Saturday, January 01, 2011

College Football in the 21st Century

cross-posted at Dagblog

Critics of higher education in America generally present themselves as modernizing reformers. They claim America's universities are hidebound, outmoded, and fundamentally inefficient. Maybe, maybe not. It's an easy charge to make about an institution, like the Western university, which is several centuries old, and tends to sound plausible no matter the merits of the particular case. "It's the 21st century," the standard argument goes, "so it's time to get rid of anachronisms like tenured faculty/four-year bachelor's degrees/foreign language departments/semesters/public funding for state universities." This "out with the old, in with the new" argument sounds logical when it actually is logical, but also when it's not. It can be used for genuinely necessary reform, but also to promote poorly thought-out ideas that can't stand much direct examination.

What's striking in a climate where public universities are facing massive cutbacks in the name of "modernization", and students are being asked to pay higher tuition for fewer classroom resources, is that the people talking about "reinventing" higher education almost never talk about college football.

If we're talking about starting over and reinventing the American university from scratch, big-time college football would not be an obvious thing to keep on the table. It's about as much of a frill as frills get. (This doesn't mean that I'm not personally planning to enjoy the Orange Bowl, or that you shouldn't. Frills are fun. They wouldn't exist if they weren't.) It doesn't have much obvious relationship to the core educational mission. It's expensive as all hell, and generally loses a hell of a lot of money. (There's a lot of money to be made in TV fees and bowl appearances, but very few schools actually pull down enough of that money to turn a profit, and you need to spend tens of millions on your football program even to compete for that money in the first place. Lots of schools with "BCS" Division I programs lose millions on football. Berkeley, for example, has been losing $6-8 million on football every year now for years, and raiding the academic budget to make up those losses. Seriously.) Those tens of millions of dollars go to fund an extra-curricular activity that about a hundred or so students actually participate in, on campuses that might have fifteen or thirty thousand students.

Now, the conventional wisdom is that sports programs pay for themselves, and more, by increasing enrollment and bringing in donations from happy alumni. But if we're hard-headed modernizers, we pride ourselves on not believing the conventional wisdom. We need hard data! And when it comes to big-ticket football, the conventional wisdom turns out not to be true at all. It's very hard to demonstrate any serious or enrollment gains from a winning sports program, and if you think about it honestly, you already kind of know this. There are plenty of schools whose football teams will never (and really should never) be on television, but still have to turn away more good applicants than they could take. You can think of plenty of enviable schools, the kind that proud parents and resume-writers brag about, whose sports programs are really, really, really not the draw. As for the donations that a big time football program can bring, usually all of that cash (like the TV money) goes to feeding the football program itself, and the football program is always hungry.

Now we're getting to the point where commitment to education at public universities and commitment to football at public universities don't coexist easily. Spending tens of millions on football (and $3-7 million just on a coach's salary) always annoyed some professors, but not in any way that rocked the boat. But when state budget cuts lead even a great public system like the University of California to cut back its course offerings and shrink its faculty while raising the tuition to three times what it was in 2000 and then ">raising it again, raiding Berkeley's academic budget for six or seven million dollars a year on top of the official athletics budget starts to be a very tough sell. [For the record, UC's in-state tuition and fees were about $3500 or $3600 in 2000-01. In 2010-11, they were more than $10,800. The Regents just voted another 8 percent hike, for a much diminished educational product.]

I'm not going to pretend that killing college football would fix the funding problems of American education. Nor am I going to pretend I don't enjoy a good college game myself. But I think understanding where big-time college football comes from helps us understand what's happening to higher education in general, because college football as we know it is a byproduct of an educational system that emerged in post-war America and is now passing away. They grew up together.

American football evolved on college campuses; most of the rules that we think of as basic to the sport were hashed out between students from various Ivy League and other exclusive Eastern schools in the late 1800s. Of course, it wasn't the Ivy League then, because the "Ivy League" is a sports conference, and college football wasn't officially overseen by the colleges. It was the students' thing, not the administrators', and administrations only gradually started sponsoring the games as a way to get some control over them and to reduce the injury and mayhem. Football was a form of student rebellion against universities that were too much like universities: too much about book learning and discipline and the life of the mind. The academic focus of college made a lot of students unhappy because colleges in those days were much more socially exclusive than they were intellectually exclusive. Most people were there because of who their parents were; whether they had any academic gifts or interests was a secondary question. Of course, there were some brilliant and dedicated minds at every school, and every college had its handful of extremely bright scholarship boys, but the median undergraduate at a place like Harvard or Princeton in 1880 wasn't nearly as good a student as the median undergraduates in those places would be in 1980. So a lot of those wealthy, connected and not particularly intellectual young men got so sick of declining Latin nouns and whatnot that they had to get outside in the fresh air, form up into flying wing formations, and maim each other.

