Robert Lipsyte, The Quagmire of College Football

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[Note to Readers: With this last wonder of a “sports” piece, Tomdispatch shuts down until the final turkey squawks. Back at the beginning of next week.]

With Thanksgiving on the way, I thought about reassigning Tomdispatch sports columnist Robert Lipsyte to the turkey beat, but the New York Times stole the topic with Kim Severson’s recent piece on heritage turkeys (and its fabulous lead photo that gave those birds in tall grass all the gravitas of Spielberg-style Velociraptors). The other obvious subject for the long, long weekend to come: those moments when, stuffed with stuffing, everyone collapses on the nearest couch to catch the next football game — and the next and the next and the next — as the pros of the National Football League and the putative amateurs of the colleges compete for bandwidth. This is the season, of course, when college football teams (and office betting pools) begin the great plunge toward the bowl games, those ultimate gladiatorial events which were once named for flowers and fruits (how could that have happened?), but now represent tortilla chips, insurance companies, and banks. So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut might once have said.

As he’s shown with his work on the now-indicted Barry Bonds, the lost Republicans of NASCAR racing, and last summer’s scandals of sports and the Bush administration, Lipsyte, author most recently of the young adult novel Yellow Flag, is always ahead the game — not to speak of behind, around, and underneath it. College? Football? By the time he’s done with the money politics of that “sport,” you’re bound to wonder whether it’s not, like “late capitalism,” a classic oxymoron. Tom

Corruption 101, Gladiators and Beer
Why Bowl Games Are the Real Final Exams
By Robert Lipsyte

1. Roar, Lions!

“I don’t think of intercollegiate sports as something extracurricular.” — Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University.

Columbia football was a comforting joke when I was there in the 1950s. We thought losing teams meant we had our priorities straight. Why wouldn’t we rather be closer to the rigorously intellectual University of Chicago, which had dropped football altogether in 1939, than to, say, Auburn, an undefeated football team that needed a university of which it could be proud?

College football was a bigger deal than the professional game in those long-gone days, although that was already changing. The phrase “student-athlete” was being crafted for widespread dissemination by the executive director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Previously, it was assumed that athletes were students, even if they were majoring in left tackle. Somewhere between 1969, when Chicago restored football, and 2002, when Lee C. Bollinger, champion of affirmative action and the future scourge of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, arrived at Columbia from gridiron powerhouse Michigan, everything changed.

The National Football League (NFL) had become America’s number one sport — and the college game, its minor league. The NCAA had become a highly effective marketing organization with rules carefully written to prevent spending free-for-alls and the sort of obvious corruption that would damage the “industry.” The most dedicated football factories from the NCAA’s highest league — Division 1A — now formed powerful conferences that vied to play in sponsored Bowl games. TV money was the fuel (and gambling an important side business). To stay competitive at the new, high-stakes level, colleges had to cheat and players had to juice.

And here was the affirmative action angle: The rise of a gladiatorial athletic culture meant that colleges, like the military, needed to recruit in the ghettoes — not just in white ethnic coal-mining towns, but in black inner cities. So the ranks of football teams were filling with tough, hungry teens, often gifted football players with psycho-social problems, who were used to fighting to survive, if not to studying to pass.

Because so many were African-Americans, criticizing the behavior of football players — their arrest records, graduation rates, illiteracy — became “racist.” Apologists pointed to the opportunities that football gave young men who could not otherwise afford college educations. Critics pointed out that the huge disparity between the number of black athletes and black non-athletes on campus proved that many colleges were merely interested in cheap labor. According to the most recent NCAA annual report, 22% of all college athletes are black. Only 8% of all college students are black.

If all of the above mattered only to college football itself, it would be interesting mainly to the Sub-Cultural Studies Department. But that’s not the case — not for the other students on campus, nor for the campuses, nor for the communities of which they are part, not even for the larger society. Among the effects, Title IX, which, in 37 words made into law in 1972, tried to level the gender playing field, has yet to fulfill its great promise because so much of the funding and energy is channeled into all-boy, big-time football.

