The Wonder and Terror (Mostly Terror) of College Football

by Graydon Gordian

1869 was a banner year for the United States of America. The stench of flickering, saliva-soaked tobacco and here-one-moment-gone-the-next whiskey bottles drifted through the halls of Grant’s White House. Slick city speculators unsuccessfully conspired to exploit the federal government’s precarious finances and corner the gold market. Insufferable party-pooper Wayne Wheeler, who would spend his life stone cold sober and crying like a baby, was born. And the first college football game was played.

Students from Rutgers College and the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton, met on a field in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They played a game few would recognize today, or even a week later, when the schools played a rematch under different rules in Princeton. Rutgers won the first game by two “runs,” 6–4. The men of Princeton, wily as ever, edited the rules to suit their strengths and won the second game 8–0.

Although both games were surely played with the cast iron courage and Pauline charisma that only takes hold of the male spirit on the battlefield and the gridiron, it’s hard to imagine either group of gentlemen had the audacity or bankrupt sense of humor to claim they were “national champions.”

However, the fiercely irrational, provincial caste system we call college football just wouldn’t be the same without a little controversy. So, over a century later, some guy in Oklahoma named Richard Billingsley went back and manufactured one.

In 1933, Parke H. Davis, a lineman for the Princeton Tigers in the 1880s who, in the grandest traditions of the game, went on to become an ethically dubious coach and a glib, unremarkable historian, set about the task of naming national champions for each season since the sport began. Given that Princeton and Rutgers only played two games, each against the other, and were the only two teams in 1869, Davis decided to name Rutgers and Princeton co-national champions.

It was a pointless and pompous exercise but, if you’re forced to make a call (which Davis wasn’t), an admittedly commonsensical conclusion.

Then, in the mid-1990s, Billingsley, a high school graduate in Southeastern Oklahoma, took a formula he developed in the 1970s for ranking college football teams and began retroactively naming his own national champions. Billingsley’s formula favors the most recent game played and he therefore crowned Princeton, which won the second of the two contests, college football’s first national champion.

The title, shared without contention by two schools that played their best football in the 19th century, was now in dispute.

Billingsley isn’t a well-known figure in college football, but he is a hugely influential one: The ranking system he used to determine the 1896 title is one of the many elements that currently help select which two teams play for the national championship.

It sounds ridiculous to say a rural Oklahoman who lacks either institutional expertise or a background in mathematics developed a formula that plays a crucial role in determining the makeup of the national title game, but when considered against the backdrop of the sport as a whole, it’s par for the course.

College football may have begun in the Northeast but it’s more reminiscent of the sweat-stained, glad-handing, historically agrarian cultures in which the game has thrived. College football is incredibly popular across the United States — basically everywhere except the Northeast — but something about it always strikes me as quintessentially Southern.

Maybe it’s because, since the Associated Press began polling sportswriters in 1936 — a rough marker of college football’s “modern era” — to determine the finest team in the country, 40 of the 74 Division 1-A national champions have been from the 11 states that seceded from the Union or Oklahoma. Maybe it’s because, since the Bowl Championship Series, the current system for determining the national championship, was devised in the late ’90s, only two schools outside those 12 states — Ohio State and USC — have won a title.

But really, it’s the shameless opulence, rigid class structure and self-congratulatory oversight of a system of indentured servitude that reminds me of the Old South.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I’m a benefactor of this system. Having been raised in Austin, I am a proud fan of the University of Texas, a member of college football’s Brahmin caste. I don’t merely root for the Longhorns. During Texas games, I engage in something that resembles a Pentecostal ecstasy, but with less equanimity. It’s the kind of perverse dedication that makes you disown children and dump women of your dreams if they happen to root for a rival.

(My girlfriend once asked me would we be together if she were an Oklahoma fan. I chose not to respond, out of concern that I might be honest.)

However, I am not so blind with devotion as to deny the fact that Texas benefits from the current system as much as if not more than any other school in the country. There are so many structural advantages a school like Texas has it’s hard to know where to begin. I say we start with the money.

The Texas football program is expected to earn $17 million in 2011–12 and $20 million the following year from its portion of the Big 12’s television contracts with ABC/ESPN and Fox. In addition, Texas has made a deal with ESPN to create the Longhorn Network, a cable channel dedicated solely to University of Texas sports. ESPN will push Texas’ annual television revenue above $30 million, an unprecedented amount, while also providing the school $10 million upfront.

Compare that with the undefeated, #3 ranked, Rose Bowl-bound Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University, who are a member of the second-tier Mountain West Conference. TCU has made around $1.3 million annually from their conference’s comparatively paltry 10-year, $120 million television contract. Having grown frustrated with their conference’s financial and competitive handicaps, the Horned Frogs have decided to buck college football’s historical commitment to regionalism and join the Big East conference.

Given how abjectly bad the Big East is at football, the move looks as if a group of aging chief executives, unsteadily piloting obsolete industries, invited an up-and-coming Silicon Valley executive to join their social club. However, the move will be highly lucrative for TCU, providing them more television revenue, a larger slice of BCS revenue and a highly coveted automatic spot in one of the BCS bowls if and when they win the conference.

