College basketball is, in the eyes of many Americans, a niche sport.
Our internal traffic numbers here at The Student Section showed that in our first college sports cycle, basketball readership skyrocketed in March but didn’t remotely approach March levels in any other month before or since. At least in terms of content consumption (as measured by pageviews, the current standard by which various content providers are judged on the web), college basketball is a one-month sport. We at TSS don’t like it, but it’s largely true. It doesn’t mean college basketball is a dying sport, either; it means more than anything that the extent to which Americans love college hoops in March is not sustained throughout the rest of the year.
If you are able to put college basketball in its unique place, and if you also acknowledge that the NBA and NHL seasons meet a similar surge in interest when the playoffs arrive every spring, it’s not that hard to identify football as the sport of choice in this country. Baseball might own a presence in the public consciousness which extends beyond its crowning month of October, but football now stands alone as the one sport which is spoken and thought about 12 months a year in this country (or very close to it).
It’s true that our country’s addiction to football is most centrally manifested in its attachment to the NFL, with preseason ratings matching or exceeding some signature events for other sports. It’s true that the NFL is a ratings goliath college football generally can’t match.
Yet, the public’s appetite for college football remains substantial, exceeded by the NFL and… well… not very much else.
This backdrop forms the foundation of this season-opening essay, as college football bursts into action on the field and greets our lives again after an absence of roughly seven and a half months.
It is easy to look at college football as the embodiment of the worst of America.
The bodies we see on our ESPN television broadcasts every autumn aren’t those of little boys, but they’re not the bodies of full-grown men, either. The concussive force of football, at the collegiate level, is substantial. This reality leads some subsets of Americans to question whether they want their kids to play this sport.
Knowing what we know now about CTE and the lives of professional football players that have unraveled because of brain trauma, the notion of playing college football — in itself, and as a gateway to the pros — strikes some people as particularly savage. It is easier for many Americans to explain away the reality of professional football — where the compensation for knocking heads is decent — than it is to justify the continued existence and popularity of the game at the collegiate level.
This is part of the ugly underside of football, and whenever we see a player pushed back into action without seemingly being fully examined for concussive symptoms, more and more of us who enjoy and watch this sport are made to feel uneasy.
None of this, mind you, even touches on an entirely different realm of discomfort in (and with) college football, which we’ve been reminded of in the past month.
At Baylor, Illinois, Virginia Tech, and Cincinnati, in addition to many other schools, individuals within a much larger university or athletic department superstructure have either spoken or acted out of turn. These programs — in their own ways and to varying degrees — have reminded the nation that precise policies governing the admittance of athletes into programs; the care of athletes; the policing of athlete conduct within football operations; and other related issues are still, to a perhaps-alarming extent, elusive.
Enough confusion reigned in Waco, Champaign, Blacksburg, and Cincy to the point that either institutions or highly-paid coaches at those institutions lost sight of greater obligations to protect college-age individuals. In some instances, those individuals were not athletes; in other cases, they were. The main point of emphasis is not so much on the merits of cases, but on how schools or prominent school employees have been caught off guard in perceiving the needs presented by various situations.
With tighter and fully-formed policies on matters pertaining to admittance of athletes into programs; the handling of alleged sexual assault cases; coach-athlete boundaries; the fining of athletes related to cost of attendance; and other issues, there would still be debates about where to draw the line between what is acceptable and not. However, the formulation of more specific policies would enable universities to act more swiftly and clearly, and students — whether athletes or non-athletes — would understand their rights and capacities for action or redress of grievances in a much clearer way.
(I hope you can sense that this is not about weighing in on whether School X is right or wrong; that’s not the focus. It’s on the need for all schools, not just the ones mentioned above, to have fully-developed plans in place for handling various issues under the sun.)
I am left to ask this question: Why don’t schools seem to have clear and precise policies in place? Why do universities not have a lot of sunlight to offer with regard to their processes and procedures for dealing with messy athlete-centric situations that are going to continue to crop up from time to time?
All of this is puzzling for one basic reason: Penn State — which brought so much ugliness into view and was supposed to have lifted the veil from the eyes of Americans in terms of the messianic identity of coaches such as Joe Paterno — is almost four years old as a story.
Universities have had almost four years to process the whole of Penn State and take very concrete steps to ensure that they have policies in place which can maximize transparency; protect the rights of all parties involved; create clear lines of communication; and not concentrate power in the hands of a head coach, major assistant coach, or any very small group of people.
Why does it seem, then, given the flood of news over the past few weeks, that major secondary institutions in our educational system are so far behind the curve? It’s disturbing, to say the least, and it’s not a happy reality to contemplate as the 2015 college football season begins. Such a reality brings us to a lot of competing tensions in the college sports world as we know it.
On one hand, athletes are more protected than ever before. We see, time and again, how athletes are told “yes” by universities and the larger culture, given second chances (at LSU under Les Miles, at Nebraska in the 1990s, and at various places in between, both geographically and chronologically) that students or common individuals in other less lucrative lines of work would not be able to obtain.