If big-time college football were merely another of higher education’s various advertising ploys, like many of its semester-abroad programs or film-study courses, we could just roll our eyes and move on. But it teeters on the edge of being a scam and a tax fraud. Universities mortgage their endowments and their souls to build stadiums and buy top coaches and players; and yet, as Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist keeps pointing out, less than a dozen of the 1,000-plus college athletic departments in the country generate a true surplus, much less successfully fund other sports on campus, no less — har har — libraries and laboratories. The average big-time department, in fact,loses over $7 million a year.

Every so often, provocateurs suggest that college football players should be paid, at least some percentage of TV and ticket profits, not to mention those briskly selling college jerseys. The colleges recoil in appropriate horror, claiming “the end of amateurism,” not to speak of “higher” education. What they are scared of, though, is creating an employer-employee relationship — which would entail workman’s comp for injuries, perhaps better health insurance, and the loss of a non-profit status that gives them tax exemptions and control over a non-union workforce that Zimbalist calls “unpaid professionals,” the muscle and bone of the system.

Let’s take a break and yawn here. So what? There’s a war on. And college football fans, amiable louts who like to paint their faces, tear down goalposts, and burn cars after a big game, surely need to get off. Better they should do it in the stadium and the quad — and sometimes downtown — than run loose in our neighborhoods.

But a dangerously numbing effect lurks in the corruption of college football — the altered transcripts to admit high school stars who can’t do college work, the under-the-table payments to potential box-office attractions, the passing grades in Mickey Mouse courses given by co-opted or intimidated faculty members — that makes cynics of classmates and fans, and pimps of trustees and sportswriters. God knows what damage it does to undereducated players who don’t have the skills (or the luck) to move on to the NFL.

In retrospect, so many of them seem shamed by their exploitation. Some even want to talk about it. But no one wants to listen to losers. Hey, you got your chance for a free education and you blew it!

These days my mailbox is filled with requests to donate to the $100 million Fund for Excellence in Columbia Athletics. En route to a losing season after last year’s “encouraging” 5-5 record, the best in a decade, Columbia takes this fund-raising seriously. Until recently, a New York City highway billboard invited us to “Meet the New Cats Uptown” — complete with pictures of the roaring Columbia Lions logo and Coach Norries Wilson, a former University of Minnesota lineman, in his second year running the team.

President Bollinger says, “I think of athletics as co-curricular. This means to me that mediocrity in athletics is simply not acceptable.”

I’m not sure what this means to me. At Columbia, I roomed with, sat in the same classes with, and ate the same lousy cafeteria food with football players. They were more like me than the players I later reported on in the Big Ten (including those playing for then-Michigan President Bollinger), or the powerhouse Southeastern Conference, or the Big East. I took comfort in that. Meeting last year’s Columbia players, I still felt comfortable, especially with the writers on the team. Why would I want to contribute to change, if that means putting in place the kind of “excellence in athletics” at Florida State, or even Notre Dame of late?

A recent survey in The Chronicle of Higher Education highlights at least one of the problems. In recent years, there has been an enormous increase in donations to athletic departments, while overall donations to colleges have stagnated. “Excellence in athletics” as funded by Boone Pickens at Oklahoma State ($165 million) does not trickle up to the Philosophy Department — and for good reason. A sports donation can buy not only naming rights and a box of good seats with sideline passes (excellent for business entertaining), but access to parties and meals with coaches and players. How much is sherry in a professor’s apartment for a Wittgenstein chalk-talk worth?

On the other hand, if I send my money in to the Columbia fund, I’ll have the honor of joining the likes of Robert K. Kraft, Columbia ’63. According to Judy Battista of the New York Times, Kraft credits his experience playing Columbia football with teaching him the teamwork, perseverance, and subjugating of ego necessary to make enough of a fortune to donate five million dollars to the new athletics fund. And here’s one small tip of the cap he gets in return: The playing field at Columbia’s Lawrence A. Wien Stadium will be called the Robert K. Kraft Field. (How much for the Robert M. Lipsyte End Zone?)

Kraft’s fortune also enabled him to buy the New England Patriots, who seem en route to their fourth Super Bowl in the last seven years.

Kraft is such a great philanthropist and dedicated alumnus that I feel sure he will not allow our Lions to become a Patriot act, running up the score to dominate opponents and intimidate future rivals, or breaking rules by trying to steal the signals that rival coaches send their players. Unless, of course, the alternative is mediocrity.

