In a decade of sports writing, I’ve always used a very basic framework: don’t reject sports, reclaim it. In other words, no matter how greedy, hateful, or ugly sports become, you fight for it to change. No matter how many publicly funded stadiums or Redskin logos, or how much sexist doggerel is expectorated by the athletic industrial complex, you remember what you love about sports. You stand your ground and never forget the fun, fellowship and artistry these games have the potential to produce. That’s been my framework, until now. This weekend marks the pinnacle of the college football season. For more than twenty-five years, since a young Ohio State wide receiver named Cris Carter broke every Rose Bowl record, I’ve tuned in.
But not this weekend, and barring a major change, I’m never watching again. It’s not just because the bowl season has turned into an orgy of commercial branding that would shame a NASCAR event. It’s not the crass commercialism of “Chic-fil-A Bowl”, “The GODADDY.com Bowl” or “The Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.” It’s not the ugly use of football to sell the business of war, with this year’s “Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman” or “The Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl” coming to a television screen near you (these are not made up). It’s not the fact that today seventy teams, including fourteen 6-6 teams, get to play in bowls, making it about as special as a Cracker Jack prize. It’s not even everyone’s favorite complaint: the absence of a real playoff system to crown an actual national champion.
This year I was broken by just how disgusting the institution of college football has become. It started with the scandals at Ohio State and the University of Miami. Both showcased just exactly how hypocritical the system is, as athletes are pilloried in the public square for violating NCAA rules that deny them even modest compensation. But those problems seem positively quaint after the happenings at Penn State and the way the economic, social and cultural imperatives of big-time college football were put ahead of the safety and welfare of small children.
But the straw that snapped my back was seeing free agent head coach Urban Meyer get a $24 million, six-year contract at Ohio State University. Fresh off scandal, the Buckeyes were back in business. There were two things about this that made me physically ill. First was the fact that this money for Meyer is guaranteed, unlike a Ohio State player’s four-year scholarship, which can be rescinded at year’s end by Coach Meyer if that player falls out of athletic favor. This is the rule of the land at every school, and it gives lie to the idea that “players might not get paid but they get to go to school for free!” Then there’s that number: $4 million a year. Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes at the peak of his prominence made slightly more than $40,000 a year. That was just thirty-five years ago.
The money has metastasized dramatically, and as Emerson said, “Money often costs too much.” Athletic departments have now become a moral dead zone. For winning college football programs, the amount of cash flowing in the system is staggering. For mediocre and losing college football programs, the sport is bankrupting athletic departments, but they spend more with the hope that a winning team will cover all losses. Our schools are being sold on margin right under our noses, and I’m done with it. Until the criminal cartel that is the NCAA is finally made a relic of history, until the rancid BCS system is no more, until coaches are no longer the highest paid and most powerful people on campus, until the NFL funds its own damn minor league and stops outsourcing this task to our universities, until all of these things happen, I’m done, and I hope I’m not alone. Unless we boycott sham amateurism and indentured servitude masquerading as sport, we will never reclaim sports.