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'Bowled Over'

October 29, 2009

College football has changed a great deal since the 1960s, and Michael Oriard has seen most of those changes firsthand.

In the late 1960s, Oriard walked onto the football team at University of Notre Dame. Eventually, he became starting center, was elected co-captain by his teammates and was named a second-team All-American. After college, he played briefly in the National Football League for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Now, Oriard is an English professor and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University. He specializes in American literature and culture, and has written six previous books about sports, mostly football.

His latest book, Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era, comes out Nov. 1 and is being published by the University of North Carolina Press. Oriard recently answered a number of questions about his experience playing college football and his thoughts on a number of issues pertinent to the game today.

Q: As a football player for Notre Dame in the late 1960s, you played against teams from the Southeastern Conference that were composed entirely of white players, as they had yet to integrate. What was that experience like on and off the field? What do you and your teammates think of these anachronisms?

A: I remember being aware that Georgia Tech, for example, did not have an integrated team, and my teammates and I heard after the game that our black teammates had had some slurs thrown at them by the crowd in Atlanta, but I did not witness any incidents myself, and I certainly had a limited historical understanding of what was going on in college football in 1969. Notre Dame’s own team was barely integrated at this time. My class had one black player; the class behind me, none. The sophomore class had six, and this was the beginning of the full integration of Notre Dame football. I did not play fully integrated football myself until I joined the Kansas City Chiefs (the first professional team to have a majority of black players).

Q: Zeroing in on your alma mater, what has changed the most about football at Notre Dame in the past 40 years? Are there any specifics that either encourage or discourage you both as an educator and a former college athlete?

A: I cannot really speak about the experience of Notre Dame football players today, but I assume that they face the same challenges facing athletes in all [of the Football Bowl Subdivision] programs: the greater demands on their time that limit their ability to get the best education their institution offers, as well as a full college experience. Also, Notre Dame in my time did not have its own TV contract and did not play on national television each week. Again, that makes Notre Dame typical today, not unique. What I most like about the conduct of Notre Dame football today is the fact that it remains part of the university, not an independent corporation. Revenues from football (including the contract with NBC) come to the university, and then a portion is allocated back to the athletic department.

Q: In the book, you write that the 1973 introduction of the one-year scholarship, whose renewal is contingent on athletic performance, transformed “student-athletes” into “athlete-students.” Was this a tipping point in the overall commercialization of college athletics? Are there other hallmark moments along this slippery slope that compare?

A: I do not see the one-year scholarship instituted in 1973 (along with the lowering of admission standards, and following the freshmen eligibility instituted the year before) as the tipping point but as the foundation for the modern commercialized game that emerged afterward. The key event was the [National Collegiate Athletic Association's] loss of its monopoly on negotiating television contracts for football, by a Supreme Court decision in 1984. That decision shifted economic power decisively toward the major conferences and major football programs. Saturated TV coverage, conference realignment, the BCS (following the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Coalition), million-dollar salaries for coaches, the facilities “arm race,” and all the rest followed from that event.

Q: A recent survey of college presidents at Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, formerly Division IA) institutions by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics reported that presidents found skyrocketing football and basketball coaches’ salaries “the greatest impediment” to the “stability” of college athletics as we know it. Do you agree or disagree? What, if anything, can presidents do about this?

A: Both as a symbol and as a specific fact, the $2-4 million salaries of the football coaches in the major [Bowl Championship Series] conferences does seem to me the clearest indication of out-of-control commercialism. And it’s crucially important to recognize the relationship between commercialism and the educational experience of “student-athletes.” When you’re paying your football coach two or three million dollars to fill a stadium, sell all of its premium seating, and lease all of its luxury suites, while taking the team to a BCS bowl, it’s very difficult to add, “And, oh, by the way, never forget that the education of our student-athletes is our highest priority.” The bind in which presidents find themselves is created by the fact that the NCAA can mandate academic standards (the Academic Progress Rate), but fiscal restraint can only be voluntary, for the simple reason that any attempt to regulate coaches’ salaries collectively would risk violating antitrust law. The presidents cited in the recent report from the Knight Commission acknowledge that fiscal reform is not possible through their conferences or the NCAA, yet they must act collectively and don’t know how that can be done.

Q: Myles Brand, former NCAA president, died last month. What will be his legacy and that of his academic reforms in college athletics? Do you think the association will continue to follow his vision and push for the greater involvement of college presidents in determining its future?

A: Myles Brand brought the NCAA to the impasse that I just noted: mandatory academic reform, but voluntary fiscal responsibility. This is as far as he could go, as far as the NCAA can go. I assume that the association will persist with the APR, unless — and this is a big “unless” — it turns out that the major football programs find it impossible to meet the 925 minimum. Penalized teams in Division I thus far have come, with just a couple of minor exceptions, from outside the BCS conferences. If the major programs with their enormous budgets ever find themselves receiving those penalties, I would not put my money on the APR surviving. I do expect to see greater involvement of college presidents, as universities’ costs rise and state support declines, and expenditures on athletics become increasingly difficult for many to justify, but I expect it to come from outside the NCAA — precisely how, I have no idea — because the NCAA will always be constrained by antitrust law.

Q: What do you think of the Bowl Championship Series and its overt influence on college football? Do you sympathize with those who advocate for a playoff system? Or should this debate even matter to NCAA reformers?

A: The prospect of a playoff system has become a non-issue for me. Initially, I was resistant, because I saw that it would undermine the “traditions” of the major bowls (Pac 10 vs. Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, SEC as host of the Sugar Bowl, SWC as host of the Cotton Bowl, Big Eight as host of the Orange Bowl), in which eight teams had an opportunity to end their season with a great triumph. But those traditions have been jettisoned, and the BCS bowls are just the hugely-lucrative pairings of top teams from wherever. Even the four BCS bowls are now diminished by the so-called national championship game. Also, a playoff system would interfere with the athletes’ education neither more nor less than the current system. To me, the BCS is significant for absolutely separating football’s haves from have-nots and widening the gap between them, not for its failure to crown an unambiguous national champion each season.

Q: As the gap widens between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in college football, what do you think will happen to the 120 members of the FBS in the near future? Is there the possibility of a further schism in the division?

A: It seems obvious to me that the current arrangement is unstable and unsustainable. Big-time college football is much more ruthlessly competitive than the NFL, whose thirty-two franchises share more than half of their revenues equally, with even those least competent on the field and in the front office guaranteed significant profits. At some point, schools in the bottom economic tiers of the FBS will have to confront a fundamental question whether the benefits to the institution justify the expenditures on athletics. Schools in the upper economic tiers should wrestle with the question whether their “student-athletes” are appropriately compensated with an education equal to what other students receive (since they have not received a “raise” in their athletic scholarships in more than 50 years, while their coaches’ compensation has increased 200-fold or so). I’m no good at predicting the future, but I anticipate a major restructuring, driven by forces from outside rather than within the NCAA. I can imagine what those forces might be — a successful lawsuit for “athletes’ rights,” a loss of tax-exempt status, a decision by TV networks to drop small-market teams, institutional budget crises — but when it or they might strike, I have no idea.

 

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