2. Taming Savages

“I thought this must be what God looks like.” — Pro Hall of Fame Player George Blanda on first meeting legendary Alabama Coach Bear Bryant.

From Creation — Rutgers beat Princeton on Nov. 6, 1869 — college football has been criticized for being violent, commercial, and a higher-education distraction of the first order. That’s why we love it. Not to mention the chance to play war, invent fungible icons, and engage in acceptable homosocial behavior.

The true heroes of the game have not been the players — usually too young to be interesting in their firefly careers — but the loud, devious, flim-flam artists who convince the young that winning a game as a group is more important than any kind of individual expression. The most manipulative of them succeed by convincing “their” boys that they are a “band of brothers” who can trust only each other and need to sacrifice their bodies (more and more often now at the expense of their future health) for the greater good. Most college players understand that they are being played, but they do genuinely love the game, the contact, their friends, the steam of the locker-room.

From Pop Warner at the Carlisle Indian School through Bear Bryant at Alabama to Tom Osborne at Nebraska — who, after I questioned his repeated “forgiveness” of a felonious running back, asked me if I’d rather have the player loose in my neighborhood — the unstated mission of coaches has been to provide a model for controlling and exploiting young manhood for factories, corporations, and armies.

Coach as God (in their parishes, they are generally referred to without the article), or as Father, or Boss, or at least autocrat of the breakfast table is a model for many ranting, hard-driving business chiefs. I’ve worked for a few, particularly in television, but only one was honestly upfront about his own role model.

In 2001, right after he was named executive editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines took the sports department to lunch and told us he was going to run the paper the way Bear Bryant ran the Alabama football team: no slackers on soft beats, relentless blocking and tackling by everyone, and power sweeps on big stories. Being sportswriters, we assumed he was just trying to out-jock us. Like the Bear, huh? No water in the newsroom? Would he call out assignments from a high tower overlooking all our desks? Cut people he didn’t like?

As promised, Coach Raines shook up the paper. In international and national news, he concentrated on the big stories instead of a balanced report — 9/11 made that easy at first — and ordered more team assignments. (Double and triple bylines became common.) In sports, he shifted the section’s focus from local professional teams to big-time college sports. At that lunch, he had said that he believed college sports, particularly football, worked as a national cultural glue. We thought that was nonsense — too regional, even with the arrival of a national championship and all those bowl games. But he was Coach.

Turned out, he was also a bullfrog, not a Bear, and the capricious, distant, bullying style that can intimidate college athletes, terrified of losing their year-to-year scholarships and conditioned to offer sly servility to alpha males, just didn’t work for long in a place where diva dorks and nettlesome nerds of long service and accomplishment thought they were bigger than the team. Using the Jayson Blair scandal — perhaps unfairly — the guerrillas gang-tackled Raines and drove him from the field.

He would have lasted far longer on a college football team.

3. Who Are Marshall?

”We’ll reach for the stars and if we get the moon it won’t be bad.”– Marshall University football coach Bobby Pruett.

I’m not sure whether I thought I would score points with Coach Raines or stick it up his whistle — or both — but after I finished my year with NASCAR in 2001, I decided to concentrate on college sports, particularly football. Soon I found myself stuck in the national cultural glue.

With the help of a prominent alumnus, I was given the run of the Marshall University athletic department. I was writing a column, so this was never intended to be an investigation, merely a chatty sojourn at an interesting school in Huntington, West Virginia, a so-called mid-major with aspirations and some history. Of course, I would have been delighted to uncover the gambling rings, drugs, recruiting violations, gun charges, felonious assaults, prostitution, and altered grades that littered the more successful programs.

Marshall, however, was a blue-collar commuter university of 16,000, the lesser of two schools in a poor state. It had trouble recruiting beyond its region of shut-down coal mines. Its $10.5 million athletic budget was among the lowest of Division I universities that were ambitious about football.

Soon after its 1964 football season, the last winning one for 20 years, a group of boosters had tried to quick-fix the program. They auditioned 135 athletes from around the country for 35 scholarships. This led to 144 NCAA violations, and expulsion from the middling Mid-American Conference. And then comedy was replaced by tragedy. In 1970, 37 Marshall players, 5 coaches, and 33 administrators, students, boosters, and crew members were killed in the worst sports-related plane crash in U.S. history. Last year, the school’s gallant comeback was celebrated in a major film, We Are Marshall.

