Why is the argument here —

There is demand for minor league basketball and football, but there’s no need for it to be tied to universities, or for the leagues to abuse their workers. By spinning off these profit centers, universities could return to their educational missions, and treat athletics the way the NCAA’s Division III does: as an amateur activity to complement students’ education.

— so totally appalling to everyone? Just return to amateur, complementary football at universities, and if Americans seem to need more professional football teams so badly, form them. Why will this idea never fly?

It will never fly because it’s much more titillating to get your professional-level violence pure. It thrills you more, you’re more willing to pay for it, when you’re doing it, as it were, with a virgin. Not a wage-slave, exclusively-on-field, businessman, but – the heart begins to pound with the phrase – a student-athlete.

There’s an irresistible attraction here. You’re seeing the very first concussion, the initiation of the body into its brokenness. College is beautifully, irresistibly, caught up with youth, innocence, and bonding (the players aren’t individual, commercially transacting, agents; they’re unpaid members of a team), and those values – along with big-time football violence – can only enter the field with the big-time college team.

Why are luxury boxes full of excited businessmen in their fifties the real money-center of university football? Why are the mega-boosters with tens of millions of dollars in football donations, from T. Boone Pickens on down, old guys who’ve devoted their lives to the acquisition of wealth? Couldn’t they content themselves with the New England Patriots, etc? Indeed, why do people like Pickens and Nike’s Phil Knight get so involved with the team? Why couldn’t they get involved with the Patriots?

Because they love their alma mater? What a weird way of showing your love for your university. But like the latest football booster financial criminal – see this post – they all say the same thing. I want to show my gratitude to my university for giving me the academic skills to be a big success. Therefore, I’m giving my money to… the football team! Why not the library, if it’s about what the school gave you academically?

Because the library’s abstract, and anyway no one uses the library anymore. With the team, it’s all out there, a screaming brightly colored physically intense televised spectacle in which people not only pay attention to you but maybe even worship you, the way Oklahoma State worships Pickens and Oregon worships Phil Knight.

These motives go so deep that the reality of significant portions of some of these teams being composed not only of non-students, but criminals, doesn’t faze these men in the slightest. When they look at them play, they see deeply committed members of the student body who love the school as much as the old guys do. Students in the stands seem to see the same thing, strangely enough, even though the players tend to be totally isolated from the rest of the campus, living in their own dorms, taking their own special classes, and working out in their own gyms.

None of it matters – the corruption of the whole big-time university football enterprise, the high-profile bullies on the teams (and among some of the coaches, from Bobby Knight to Mike Leach), the university president and the board of trustees playing with themselves while their university gets shot to hell by the boosters and the coaches… None of it dims the peculiar fantasy the university football enthusiast is after.

So it’s got to be the university, and it’s got to be big. Until the age for entry into professional football is lowered and serious players don’t bother with universities, you’re going to watch the process whereby universities become Penn State or the University of Miami or Florida A&M happen over and over again.

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3 Responses to “Why do people insist on locating professional football at universities?”

  1. Joshua Miller Says:

    I’m sad that I can’t see where you go wrong in this post: college football is unnecessary, absurd, and destructive, but it’s also inevitable. (See also: capitalism.)

    Apropos: Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier imagine the end of football. http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7559458/cte-concussion-crisis-economic-look-end-football

  2. Jim Says:

    Surely the question is the other way round: Why do universities insist on hosting professional football? It isn’t that backers want to run professional teams and coerce universities into hosting them. It’s that the university already has a team (and a league with other universities, so there’s someone to play) that the backer can come in a take over.

    Partly it’s historical accident. Universities were hosting professional sports long before there were formal profitable sports leagues (except for baseball). Hobey Baker was a professional at Princeton long before there were hockey or football leagues. He wasn’t formally paid, but he wouldn’t have had his post -Princeton position (or fiancée) without his sports celebrity.

    But it’s not just that. Once the NFL came into existence, universities could have dropped big-money football. Why didn’t they?

  3. TAFKAU Says:

    I spent several years on the faculty of an SEC “football factory”, so let me take a stab at it. I grew up near Los Angeles, so this stuff was fairly new to me. Sure, we had UCLA and USC, and the latter in particular has done its share of rule breaking, but the only people who were especially invested in the rivalry were alumni. Maybe that’s different now, since L.A. no longer has pro football, but I doubt it.

    In the south, on the other hand, everyone chooses up sides, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you attended the school in question. The loyalties run deep and college football often replaces the weather as the conversation opener in Mobile and Little Rock. Southerners tend to be cynics, so they aren’t too troubled by all the cheating that comes along with SEC football, any more than they expect their politicians to be honest.

    But there’s another thing, too. These teams do help to build civic pride. You can look down your nose at Alabama or Louisiana (or Nebraska, for that matter), but their football team can still kick your team’s butt any day of the week (well, Saturday anyway). It’s just not the same with pro football, although there are thousands of Saints, Falcons, and Titans fans. The New Orleans Saints belong to some rich guy; LSU belongs to the people of Louisiana.

    So when someone, particularly from the Northeast or West Coast, attacks college football, a lot of these folks take it personally. This is their state and their team, and an attack on LSU is an attack on Louisiana. It’s almost like family, which (along with alcohol consumption) probably explains the bizarre reactions of some folks in Central Pennsylvania to the horrors of Happy Valley.

    I’m not suggesting this is a good thing; obviously, it’s not. I’m just saying that this is what you’re up against if you want to end big time college football as we know it.

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