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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Bread and Circuses and Tailgating and Pigskins

Does America really need college football?

September 27, 2020

There was a time when nothing mattered more to me than the fate of the Michigan Wolverines football team.

My father grew up in Ann Arbor and was a graduate of Michigan law school, so by the genetic transitive property, I was a fan of the maize and blue. When I would ultimately matriculate to the University of Illinois for my own college years, I immediately acquired a “Muck Fichigan” T-shirt, but until that time, it was "Hail to the Victors."

This is in the late '70s, early '80s, long before cable and every game of consequence being televised, which meant my father delicately tweaking the AM radio dial in search of the signal from a Benton Harbor affiliate so we could hear Bob Ufer’s call drifting across Lake Michigan to my suburban Chicago childhood home.

The games were the highlight of the week. The years Michigan made it to the Rose Bowl were cherished. It is fair to say that college football was an essential part of my life.

Alas, this is no longer true, and while I can still conjure all the sweet (and bitter) memories associated with my rooting for Michigan football, I no longer care about the fate of them or any other team.

Reading an essay on “Why America Needs College Football” by two education scholars from Ohio State University makes me wonder if we have reached the bread and circuses period of our pandemic response.

I personally found the essay disheartening, and not just because I was raised a Michigan fan who loathed Ohio State. If college football is “an essential element of a functioning democracy,” I’m here to declare: RIP democracy 2020.

The notion that we can and should prioritize the (relatively) safe playing of college football over prioritizing maximizing the quality of college instruction is mind-boggling coming from two scholars/educators.

Their argument that we need the “distraction” of football leads to a CNN article that offers remedies for mental health challenges of the pandemic age that have nothing to do with watching football. We are told by the authors that we must “essentialize” football, which sounds like fancy academic talk that says football is more important than anything else.

To be sure, this attitude is nothing new. When I was at Clemson, it was strongly suggested we cancel Thursday afternoon classes when the Tigers had a weeknight home game that was going to be featured on ESPN. A walk around Clemson (and many other campuses) while looking through the eye of an ethnographer will reveal that football is very important to the modern university indeed.

If American public universities need college football, then I’m afraid we have gone past the point of the necessity of the educational mission of the public university. I hope this is not true. I’m about to publish a book that argues very strongly that this is not true, but then you read an essay by a couple of honest-to-goodness academics saying how important football is, and a guy starts to wonder.

I’ve been institutionally affiliated in various ways with a college for the last nine years that does not have a football team, and it appears to be functioning just fine. Has College of Charleston been misguided all these years?

It’s true, I am fed up with life lived under a pandemic, but in my view, the fastest way to a life with fewer restrictions is to take the steps necessary to get the pandemic under control so our rates of infection start to look more like some of the countries of Europe that seem to be doing better on this front.

Over the years, my personal fandom has waned as the corruption of the NCAA and exploitation of athletes began to weigh on my conscience. It didn’t seem like something I could support while also believing in the educational mission of the institutions, so I stopped watching, and I’m here to tell you there’s other things to do with your Saturdays.

The pandemic is revealing many things, one of which is the incredible divide between the importance of football and the importance of academics at institutions like Ohio State. I have no desire to see the end of college football, but I support the end of the fiction of the “student athlete.” I believe we should work toward a system where the players are treated as professionals playing in the NFL minor leagues, which has the benefit of being accurate.

Spin off the teams into for-profit entities. Pay the players salaries commensurate with developing professionals and allow them to profit of their likenesses. End the institutional subsidies and instead have these new entities license the logos and pay rent for the facilities so football can be a pure revenue source for schools.

For those outside the Power Five conferences who cannot swing this, let them move to a sustainable model where athletics are an appropriately proportional part of the whole institution.

Let football players be athletes until they are done with athletics, after which we can welcome them back to spend their time as students.

If we do this, perhaps we can be a little less collectively confused about what mission our institutions are meant to serve.


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