Generally, I liked the people I met at Marshall for their decency, lack of pretense, and humor. The team was nicknamed “the Thundering Herd,” but after losses it was redubbed “the Blundering Turd.” Everything was out in the open, it seemed — and no one blinked at things that seemed just a little…. off.

The best restaurant in town was the steakhouse named for Coach Bobby Pruett, which just happened to be on the first floor of the city’s main hotel, owned by Marshall Reynolds, the team’s biggest booster. Most of my time spent hanging out with quarterback Byron Leftwich, we talked about movies. What classes? He had lots of loose time between the endless shoots for his bobble-head doll. It was to be sent out to the sportswriters who would vote for the Heisman Trophy, the most celebrated individual award in college football (and a terrific marketing vehicle for a college). The state human resources agency was paying for the dolls from tobacco company fines. Some of them would actually go to kids who signed a no-smoking pledge.

Leftwich, who didn’t win the Heisman but is now in the NFL, isn’t the only pro from Marshall. There’s Jets’ back-up quarterback, Chad Pennington, remembered as a scholar and a gentleman, and Randy Moss, the current Patriots star, who was remembered as neither. Moss walked on at Marshall after being kicked out of Notre Dame and Florida State, starred, and walked off again.

And then the NCAA came to town and punished Marshall for a number of violations. It seemed like a typical NCAA raid — beat up on an unimportant school for unimportant violations that could be trumpeted as effective enforcement. Chief among the crimes were the $25-an-hour jobs that one of Reynolds’s companies was handing out to athletes.

“Wrong,” Reynolds told me. “They were $100-a-day weekend jobs, and sometimes the boys didn’t show up the second day. We’ve been doing it since 1992. It was set up for the former football coach, a fine man, as is the present coach, Bobby Pruett. I never did anything Marshall didn’t ask me to do, and I never did anything for the football team I haven’t done for the medical school or the library.”

Reynolds operated in three states, owning real estate, a printing company, and that hotel. As chairman of Huntington’s development commission and chamber of commerce, he saw Marshall as a key to the region’s health, although he regarded its then-president as “a typical incompetent here to punch his ticket and move on to New Hampshire or Tennessee.”

Reynolds felt “shocked and embarrassed” when Marshall offered him up as a sacrifice to forestall further penalties. He was to be banned from associating with Marshall teams or attending games in premium seats for two years, later upped to five by the NCAA. As Reynolds dryly told me, none of this barred him from continuing to donate to the university.

Another scapegoat was David Ridpath, the athletic department’s compliance officer, charged with making sure all NCAA rules were being followed, even if he had no real investigatory powers. Ridpath was promptly promoted to another job at the university, not fired. “You’d rather have someone like him inside the tent spitting out, than outside the tent spitting in,” was Reynolds’ comment.

These days, Marshall has a new president and a new football coach. It has moved up the prestige ladder to Conference USA. Booster Reynolds is back and his son, Doug, recently won election to the West Virginia House of Delegates.

David Ridpath, the former compliance officer, was radicalized by his experience, and after litigation and some wandering in academia has ended up with a good job in the athletic department at Ohio University. He is also director of the country’s main college sports reform organization, the Drake Group, whose current campaign is to strip the NCAA of its non-profit status.

Go Drakes!

4. The Spoilsport

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall/Professor Wagstaff gets the ball.”– audible in the Marx Brothers college football film, Horse Feathers.

Confessions of a Spoilsport: My Life and Hard Times Fighting Sports Corruption at an Old Eastern University, the most recent book of Rutgers literature professor William C. Dowling, is a brilliant examination of what it means to be a “coach” in a campaign of “quixotic ineffectuality” (as the New York Times called it). Unkind words, but gentle compared to the obscene death threats sent by fans after Dowling and a small group of students and alumni called on Rutgers to get out of the sports entertainment business and back into education.

But what could Dowling have expected? The Rutgers1000, as they optimistically called themselves, were challenging the drift toward yahooism of a once-great university whose leadership supposedly made this Faustian bargain with big-time football: Put our new, improved jocks on national television and we will allow the rest of our students and faculty to slide into mediocrity. Add to Dowling’s problems a new university president who might have reversed the drift but was crippled by his own personal and professional scandals and you have a formula for failure in the new college sports universe.

