By Dantzler Smith
The NFL’s replacement referees taught NFL fans what the fans of college football already knew. While Steve Young and other NFL commentators, in exasperated tones, expanded their vocabulary to encompass economic principles like ‘inelastic demand’, college football fans should’ve shrugged in indifference to the near tantrums of the talking heads.
Fans of college sports should’ve done this not because the situation wasn’t damaging the integrity of the game or wasn’t against the best interest of the players, because it certainly was those things. No, college football fans shouldn’t have gotten riled up about the NFL referee issue because they know all there is to know about athletic avarice and the way money moves a sport from something sound and mostly unspoiled to something more marketable but less meaningful.
As a fan of history, the state of college and pro football reminds me of perhaps the most famous incident of assumed inelastic demand. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church was selling what they called Indulgences. Essentially these Indulgences allowed people, or at least rich people, to pay, at a hefty price, for the absolution of their sins. Impoverished people might’ve been tired of being bilked by the Church or shunted to the side in favor of those with more money, but given a choice between the Church and damnation what recourse did they have?
Then, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 complaints to a church door. Even then, as important as that moment was in European history, the Catholic Church didn’t change. Martin Luther had to form his own church, an alternative league to rival the Catholic one, which proved an effective apparatus for change only when it started siphoning off members from the Catholic Church.
As unbelievable as it sounds, the unfortunate truth is that college football and the NFL have a stronger monopoly than the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. Since the NFL merger in 1970 no viable football league has been able to challenge the NFL's dominance, and I’m not even certain what an alternative to college football would look like. Crazy as it sounds, football in America is more inelastic than Catholicism in late Middle Ages Europe.
The proof of this inescapable demand for football is the Big10. As any good Southerner knows, the Big10 actively sucks at football. Just this year, Michigan, the team who lost at home to Appalachian State in 2007, got publically spanked by Alabama and the conference is 39 – 18 overall with losses to Central Michigan, Ohio, and Ball State. They have no one in the top 10, and because the Buckeyes, the Big10’s highest ranked team, aren’t bowl eligible, their best postseason team might be Northwestern. And yet somehow the Big10 network is raking in so much money that its member schools will receive in excess of 24 million. People are so desperate for football they will sit down and watch pillow fights between Big10 schools duking it out to see who can get dominated in a BCS game.
So what does all this inelastic demand and lack of Lutheran alternatives do to college football? It encourages conference movement motivated by money, railroading tradition in the process, and it adversely affects the integrity of the very idea of collegiate athletics, removing the soul of the sport.
I’m not a fan of conference realignment. At only 31 years old, I can still remember when the conferences at least made some kind of geographical sense. My father’s memory goes back even further, to parochial powerhouses who rose out of conferences organized like regional confederations to fight it out against some other provincial football program. This was how you figured out which part of the country had the best football. This was how you formed rivalries with real history to them. This was how you ingrained football into regional identity.
Now it’s all about television markets. The ACC wanted the major television markets up in New England, so Boston College and Syracuse get to tangle with the traditionally textile schools of Clemson and NC State. Does that make sense geographically? No. Does it take into account tradition? No. Does it matter what I think? No.
The opinion of the fan is totally taken for granted. If I want to watch my team, Duke, lose by 20 to whoever they are playing, I’ll have to do so through some broadcast station that is paying the ACC gobs of money to afford me the opportunity to cringe as my team doesn’t even cover the spread. I have no other options, no means of remedy, other than tuning out completely. I have to cut off my nose to spite my face and at the end of the day I’m just one nose-less man, maybe nailing something to the equivalent of a church door and making a little noise in the process, but ultimately making no difference.
Beyond the conference’s colonial scramble for lucrative markets, the money first mentality of college football strikes at the very soul of the sport.
Even as a Duke fan I know that the notion of student athletes is mostly a fiction. But the last little bits of that façade fall away entirely when money becomes so integrated into the sport that it stops making business sense to even keep up the charade at all. Why should athletes be students if being a student hinders their development of football players? As far as administrators are concerned, what are college football players other than instruments to be used to play a game that, if you’re good, can be highly profitable? Suddenly the academic standards of schools start to situate themselves to the needs of the football program.
As North Carolina found out, it’s not easy to simultaneously claim academic prestige and build a powerhouse football team. You have to create fake classes open exclusively to football players (and possibly other athletes). But even when someone like UNC gets busted, what’s the incentive to issue a harsh punishment compared to the incentive to find a reason to exonerate? After all, the ACC is more profitable if UNC doesn’t deteriorate back to the dog days of barely beating Duke and the NCAA is more profitable if the ACC can claim another top 25 contender to its roster.
The effect is college football where the colleges are more like corporations. The educational division is separate from the athletic division, so obviously the same standards don’t pertain and Enron accounting methods can be applied to everything from recruiting to GPAs. Colleges, just like the NFL, can then talk out of both sides of their mouths, claiming upstanding academics and compiling competitive title contender athletics just as easily as the NFL touts player safety and then settles for scab refs ineffectual at managing games in ways that would protect players.
This is why, as a college football fan, I couldn’t get worked into a frenzy by the MNF fake touchdown or Darius Heyward-Bay getting knocked unconscious by an un-penalized blow to the head. It’s because I’ve seen college football get morphed by money into something I barely recognize. NFL fans were foolish if they thought themselves immune to that sort of Gordon Gecko greed. After all, wasn’t there an unnecessary player lockout last year? And what about the rumblings of an 18 game season that the players don’t want? Or even the impossible idea of an overseas team for the good of the global market?
I find myself asking, without a soul, without tradition, what is modern college football? I don’t know the answer, but even if I did, I know it wouldn’t matter. Because even when college football does something right, something every college football fan agrees with, they do it for the same reasons they screw you over.
The BCS stood for years in the face of public outcry and only when it became clear that changing to a playoff format provided a financial windfall did the NCAA make a move. It wasn’t because of a sports nation poll, or because of sportswriter rants, or even because the issue got brought up in the US Congress. It was because of money. And when it comes to football, college or pro, money is all that matters.