(The next time someone like David Brooks gets all misty-eyed about the old-fashioned elites and how they had so much more character than today's careerist collegians, remember that this is what he's talking about. Brooks is nostalgic for anti-intellectual snobs with inherited fortunes, as opposed to middle-class kids who got into Princeton because of their grades and who will need to find a job after graduation. Brooks especially gets nostalgic for the old Ivy Leaguers when he's writing about people like Barack Obama or Elena Kagan who wouldn't have been allowed into those exclusive schools in 1890.)

So for a solid seventy or eighty years, football was the hobby and ritual of the tiny minority who went to college. A lot of its glamor came from its upper-class context. This is when Harvard and Yale were still major football powers, and while there was an NFL, you couldn't make a full year's living playing in it. The point of playing college football was not to go pro, but to network with influential alumni. This was pretty much how things stood until well after World War II.

College football was transformed into a national sports-entertainment industry during the post-war expansion of American higher education. Between the G.I. Bill and the massive growth in public education to accommodate the Baby Boom, American higher education turned into something very different from anything that had gone before. College education had become an expected middle-class privilege, and the largest, wealthiest middle class that America had ever seen sent the largest generation of youngsters in our nation's history to college. The resulting changes were wide-reaching and fundamental, both for our society and our education system. Increased spending on education both followed from and helped to drive the growing wealth of an expanding middle class, fueled booming economic growth, and weakened the relative position of the older elites. The primary driver for all of this change wasn't the private colleges, which did increase enrollments but could never have met the new demand on their own. What changed things was the state universities, funded generously by state legislatures and educating college students on a then-unprecedented scale at steeply subsidized tuition. But the private colleges were transformed as well, becoming more academic and less aristocratic; once the privilege of going to college was no longer restricted to the wealthy and connected, the only way to stay one of the top colleges in America was to have highly talented students, and Ivy League campuses became increasingly dominated by bright middle-class strivers (of the kind that David Brooks despises, and once was) rather than the old blue-blooded Philistines. The blue bloods didn't go away, but they ceased to be the majority even on elite campuses, and they stopped setting the tone.

At the same time, college football had a wider audience and more alumni, than it had ever had before. And now that huge prosperous new middle class all had TVs in the living room. The NFL began to rise to national prominence at the end of the 1950s, and the market for televised Saturday-afternoon games was suddenly quite lucrative. It was fairly easy money for colleges to begin with; they could get fat TV contracts for the amateur teams that they were already fielding, and anyway, the schools had comfortable budgets to begin with. Spending a little bit more on the football team in order to pull down some big network-TV bucks seemed like a great investment: a small expense for what could be an incommensurately large gain.

Now, of course, things have gotten far more competitive in every sense of that word, and the potential gains from TV rights have already been priced into the cost of chasing those dollars. But at the same time, the initial conditions that allowed colleges, universities, and their football teams to grow and thrive in the 1960s have ended. What we're living through at the moment is the end of the post-war education system, with its low prices, high per-student spending, and broad accessibility. We are sliding back toward an older model, educating fewer students, allowing less upward mobility, and increasingly dominated by selective private institutions, just like in the bad old days. This march toward the past is part of a larger attempt to diminish and weaken the American middle class that emerged after World War II, and move toward a less egalitarian and less mobile society vaguely resembling our social arrangements between 1870 and 1940. State funding for higher education now represents only a fraction of the cost of public colleges and universities, forcing even great public universities to cut how much they spend on teaching and charge students much, much more for it. (Think of UC Berekely and their 200%+ tuition increase over the past decade.) Some things won't change. There will still be some superb colleges in this country, a few of them likely better than American universities have ever been. A select few students will continue getting fabulous educations. But that number will be smaller, and many of their peers in less privileged colleges will get very, very different educations.

College football will survive the conditions that allowed it to become what it is. In the end it's more suited for what American education is becoming than it was for what American education was in the last half of the 20th century. The legitimately amateur programs that still remain will continue on, just as they have been since the 19th century: opportunities for educationally privileged young men to bond with each other and to please alumni. And the high-profile programs with the 100,000-seat stadiums and the television contracts will fit the new corporate model of higher education nicely. Those football programs are narrowly pre-professional; they prepare their students for NFL careers and not much else. (At many such programs, football recruits don't even learn how to fill in a college application. This is literally true.) At the same time, Big College Football is entirely unconcerned about the vast majority of its athletes who will never be able to land the only job that college has prepared them for. Students will be allowed to drop out and drift away when the program has used them up; the model is enrollment, not retention. Developing the student as a whole person is entirely out of the question. And the rewards of the students' hard work and effort are only for the fortunate few, while everyone else (no matter how hard they have worked) is labeled a failure. And a small group of privileged people will stand to make a massive profit. There's a reason that people who agitate for "modernizing" our colleges and universities don't complain about big time, pro in all but name college football. It already looks exactly the way they want college to look.

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