Along with the millions of fans passively generating revenue on their couch, over 100,000 loyal Texans fill Austin’s Darrel K. Royal Memorial Stadium, the 6th largest football stadium in the country, half a dozen times a year. (The 11 largest are college football, not NFL, stadiums.) Those tickets aren’t cheap.

This year, for the first time in his storied tenure, Head Coach Mack Brown, recipient of a $5 million annual salary (the highest in college football) and the proud owner of two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, failed to lead Texas to a winning record and, subsequently, a bowl game. No matter. As a member of the Big 12, one of the six conferences that automatically qualify for a spot in one of the five BCS bowl games, Texas will make millions of dollars either way.

The BCS is not an NCAA event, like the men’s basketball tournament. The commissioners of the six major conferences created it, and have organized it in such away that, no matter what happens on the field, they reap the financial benefits. Each of the automatic qualifying conferences receives upwards of $18 million annually, an amount evenly spread around the conference, for having the privilege to send one team to a BCS bowl. If a second team from the conference makes it to a BCS game, an additional $4.5 million is thrown in.

In comparison, all five non-BCS conferences — a grand total of 52 schools — share just 9 percent of the BCS net revenue, which amounted to roughly $9.6 million in 2008–09. If a non-BCS school makes a BCS bowl, such as both Boise State and TCU did last year and TCU, with a 12–0 regular season record, will do this year, their conference makes an additional 9 percent.

As the large and in charge are often horrified to discover, it’s not that difficult to figure out who’s getting screwed and who’s doing the screwing.

Tack on the fact that UT merchandise outsold all other colleges in the country four years in a row (a streak that is certain to end this season), and you’ve got a University of Texas football program that, according to Forbes, hauled in $69 million in profit last year. That’s $21 million more than the second most profitable program in the country, Notre Dame.

That’s big money when all we’re really talking about is a bunch of late stage adolescents committing felonious assault while they toss a ball around.

Those young men, by the way, are the actual victims in all this, far more than the second-tier athletic programs or doltish, devoted consumers such as myself. The millions of dollars in profit could be stomached if, at the very least, these young men were getting an education. For most part, they aren’t. It’s hardly their fault either.

Football teams, just like colleges in general, are made up of both the studious and the academically disinclined. However, most people don’t have domineering father figures like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban or Bob Stoops (who, respectively, make $4 million, $3.9 million and $4.3 million annually) whispering, or rather shouting, in their ear, telling them to get back in that weight room. Or worse, telling them the reason they should get back in that weight room is because they’ve got a chance to go to the NFL, when in fact their coaches know quite well very few college football players have the talent to play professionally.

It’s hard to say you’d rather be studying, or even living a balanced life, when trips to the national championship, and possibly the pros, are on the line. Instead, many college football players pursue half-baked fields of study with the full intention of ignoring their academics and devoting their lives to the game. In return, they get some bad knees, a little light brain damage and a degree in a substanceless subject.

There are lots of athletes, even in the revenue sports, who manage to balance academics and athletics. Their coaches and the talking heads make sure we’re well aware of their existence. That doesn’t excuse the fact that the system encourages athletes to adopt an unsober, shortsighted outlook.

Suddenly the fact that six computerized rankings — one designed by a rural Oklahoman who lacks either institutional expertise or a background in mathematics — and two polls decide which teams go to the national championship game appears to be on the rational side of the spectrum.

So then, why do those of us who should know better love college football? Where, if anywhere, does the sport find redemption? Those answers are complicated, and no doubt merit an essay of their own. But if I had to give at least one reason, I’d say because it’s physical.

That’s the same answer I’d give if asked why I like any sport, whether it be entirely unobjectionable or utterly indefensible. However, there is a particular way college football illuminates human physicality that I’ve come to appreciate.

In the Bible there is a story, in the second chapter of Luke, in which Mary and Joseph accidentally leave Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. When they come back to look for him, they find him talking with a group of teachers who are amazed by his knowledge of scripture.

This all happened when Jesus was still young, long before he went pro and started walking on water and rising from the dead, admittedly more impressive feats. However, there is an excitement, a sense of potential that is coupled with his precocious adolescent intellect.

I feel similarly when I watch Cam Newton, Auburn University’s woefully underpaid, physically brilliant quarterback, scramble out of the pocket. As he tucks the ball into the crook of his arm and heads for the line of scrimmage, anxiety eases into optimism. The thought of what he could possibly do not just in the next few moments or even the rest of the game, but over the course of his entire career, which is just beginning, brings wide eyes and a goofy grin to my face.

It’s a tremendous feeling and it grows from an urge to celebrate human potential, not exploit it. In that, I believe, there is some semblance of redemption.

Graydon Gordian lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend and their two cats, Beesly and Bea Arthur.

Photo by Neil Gandhi, from Flickr.