. Such events pass for traumas inside a bubble like Happy Valley, Pa.
It’s sickening and fascinating to watch Tyler Estright and Michael Polito and other Penn State football supporters not because they’re unusual but because, as Happy Valley makes clear, so many other people in Pennsylvania and the rest of America feel exactly the way they feel. In the end, this movie is not really about a sexual predator and his enabler. It’s about what their downfall illuminates: a nation so drunk on sports, especially on big-time college football, that it has lost the ability to think and feel. America has become a nation, as one reviewer of Happy Valley wrote, “put under a spell, even reduced to grateful infantilism, by the game of football.”
How did this come to pass? To arrive at an answer, do what you always do in America: follow the money. In 2010, the Southeastern Conference, which has produced the last seven national champions in college football, became the first conference to make $1 billion in revenue. This year’s three playoff games and associated bowl games are part of a new 12-year TV contract worth $7.3 billion. Baseball, once known as America’s national pastime, has been thoroughly eclipsed by college (and pro) football. Game 1 of last year’s baseball World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals drew half as many viewers as a mid-season college football game between Florida State and Notre Dame. Some 28 million people tuned in to each of the Jan. 1 playoff games. Football generates about two-thirds of the revenue at major college athletic programs. Yes, big-time college football has turned its stratospheric popularity into one highly productive cash cow.
But the game’s current success is built on a pair of unpretty pillars: the grateful infantilism of millions of fans like Tyler Estright; and the fact that the players who generate the billions of dollars in revenue do not receive a dime in compensation. That’s what you might call a killer business model.
2. A Secular Religion
College football’s recent tsunami of popularity caught me by surprise, even though I’ve known for years that big-time college football is virtually a secular religion across the South and in such select Yankee hotbeds as State College, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; and Ann Arbor, Mich. Now you can add Eugene, Oregon to the list. I attended a few University of Michigan games as a kid — spectacles that drew upwards of 100,000 fans into the university’s colossal bowl of a stadium. In my memory, there was something distinctly gladiatorial about those games.
The South’s passion for college football dates back at least to 1926, when Alabama became the first school from the region to play in the Rose Bowl. Three years after that red-letter date, my late father, then aged 7, snuck under a fence to witness the first game ever played in Sanford Stadium in his hometown of Athens, Ga. — a 15-0 victory for Georgia over mighty Yale. In the 1960s, coach Bear Bryant, a sort of piney-woods Joe Paterno, turned Alabama into a national powerhouse.
In 1982, I landed a job as a Top 40 disc jockey at a Savannah, Ga., radio station that also broadcast the University of Georgia Bulldogs’s football games. One of my side duties was to put together each Saturday’s taped pre-game show, which required me to travel up to the campus in Athens for the annual pre-season Media Day.
It was an experience I’ll never forget. Georgia had won the national championship in 1980, and Bulldog running back Herschel Walker was a heavy favorite for the Heisman Trophy in 1982. With the faithful drooling in anticipation of another national title, radios droned the state’s unofficial anthem: “Give Herschel Walker the ball…”
When I arrived on the Athens campus for Media Day, there was an armada of TV trucks parked outside the athletic complex, bristling like giant insects. Inside, an army of broadcasters, sportswriters, and nobodies like myself bustled around, interviewing coaches and players. It was an astonishing dance. The interviewers approached their subjects with great deference, especially the star players and the coach, Vince Dooley, who struck me as the biggest gas bag who ever wore pants. All pronouncements were written down or tape-recorded or videotaped as though they were holy writ, soon to be disseminated to the waiting multitudes. It was amazing to watch grown men kowtow to mumbling teenage boys, even if those boys happened to be chiseled, 250-pound slabs of beef.
Eventually I broke away from the breathless clots of interviewers crowding around the players, and I noticed…the girls. They were impossibly beautiful, impossibly blonde, impossibly tan, as though they’d all been force-fed a diet of peaches and yogurt and sunshine. The black girls were every bit as luscious. Co-eds don’t look like this up North, I thought. The girls were lurking along the walls in sundresses, and I soon realized they were actually jiggling with impatience for all the old men with the microphones and notebooks to get out of the way so they could get a shot at those beautiful slabs of boy beef, prime boyfriend material, maybe husband material, maybe even N.F.L. meal-ticket material.