When I first met Dowling ten years ago there was swing to his tail. A bearded super-scholar who assumed you should be able to follow his French and Latin bon mots, he had been energized by working-class students who reminded him of his own rural background. They were appalled by their “slum classrooms,” while millions were being spent refurbishing ball fields and locker-rooms. A Dartmouth grad who started his teaching career at the jock-ruled University of New Mexico, Dowling was sensitive to the way that Division IA football and basketball can shift priorities from the classroom to the arena.

Dowling believes that students are very sensitive to shifts in a university’s zeitgeist. He offers statistics claiming that once Rutgers headed toward commercialized sports the quality of its applicants dropped. Better New Jersey students went elsewhere. Faculty members would follow if they could. Rutgers, to Dowling’s howl of dismay, had sold its soul to professionalized sports and its caravan of million-dollar coaches, illiterate jocks, cheating recruiters, sell-out professors, boorish boosters, suck-up sportswriters, and administrators in thrall to Nike-Coke-Taco Bell and the grail of a major Bowl bid.

Dowling generously acknowledges those who have plowed these fields before him — the economist Zimbalist, the college sports critic Murray Sperber, and the oral historian Peter Golenbock. Rutgers is falling down around him, but you have to be inside to know it. To the rest of the world, it’s not only one of America’s oldest colleges (one of only nine that pre-date the Revolution), but a “public Ivy” that was private until about 50 years ago, with renowned departments in philosophy, history, and English.

Today’s Rutgers, however, is better known as the Scarlet Knights for its football team that last year won the Texas Bowl, and a women’s basketball team that was famous even before Imus slurred them.

The investment in making Rutgers football a national name began at $30 million a year, according to the Newark Star-Ledger, when a new athletic director arrived from New Jersey’s major professional sports complex, the Meadowlands. He brought in a $500,000 football coach and gave him the irrigated practice fields, the academic tutors, the office complex, and the weight rooms an expensive coach needs to win. The state legislature kicked in $12.5 million to renovate the stadium.

And the hype has been even gaudier than Columbia’s cat billboard. The September 12th issue of the New York Daily News, for instance, was handed out free in Manhattan with full-page front and back ads for the team sponsored by the likes of Johnson & Johnson, Bank of America, and Hess Oil. Nonetheless, the Scarlet Knights faltered this season. They would lose to Cincinnati, West Virginia, and Connecticut, all rivals in the Big East Conference.

Dowling’s response to all this is easy to sum up. He would simply like to revoke Rutgers’ membership in the Big East, a conference whose “consumerist ideology” is “the great antagonist of serious thought.” Until 2004, the Big East included such ethically-challenged institutions as Virginia Tech and Miami (before it decamped for the even richer Atlantic Coast Conference).

Dowling would like to see Rutgers in the Div. IAA Patriot League with the likes of Army, Navy, Colgate, and Lafayette, a league where no football scholarships can be offered and where the student-athlete is actually supposed to be one. Dream on, Professor. This genie is out of the bottle. On ESPN, where most of us get our information on higher education, it is often hard to distinguish between the coverage of college and professional football.

I want to believe that all this will have little impact on Columbia, and I’m putting my money where my mouth is by not contributing to the Fund for Excellence in Athletics. But at schools that offer athletic scholarships, where to win you have to recruit top jocks — and to recruit top jocks you have to win — where to make money you have to build skyboxes and play in important televised Bowl games, short-term pragmatic choices will always be made for what Sperber calls “beer and circuses.” Keep the kids wasted and paying tuition for four years or more. It’s worked for some time now.

In the 1932 movie “Horsefeathers,” Groucho Marx, as Wagstaff, a new president, informs the faculty that Huxley College can no longer support both a college and football team.


Wagstaff: Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.

“The Professors (in unison): But Professor. Where will the students sleep?

“Wagstaff: Where they always sleep. In the classroom.”

Robert Lipsyte, Jock Culture correspondent for Tomdispatch, is author most recently of the Young Adult stock car racing novel, Yellow Flag. His website is

Copyright 2007 Robert Lipsyte