What has College Football become?

Another college football season is coming to an end, and as a fan of the sport, in general, and the Tar Heels, in particular, this time of year always makes me a little sad, even with our beloved state pastime—hoops anyone?—having arrived. (Let me be clear to my fellow Heels fans: I’m not saying the Tar Heels’ season is over–there’s plenty to play for in these final few games, we’re just coming to a close is all.)  But this year has added new layers of disappointment to my usual end-of-season depression.

If you’ve followed college football with even passing interest this season, you’ve noticed several controversies and ugly incidents that have made headlines.  Here are a few stories we’ve watched play out since late August: the start of a $3-billion television deal for the Southeastern Conference, an agreement that dwarfs the competition from other conferences and raises so many questions about the sport it’s hard to no how to begin discussing them; University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was hit so hard by a University of Kentucky defender that he vomited while being carted off the field with a concussion; University of Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount punched a Boise State University opponent in the face after the final seconds ticked off the clock, leading to Blount’s long suspension; and, most recently, three University of Tennessee players were arrested for armed robbery at a gas station in Knoxville.  (And, hey, odds are pretty good we won’t have a true national champion thanks to the BCS stranglehold on elite-level college football.)

But these aren’t the only incidents to have muddied college football in recent years, and they aren’t the sole events to have contributed to my gloominess about the sport.  No, larger problems are plaguing college athletics at the highest levels, something I understood in theory but didn’t realize the full impact of until I read Michael Oriard’s latest book, BOWLED OVER: BIG-TIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL FROM THE SIXTIES TO THE BCS ERA.  Oriard’s account is nothing short of eye-opening, a truly compelling study of how college football has changed since the 1960s, becoming a multibillion-dollar mass entertainment spectacle, a sport more about the athlete-student than the student-athlete.

Bowled Over

As a fan of the sport, invested not only with a rooting interest but also a financial one (season tickets can have a major impact on a person’s wallet, trust me), Oriard’s book will give me pause as I gear up for future seasons, especially as ticket prices continue to rise to fund our own stadium expansion, coaches’ salaries, and so many other costs.  But, as Oriard makes clear, the problems associated with big-time college football have a far greater and more wide-reaching impact on universities nationwide than even on fans like me (though he’s looking out for us, too).  They challenge the core of the university’s mission to educate its students, and whether you’re a fan, a student, or an educator, Oriard’s analysis will change (or confirm) the way you think about how our universities relate to academics and athletics. And who better to pose questions on the subject—and maybe even help resolve the issues raised—than Michael Oriard, former All-American at Notre Dame, former NFL player, and now noted scholar and cultural historian at Oregon State University?

-Zach Read,  UNC Press Assistant Editor

For more information on Michael Oriard, and other college football related topics, check out the UNC Press web site or this article on Deadspin.