Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Sunday, November 02, 2003  

Here we are late in the college football season, when the football fan's fancy turns to the faults of the BCS. We now have nine teams with one loss in the top 25 (and an uncomfortably undefeated TCU) to compete with Oklahoma. There will be fewer by season's end but, presumably, more than one. Thus will begin the annual call for playoffs.

You know what I think? Scrap the national championship. This is by far the most effective way of addressing the problems that plague collegiate athletics and university finances. It will mainly hurt broadcasters, but they function like a cancer on colleges anyway.

Here's my thinking. We've created a system in which colleges serve football: it's a winner-take-all prospect in which any university fielding a team must invest millions for the possible windfall it might one day produce. That windfall comes in the form of bowl winnings, prestige, alumni giving, and endorsements. But the problem is that at the end of a season, so few teams will receive bowl bids. The losers suffer the backlash--disappointed alumni, loss of prestige, and big, big deficits. The only ways to emerge a winner are to not participate or spend so much for so long that your college enters the elite eschalon of teams. But that comes with enormous costs, too. Ask anyone who teaches English Lit to find our where the money comes from.

All of this is fairly well discussed. One thing that no one mentions, though, is that college football is a hell of a lot of fun. Ten years ago, I was in grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I had season tickets to watch the Badgers. That turned out to be the year of their emergence as a football power, after three decades of loss and humiliation. But you know what? No one at Wisconsin cared that year about the national championship--we cared about the Rose Bowl. It's a tradition that has no match in college football. The Rose Bowl is it.

It's an instructive situation. Even though the Big Ten and Pac Ten are major conferences and spend tens of millions of dollars on football, at the base of it, the tradition is a simple and accessible one. College football used to be full of these. Rather than award a single team (or ten--those who get to go to the untraditiona, mostly uninteresting BCS bowls), if we moved backwards toward local rivalries and tradition, we'd award dozens of teams. The stakes would be a lot lower and so would the cost. Prestige would be spread among a far greater group, teams could see the possibility of competing without bankrupting the school, and alumni would follow the schools much more closely if the competition seemed tighter.

Broadcasters would lose because showing the local rivalry for the Maple Bowl--UMass v. Southern Maine, say--would be a yawner in Houston. And many of the problems that come with college football wouldn't vanish, but would persist in smaller measure. Coaches wouldn't command multi-million dollar contracts; endorsement deals might exert less influence over campus research and education. Football would still dominate spending at a university, but less disproportionately--we might see the return of other male athletics like baseball and gymnastics.

Is it going to happen? Fat chance. Americans are absolutely fanatic about the idea of a "best" (despite the difficulty of ever determining such a thing in college football). It would have to emerge from universities who would strong-arm the conferences, and universities seem to have little courage for change. Still, I think more people would be happier about college football, more universities would benefit, and college athletes would be better served.

posted by Jeff | 10:57 AM |
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