For many Americans, thinking about higher education means thinking about sports, especially college football. We love college football and our passion for it is growing annually. College football may not be central to the mission of most colleges and universities, but understanding its popularity and influence is essential.
Gilbert Gaul, a prize-winning journalist, explains how big-time college football became such a behemoth in Billion Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football. He is not interested in why football is so popular. Instead, Gaul’s curiosity, like most journalists, is about following the money. How did the dollars become so large? He visits several of the elite college football programs, talks with athletic directors and boosters, and charts the rise of the semi-independent athletic programs. Television money, franchising, and changes in organizational structures allowed athletic programs to fund raise and spend apart from their home institutions. In sum, athletic programs operate with a high degree of independence. They raise, spend, and then repeat. Leaving money on the table makes no sense, so it is an arms race to spend more.
With so much athletics money to track, it makes for a sobering story. Football coaches in big programs are the usually highest paid employee in the institution. Athletic budgets for football dwarf those of other sports and activities, including academic groups like honor colleges. Maul illustrates this with the University of Oregon’s spending. Autonomy and the market have given athletic programs the space to expand tremendously.
The sums are impressive. Institutions made more than $10 billion in athletics revenue in 2014. The University of Texas, where Maul dives deep, football made $18.7 million in 1999 and $104 million in 2012. Of the 2012 revenue, $78 million was retained as profit. UT taps into corporate sponsorship, licensing fees, branding opportunities, and more. Maul tracks increases in ticket prices as well as the mandatory “seat donation” that allows a fan to buy season tickets. Seat donations, interestingly enough, are counted as contributions. The IRS, with ample backing and specific legislation from Congress, defines support of college sports like giving to a charity.
Implicit in Gaul’s thesis is that big money is antithetical to traditional college varsity sports, as well as to student involvement in athletics. He sees attending games as something different from student engagement. As an antidote to these mass spectacles, Gaul expressed enthusiasm for women’s rowing. After spending time with the team and coach at Kansas State University, he finds much to commend. He admires the commitment, the dedication, and how Title IX has led to new thinking about women’s athletics. Gaul very much believes that women’s rowing represents an amateur ideal of student athleticism. The caveat is that KSU’s football program funds women rowing and other varsity sports.
If there is any one target in Gaul’s sight, it is the college presidents. Gaul gives a case study, too, interviewing Holden Thorp, the former president of the University of North Carolina. A football scandal ended Thorp’s career at UNC.
Missing from Billion Dollar Ball are hard questions about the consequences of elite football. What is inherently wrong with widespread public support for college sports? Since funding streams are separate, it is difficult to claim that football detracts from academic funding. Is it values, messaging or mission? Gaul is bothered that enthusiasm for football eclipses other activities, especially academics. This troubles many. It is difficult to align the spectacle of a bowl game with the grind of studying in the library.
Gaul avoids questions of head trauma, of unionization, and of the role of the NCAA in blessing the entire endeavor with a special sort of amateurism. Players and coaches, like the games themselves, are secondary in this narrative. What drives Gaul’s book is a fundamental claim: too much money is a corrupting influence. The excesses of big-time college football, he believes, are inherently a problem for American higher education – regardless of who foots the bill. It is a point worth our consideration.
The default positions in talking about college athletics tend towards two extremes: either enthusiastic fandom (“let’s have a more robust playoff system”) or unalloyed criticism (“college football is excessive, anti-academic, and a distortion of a college’s mission). Gaul’s book falls into the latter. It would have been a more effective and valuable if he had taken a more nuanced stand, teasing out the many ways that college football affects the life of a college and its reputation. Its influence is not necessarily negative, even with big money. There are many reasons so many people flock to stadiums and television sets on Saturdays in the fall.
The challenges of college football, as put forth in Billion Dollar Ball, stem from its popularity. College ball has always drawn large crowds, attracted controversy, and sat just a little uncomfortably within the boundaries of higher education. More than a century ago it was a key issue for President Theodore Roosevelt. I think that the size and scope of big-time college football compounds the issue, but I don’t believe that money is at the heart of the issue. What is at debate are the functions of any given institution, deciding how it sets its priorities and measures progress towards its goals. It is about institutional values and how they developed, shared, lived and communicated.
Colleges rarely do good job explaining how and why college football matters. Especially true for large, public, flagship universities, the home of elite football, the goal seems to be trying to be all things for all stakeholders: a site for education, a site for academic excellence, a place for research, for economic growth, and for state pride. Scaling those ambitions back, or at least focusing on priorities and making those clear would be a most welcome first step.