The air in that room was a hormonal cocktail, so potent, so thick, so musky that I was surprised those girls hadn’t already come out of their sundresses. All in due time, I told myself. As I drove back home to Savannah that evening, I realized I had gotten my first glimpse of the big-time college football business model. It was built on an infantile news media feeding pap to infantile fans, who treated teenage boys like princes while the university raked in millions of dollars off the unpaid labor of those pampered princes. The equation had it all: big money, big media, celebrity, and sex. The only thing missing was academics. More on that in a moment.
Alas, the Georgia faithful were to suffer unimaginable heartbreak at the end of that season. Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy and the Bulldogs won the Southeastern Conference championship and finished the regular season ranked #1. But in the Sugar Bowl they lost the national championship to the #2 team in the land, the Nittany Lions from Happy Valley, Pa., coached by a doomed god named Joe Paterno.
3. The “Student-Athlete”
Which brings us to the NCAA’s most cynical and lucrative myth, the “student-athlete.” Four years after I attended that Media Day in Athens, the president of the University of Georgia resigned when the board of regents implicated him and Vince Dooley, who was athletic director as well as football coach, in a pattern of academic abuse in the admission and advancement of student-athletes. The abuse was brought to light by Jan Kemp, an English professor who had the temerity to complain when higher-ups intervened to give nine football players a passing grade for a remedial English course they had failed. The passing grades enabled the players to compete in that year’s Sugar Bowl. For her trouble, Kemp was demoted, then fired. She sued. At trial, one of the university’s attorneys justified the favorable treatment of a hypothetical football player this way: “We may not make a university student out of him, but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career.” Despite such shrewd lawyering, Kemp won the case and was awarded more than $1 million in damages and lost wages.
Cut to the present. The University of North Carolina, which has long prided itself on “the Carolina Way” — athletic excellence and academic rigor — is now reeling from revelations that for 18 years a “shadow curriculum” funneled student-athletes into courses that required no class attendance and no course work other than a single paper, which teachers often didn’t read. For such scholarship, more than 1,000 “student-athletes” received high enough grades to be able to continue to compete.
Defenders of Joe Paterno never tire of pointing out that 80-plus percent of his football players earned their degrees, compared with a national average of about 50 percent. But as a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette study revealed, players on the top 25 football and basketball teams tend to get “clustered” into majors where accommodating professors and less rigorous work loads are more likely to result in grades that allow the athletes to remain eligible to play. At Baylor, the student-athlete’s major of choice is General Studies; at Texas A&M, it’s Agricultural Leadership and Development; at Oregon, it’s Social Science, and so forth. This is not a knock on the student-athletes. Competing on a big-time college football or basketball team — with its time-consuming practices, training and travel — is a full-time job, and it leaves players with far less time and energy for academics than non-athletes enjoy. “The Carolina Way,” it turns out, is a fantasy, little more than a hollow PR stunt.
Sandwiched between the academic scandals at Georgia and North Carolina is a long and dreary litany of cash payouts, rape charges, shoe scandals, drug busts, the Penn State horror show, and my personal favorite, student-athletes who are unable to read their own contracts when they turn pro.
But rococo scandals are just the beginning of the woes now bedeviling the NCAA’s killer business model. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern University football players are school employees and thus eligible to form a union. In August, a federal judge ruled that the NCAA violates antitrust laws by limiting what college athletes can receive from their “names, images and likenesses.” The ruling stopped short of allowing students to receive money from commercial endorsements while still in school. It also failed to address the elephant in the room: Given the revenues they generate, shouldn’t athletes in big-time college sports, specifically football and basketball, get paid for their services?
The answer to that and other vexing questions might come from, of all places, Capitol Hill, where there’s a movement under way to form a presidential commission to look into the numerous problems facing big-time college sports. The NCAA, meanwhile, is already angling to shore up its crumbling business model. In the first half of 2014, the NCAA paid almost a quarter of a million dollars to lobbyists to press the case on Capitol Hill that it deserves an antitrust exemption. Yes indeed, always follow the money.
