On September 24, amidst the votes to restart college football in the Pac 12 and Mountain West conferences, you published an opinion piece decrying “Why American Needs College Football.” The authors argue that sport is “an essential element of our functioning democracy” and suggest that “few, if any, have addressed the essential role that college football may play toward healing a democracy.” Both of these views are simply inaccurate and conjecture not grounded in historical research or empirical fact. Issues like this are frequently considered and addressed in the vibrant field of sport studies.
The authors traffic in a mythic yet misguided view of college football as a central part of America’s democratic system. They see college football as an essential part of American society and our political system, rather than a symptom of the deep-seeded issues that have contributed to political polarization, racial unrest, the devaluation of education, and prolonged devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us have weighed these issues and found the sport to be anything but essential. In fact, a number of scholars have denounced college football’s premature return to play precisely because it is symptomatic of broader social issues.
Let’s review some of the authors’ arguments. First, they claim that the sport is important in demonstrating the “values and purpose of higher education” to the American people. Such a suggestion has a long history, where college football is framed as a middlebrow culture that makes seemingly elite institution more palatable to citizens. What’s more, this argument builds on the concept of the “Booster University” where sport emerges as one of the most important “products” that colleges offer to “taxpayers.” To be sure, in this regard, universities are seen as a key part of a functioning democracy in so far as “taxpayers” see a return on their investment.
The problem with this view should be obvious. First, state support for colleges and university has declined significantly over the last thirty years. While athletics do rely on some tax funding, the bulk of their budgets now come from student fees and donations that have been increasing exponentially. Second, emphasizing college football as the most prized output of a university de-emphasizes the true “value and purpose of higher education.”
If athletic competition is more important than seeking and transferring knowledge through teaching and research, why do universities exist at all? Evidence of this is apparent. Based on donations, sports are the most important product to alumni and donors, who invest heavily in athletic departments rather academic programs. During a moment when our democratic institutions are plagued with anti-intellectualism that denies basic facts, dismisses scientific data, and denounces the roles of experts, one has to wonder how this helps democracy? One might argue it does quite the opposite.
Indeed, college football has actually empowered several of these anti-intellectuals. One need to look no further than the head coach to see examples. Coaches like Dabo Swinney and Mike Gundy routinely undermine their academic colleagues when they call into question scientific findings and peddle uninformed views about American history or even contemporary America. While neither are expert epidemiologists or virologists, they continue to tout false claims about COVID-19 as if they are. How can college football bring us together when its leaders are contributing to the very problems facing our society right now?
College football is democratic, though, because, according to the authors, “football players become beloved community figures beyond the boundaries of the stadium or campus.” This suggests that without sports, players – who are predominantly African American in college football -- would not be valued if not for their athletic talent. Football gives them a platform to speak out, which is undoubtedly true. Yet, you can count the authors among the millions of Americans who are not listening.
Numerous athletes from the Pac-12, Big Ten, the University of Texas, Kansas State, and other institutions have made demands calling for an end to racial injustice, the exploitation of athletes by draconian NCAA rules, as well as important safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. If football represented a “functioning democracy,” then the voices of the players and lives of these players would matter. The truth is, however, the NCAA and its members not democratic; they value athletes for their bodies, not their minds.
Of course, maybe “functioning democracy” means something different to the authors. America, after all, has a long history of exploiting Black and indigenous people of color for the pleasure and material gain of whites. Amateurism and the very structure of college athletics is caught up in the United States’ system of racial capitalism. The problems of COVID-19, police brutality, and the policies currently being enacted by our political leaders all have a disproportionally larger impact on racialized folks. So too does college football. As the recent decision by a grand jury in Louisville reminds us, the status quo does not value Black Lives above apartment walls. For the Power Five, and apparently the authors, Black Lives Matter insofar as they are on the field playing an inherently risky game. In this regard, they are right: resuming college football is in line with America’s “democratic” tradition.
In the view of college football advanced by these authors, football players are a part of the “product” that the colleges provide to “taxpayers” in order to soothe them in times of low morale. Black athletes are embraced on the gridiron and in the community as a way to assuage white guilt. Although when donors get uncomfortable, colleges are quick to limit expressions of unity with causes like Black Lives Matter. Returning to the field will inoculate universities from Trump’s wrath for having the gall to take the pandemic seriously when they cancelled their season in August. It will rebuild the safe space so many Americans demand. After all, since football is the key product of colleges, unpaid athletic laborers owe “taxpayers” and the ruling class their allegiance and their health in order to unite our quarrelling communities and remind us that we are all Americans. Shut up and play football because “taxpayers” are bored. Is this what a functioning democracy should look like?
The authors seem to ignore that there are already professional athletes, who negotiated their working conditions and receive compensation for their labor, providing the very entertainment and morale lifting they are seeking. While they do concede that they themselves bemoan “colleges and universities for placing too much emphasis on athletics,” they are unable to stomach other sports playing a starring role “in the political theater of American life.” They need “a reason to cheer” and, to them, that alone is enough.
-- Andrew McGregor
Professor of History