Yet, on another level, athletes are never under more pressure than they are now; they’re often assumed to be the worst among us, when the facts just don’t support such a conclusion. Consider the Duke lacrosse case and the recent Dalvin Cook case at Florida State, among many other examples. The big-ticket college athlete inhabits an alluring yet frightening world, one in which celebrity and hero worship coexist with presumptions of guilt and an often suffocating work environment in which you could be dressed down by Jim Mora, Jr., or have an injury wipe out your professional career before it has a chance to blossom.
So much of what is happening in college football — from Clemson’s social media ban to virtual reality technologies now influencing recruiting and training — points to increasing specialization and professionalization of the industry. This is an ever more sophisticated, ever more resource-heavy, ever more lucrative and important pursuit, one which requires vast expenditures of time, energy and study from all angles. Some of these football players are in position to write their NFL ticket and cash in, but how many more aren’t? Moreover, of those that do make the NFL, how many last more than four years and — in their late 20s — have received the teaching and instruction beyond football itself to make a living, one which can translate a briefly-enjoyed NFL ride into a long and prosperous life?
These are all unsettling questions. They’re meant to be.
I ask them, however, not to make you feel guilty about loving college football, this sport that infuses so much color and vibrance and joy into our lives every autumn. I ask them so that we can appreciate what these athletes endure for our enjoyment and pleasure. We can appreciate that a scholarship is not a value-less thing; it represents a benefit that isn’t available to just anyone. That much is true. However, for all the adulation a successful college athlete might receive on campus or from a fan base, the cauldron of pressure faced by the modern college football player is so much more intense than it used to be.
One of the central features of college football — something the NFL has never matched, isn’t matching now, and can never hope to equal throughout the long march of time — is that for all the violence and brutality of football itself, the college game is infused with a sweet innocence, a romantic quality rooted in the ancient and timeless nature of rivalries in which hatred is a real thing.
Bears-Packers games from 1985 aren’t spoken of with a reverence that is passed from generation to generation, from granddaddies to grandsons.
The 1985 Iron Bowl is lovingly passed down through the generations by Alabama fans. Grandfathers told their sons about Van Tiffin’s kick at Legion Field, and those sons are now telling their sons about that game. Those grandsons will tell their children about that game 10 to 15 years from now.
We don’t REALLY think our rivals are evil (at least not in most cases), but college football’s ability to bring large groups of people together around a university — which is something more than a corporate organization, one owned, in some cases, by an odious individual such as Daniel Snyder or Jerry Jones — creates enduring loyalties and extended histories that find more of an anchor in the distant past. College football owns a much longer reach into our yesterdays, precisely because a school or a whole state can keep our affections more than professional teams which often threaten to move cities and blackmail residents if they don’t get their way.
In a land where football is king, college football never has to worry if Auburn fans will cease to be Auburn fans. NFL fans, though, have to wonder if the Raiders are going to relocate to Southern California… again… or if the Rams franchise will move back to the West Coast… or if the Jacksonville Jaguars will pack their bags.
In college football, the fight song; homecoming; the rivalry game; the Saturday rituals; and all the other little things that make the sport what it is will always be there.
The New York Jets don’t dot the I in Script Ohio.
The Cincinnati Bengals don’t have Traveler or Bevo on the sidelines.
The San Diego Chargers don’t sing Rocky Top at any point during a game.
The Minnesota Vikings don’t rub Howard’s Rock when coming out of the tunnel at home games.
There’s so much about college football that is timelessly sweet, poignant in an endearing way, redolent of the unchanging nature of this sport’s ancient passions.
This is why I love college football. I want this sport to remain so achingly sweet to take in. I want these sights and sounds to continue to give my life a kind of magic it otherwise wouldn’t have.
Yet, most of all, I want this innocence on fall Saturdays to be honored, to mean something. I want this innocence to be made real by universities… through the act of putting in policies to swiftly, effectively, thoroughly process and navigate situations to the satisfaction of multiple parties in messy disputes. I want schools to not be ambushed by situations which — nearly four years after Penn State — clearly continue to take various university administrators and coaches by surprise. I want to see schools do right by the athletes who have never faced more scrutiny or expectations, thanks to both the pervasiveness of social media and the increased sophistication of training they receive in a markedly professionalized environment.
College football touches the soul and the spirit in ways the NFL never will. This sport can claim to be the most revered in America — maybe not more watched than the NFL, but with a far deeper and more personal claim on an American’s sense of history and imagination.
In order for this sport to mean more — and to keep both its fans and chroniclers happy as human beings — it’s only right that the athletes who have never felt more responsible for what’s at stake in this sport (especially with the advent of the College Football Playoff) are given more clarity, more protections, more of a recognition from entrenched institutions that they and their sacrifices are respected to the fullest possible extent.
That is my wish, as we allow these inconvenient issues to dwell in our minds and hearts… and as we now transition from the grim undercurrents of college sports to the games of a new season, to the moments that make us recall why this sport captured us so deeply and powerfully in our childhoods.