4. Football as Metaphor
How do you explain football’s rampaging popularity? Take your pick.
On the most superficial level, the game’s violence has a built-in appeal in a bellicose country like America. The parallels between football and war are almost too patent: the trench warfare at the line of scrimmage, the aerial combat (with occasional bursts of ballet) of the passing game, the bone-crushing contact, the martial precision of the marching bands. Increasingly, there is also the presence of the U.S. military at games — uniformed personnel participating in on-field ceremonies, fighter planes screaming overhead, game broadcasts peppered with recruiting ads urging members of the underclass to volunteer for the armed services so they can take part in our forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Hollywood, big-time college football has been thoroughly infiltrated by the U.S. military.
There’s a much subtler link between football and the military: the ways players and soldiers get treated. First they’re seduced, then they’re worshiped, then they’re discarded. This link is beautifully captured by Steve Almond in his new book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto:
The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind.
It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level…But it turns out that our adulation…is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable.
Another source of football’s popularity is that it’s ideally suited to television — short bursts of violent action separated by downtime that can be used to over-analyze the action or sell things. Compare this to baseball’s unhurried, relatively seamless pacing (and lack of a game clock), or with soccer’s two halves of 45 uninterrupted minutes of action when no one tries to sell the viewer anything. Baseball and soccer can’t hope to surpass football’s appeal to a populace with a wide violent streak, a short attention span, and an innate impatience with narratives that unfold at a leisurely pace. Americans detest longueurs almost as much as they love their shock and their awe. If baseball belongs to the pastoral 19th century, football is a perfect fit with the frenzied, fragmented 21st.
Isn’t professional football, with its stratospheric salaries, concussions, and domestic-violence scandals, even worse than big-time college football? I think not. The billionaires who own NFL franchises may enjoy unconscionable tax breaks because the IRS regards NFL teams as “non-profit” operations, and the owners may stage their untaxed extravaganzas in stadiums funded by taxpayers, but at least those rich owners pay their players, and pay them well. There’s a certain sleazy integrity to the NFL that’s absent from the NCAA. And the NFL, for all its many faults, has inspired at least two very fine novels — Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. That’s not nothing.
So feel free to take your pick as to why big-time college and pro football are so popular. Much more interesting to me, in the end, is what football means. I see it as nothing less than a metaphor for America. The game and the nation were built on a shared impulse: the drive to acquire an enemy’s territory through violence. Is this overly simplistic? I don’t think so, because games reveal character, both of individuals and of groups (teams and fans, even nations). I believe that a football team’s drive down the field is an echo of one of the central narratives of our national history — the drive west through the forceful subjugation of the native populace. If you buy this equation, you begin to see just how deeply football is threaded into America’s DNA. It’s nothing less than a crystallization of our national character. No wonder so many millions of Americans are drunk on the game. And as we become increasingly infantilized by sports and celebrity worship, technology and consumer goods, no wonder a fan like Tyler Estright becomes outraged that more than 100 of Penn State’s football victories were vacated, yet he remains virtually indifferent that dozens of boys were sexually abused by one of the school’s assistant coaches. After a while, it starts to make perfect sense.
5. The Pure Joy of Play
I love to play sports, especially pick-up basketball, and I enjoy watching sports in small doses, especially minor-league baseball, and basketball at the high school and small-time college levels. (Though as Friday Night Lights reminded us, high school sports are not immune to many of the ills that have perverted big-time college sports.)
So, a few nights ago, I went up to the Bronx to watch a basketball game between two mid-level NCAA Division I schools, Fordham University and Siena College. There were barely 1,000 spectators in Fordham’s lovely old gym, there was not a single NBA prospect on the floor, and both teams have at best a modest chance of winning their respective conference tournaments and qualifying for the big-money NCAA tournament in March. Despite all this — or, rather, because of it — the game was a thing of beauty, a tight, well played tussle between two groups of talented young men who play for the love of a game that has given them a chance to get a free college education.
The true beauty of that game in the Bronx was that it was not about making money. It was about something much bigger, the thing that sports are supposed to be about but too rarely are in America today.
It was about the pure joy of play.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons