The year was 1976. I was a young, idealistic assistant professor of economics at North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount. The college was struggling financially, and as a way to save money the administration hit upon the bright idea of tapping the faculty as "visiting speakers" for the mandatory convocations program, hour-long presentations to the entire student body. Preceding me, among others, had been English professor Leverett T. Smith, whose Ph. D. was actually in American studies and history professor Kenneth Finney, a specialist on Latin America. Smith had talked on the sociological aspects of the Beatles and Rolling Stones phenomena and Finney, the ascetic son of missionaries to Peru and Honduras who had been reared in rather deprived conditions in those countries, had offered up a Philippic against the automobile.
That background is necessary to appreciate the references in the oration that follows. I am presenting it here just as I delivered it then. The facts as I presented them were correct at the time as best as I could ascertain through my research. The reader will naturally notice great differences in magnitude in the dollar amounts I mention compared to the present day. Times have changed quite a bit, too. My strong advocacy of participation as opposed to spectator sports sounds quaint today, but just nine years before the post newspaper at Fort Monroe, which I had supervised in my stint in the Army, had found the master sergeant who regularly went running after work novel enough to do a story about him. He was the only person there who did it. A quarter of a century ago Dr. Cooper's book on aerobics had just come out and the fitness craze was in its infancy. The reader will also notice that I was still extremely naive about the journalistic profession and that I actually believed that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were the crusading muck rakers that were portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in "All the President's Men."
I've come a long way since then, but many of the disturbing trends I speak of here have only gotten worse. So here goes....
Confessions of a Football Fanatic
Many of you, I have heard, have expressed skepticism that I was actually going to speak on the subject of football in spite of the announcement of the title of the address, "Confessions of a Football Fanatic." After all, everyone knows my main sports are basketball and bicycle racing and very few people here have heard me utter more than two words on the subject of football. And I freely admit to a lack of credentials as any kind of an expert. I have never played organized football. I have not read any books by sports radicals like Dave Meggesy, Pete Gent, Jack Scott, Harry Edwards, or others. Unlike Professor Smith, I am not a professional student of sports in America. (But Professor Smith did not let his amateur knowledge of rock and roll prevent him from discussing that subject). I am sure that I have not seen football played in as many exotic places as Professor Finney has witnessed automobiles in action. But compared to me, my distinguished colleague has one great disadvantage, he has never known his subject as would a lover. (Rumors that he is a closet member of the Richard Petty fan club, I believe, are false.) According to the best evidence, he has never left rubber of any sort on any kind of road, concrete, asphalt, or secluded dirt. His has been a very un-American upbringing.
I have loved football. I remember how as a child I thrilled to the exploits on the radio of Charley "Choo Choo" Justice, and have followed his career from college great to professional mediocre to announcer awful (a standard progression). I have watched the Super Bowl every year except one when I was out of the country.
At long last I have concluded, though, that football is much like the steaks that football players consume in such huge quantities. One can enjoy it only if he can put out of his mind where it comes from; only if he can forget how it was produced.
During the recent Olympic Games our sports announcers were justly critical of the so-called sports factories of East Germany, Russia, and other Eastern European countries. They objected to their practice of virtually plucking promising youngsters out of the play pen to train them into champion athletes. They were appalled at the regimentation. They wondered about the effect on young emotions of being forced into high-pressure competition at an early age. They complained about the excessive emphasis on winning. Most of all, they objected to the hypocrisy of these countries fielding teams as amateur that could not be more professional.
Not surprisingly, against such competition our men and women did not fare so well, that is, except for the products of our own minor sports factories like college basketball and swimming. But if we could have played football against them we would have met them squarely on their own terms.
The only appreciable differences between their sports system and our football system is that they are, for the most part, dealing with healthful sports in which a broad spectrum of the population is able to participate, and theirs is run by the government. The football system is run mainly by private enterprise even when attached to public institutions and like most profit-oriented endeavors, it is designed primarily to cater to the wishes of the ultimate consumer, in this case, the fan. If participation in the football system ultimately proves very unrewarding for most of the young men who, at one time or another, play the game, we should not be surprised. The system is not set up for them.
The Football Rookery
Apprenticeship in football begins early in many communities in America. Passion for the sport is especially intense in the Deep South and the Midwest. In Pee Wee leagues footballs are put into hands that can hardly grip them and all the armor of battle is strapped on. From the start a passion for victory is instilled. The saying of coaching great, Vince Lombardi, is heard over and over, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
As the players grow so does the pressure to win. Almost anything is permissible to bring out the aggressive best (or worst) in the young contestants. Appeals are made to school and team pride. Most of all, though, the appeal is made to manhood: "What's the matter, kid, can't you take it? Don't you know that quitters never win and winners never quit? When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
For the kids, the games are fantastic. As an emotional high, there are not many things that can compare to them. But the practices are notoriously grueling and vicious. It is not long before the young participant begins to develop a distaste for physical activity in general, associated as it is with pain and discomfort. "The day coach stops making me do these things is the day I will quit."
At this point you may be saying to yourself, "So what?" Why doesn't he talk about something important? If I don't like football I can ignore it, can't I? It's not exactly like the automobile, which one can't escape even if he wants to.
That's where you're wrong. While these young men are taking their apprenticeship, the repercussions are felt all around. Because of the time and money poured into football and the general attitude toward sports that football engenders, true physical education is slighted. The young are already being sorted out into the few select professionals who will entertain us, and everyone else. Girls, especially, at this stage begin to go to seed. (No extra connotations intended.) Unable to relate to the physically combative, super-masculine ideal of sport represented by football and not being exposed to any other ideal, they are reduced to the role of fawning, artificial sycophants for football players, or they ignore sports altogether.
The lack of any genuine physical education at the high school level is also explained to a degree by the fact that so many university athletic directors are football coaches. The training of physical education teachers falls victim to the major commercial sport mentality. Most P.E., either at the high school or college level is taught as an avocation by a varsity coach whose mind is elsewhere. He's interested mainly in personal advancement, either in the coaching ranks or as an administrator. Somewhere along the way, the education establishment got the idea that football coaches make good principals. School administration joins health and P.E. as a victim of football. Social studies also suffer because their instruction is so often the responsibility of a football coach. Football's casualties mount, even away from the field.
Back on the field, last game, senior year. By this time the probability is great that our young gladiator has suffered one or more serious injuries to limbs or joints. He will have been encouraged to beef himself up to a size that will make him more susceptible to a heart attack in early middle age. Still worse, he will have spent the best part of his youth learning a sport that he will, in all likelihood, never play again. Let him try getting some of the guys together later for a game of football: Twenty-two people, helmets, shoes, pads, field, referees, etc. Forget it.
Anyway, the real fun was not the game but the glory, the pageantry, the adulation, and he can never recapture that with a pick-up game. Better to be like Housman's athlete who died young so he
Or he may be among the "lucky" few who are courted by the colleges. A heady experience that is, indeed! College coaches are paid to win. If they don't win they get fired. They won't win if they don't get the players, and that's where our high school superstar comes in. Win-hungry coaches deluge him with letters and visits and offers. It's the ego massage to end all ego massages: Scores of people, all after the services of one pimply-faced seventeen-year-old. He makes visits to college campuses where he will be squired around by a comely Lady Cornhusker or some such and where he will be introduced to all the important people. His self-esteem rises a few more notches. Even if everything the recruiters do is legal and well-intentioned the effect on the young man cannot be good. Only in the event that he becomes president or a movie star will he ever be adored and praised and wanted so much. No wife will ever be able to compete with this. No professional award will ever compare. No grandchild, no nothing will ever compare to this in the life of our young football recruit. His peak will have been reached at 18 and the rest will be anti-climax.
Not all the recruiting is in accordance with the rules, however, either of the NCAA or of propriety. The school that can offer just a little bit more is the one that will get the blue-chipper (as they are called), and the coaches know it. Given the pressure to win and the chance of getting by with it, the temptation to cheat is often irresistible. Avid and wealthy alumni are in a particularly good position to break the rules and nudge the high school hero in the direction of their college. The aforementioned National Collegiate Athletic Association is supposed to police and punish such activities, but it employs only nine people to research allegations of violations among the 703 member schools. In regulatory effectiveness the NCAA resembles nothing so much as a referee of professional wrestling.
Even the strongest defenders of college football recognize the ills of recruiting. Darrell Royal, the head coach of the University of Texas hardly a sports radical has called for conference lie detector tests to determine who has been breaking the rules. The coaches of the Big Eight have complained that their recruiting will be crippled by the new NCAA rule limiting college coaching staffs to nine full-time coaches. (Ironically, the same as the total number of NCAA investigators in the whole country.)
The chance that our young recruit will ever live up to the big build-up he has been given is very remote. Since the coaches can never be sure who will really make it in college ball, they over- recruit. Johnny Majors, the coach of the nation's number one college team, the University of Pittsburgh, brought in almost 100 new scholarship players his very first year on the job. The NCAA has tried to control this practice of stocking-up by limiting the total number of scholarships at any one school to 95. This rule has not been greeted cheerfully by the big-time coaches. One responded this way::
"I hate to use the expression, 'running off,' but I'm afraid we're going to be seeing a lot more of that now."
And what does this term "running-off" mean? If the coaches miss their guess on a player, under the new system they are left with only 94 players they can use instead of the 115 or so they might have had before. They can't take a man's scholarship away and give it to a new, promising player unless the dud (who was yesterday's hero in the recruiting letters) quits the team of his own accord. Football must be made so unpleasant for him that he will "voluntarily" give up the game and his scholarship. The act of influencing his decision is called "running off." I'll leave the rest to your imagination.
But what about all those young men that Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson tell us about on NCAA college football on ABC who are given the opportunity to go to college through the football scholarship programs?
There are several things to said about that. In the first place, as we all know, many football players should not be in college. Admission standards for football players, traditionally low, have fallen still lower in recent years. The Atlantic Coast Conference fared very poorly against outside opponents until it got rid of the 800 minimum SAT for athletes. Now its teams are doing much better, but only with the help of a hypocritical double standard. The chancellors of UNC and NC State were recently forced to defend the new policy against charges of professionalism by Duke coach Mike McGee. This is from a Raleigh News and Observer article:
"State Chancellor Joab Thomas said NCSU's policy, which he described as designed to grant 'flexibility' to its admissions committee, is 'just as likely to let in an engineer as an athlete.'"
One can't help wondering how that prospective young engineer would demonstrate promise except through academics. Maybe he's good with erector sets.
The notorious Big Eight has long had flexible standards for athletes and Sports Illustrated recently reported that only 30 of the 135 Big Eight players playing professional football had received college degrees. Colorado and Oklahoma State were the worst with only 3 of their present 34 players having graduated.
At the other extreme are those college football players who would have gone to college anyway and could have afforded to pay their own way. The major educational difference for them is that the requirements of football permit them little time to pursue their studies, or anything else. But for the matter of time, in fact, the ills of playing football at the college level are pretty much the same as those at the high school level, except in greater degree: More weight, more injuries, more organization, more emphasis on winning, more appeals to pride and loyalty, and more display of aggressive masculinity. But the time factor means that football is now pretty much like a job. Viewed in this manner, considering the time that he puts in, the nature of the work that he does, the skill that he possesses, and the consumer demand for his product, the $2,500 or so that he gets each year in scholarship makes the American college football player one of the most underpaid workers anywhere.
To illustrate this point and several others I have made and will make I would like to relate the following personal experience. It was from UNC, but it is not intended as an indictment of the UNC football program in particular. UNC happens to be the only university I have been associated with. We have professors here who can relate similar experiences from other universities.
Hell in the Spring
In the spring of 1971, I was a graduate instructor of economic principles at UNC, Chapel Hill. I discovered that I had six varsity football players in my class when I received a note from the football academic counselor asking for a report on their grades. My first reaction was one of pleasant surprise that the coaching staff included one person whose job it was to supervise the players in their studies. We had just given the second major test of the semester. All six of the players had passed the first one. The second, if the overall results are any indication, was no more difficult than the first, but the highest grade among the six football players was a rather generous 46. What had happened between the first and the second tests? Spring football practice had begun.
Five of the players were in one section and one, a very personable and intelligent all-conference linebacker, was in another. I first asked the group of five to stay after class and discuss their problems with me. This they eagerly did. I realize that any description of hardship in spring practice is likely to have been somewhat exaggerated for my benefit so that I might treat them with leniency at grade time. However, the tales that they told could hardly have been made up on the spot, and they were given added credibility by the deterioration in their classroom performance and by their rather haggard appearance.
They told of practice sessions that dragged on for hours; sessions that were so demanding that the players could hardly make it off the field at the conclusion. Their appearance as much as their words spoke of an almost unbearable fatigue, a fatigue so great that a player would often flop into bed fully clothed after the evening meal and sleep until morning, that is, when he was not required to go down to the field house and view movies. Study under these circumstances was out of the question. I asked them why they didn't quit a sport which was so clearly detrimental to their physical well-being. They were unanimous in saying that it was because they didn't want to disappoint the folks back home, although one of them, one of the team's best players, did later disappoint the people in Wilson and quit.
The most dramatic and detailed account of the evils of big-time college football was to come later in a session with the all star linebacker which lasted for more than an hour. Practice conditions as he described them were almost unspeakable, but he was most touching when he talked of his life in general as a college football player, of how he had always loved the game and how he had dreamed of being the college standout that he had become. But the great gulf between the romantic ideal and the grimy reality was almost too much for him to take. What looked from the outside like a dream had, for him, turned into a nightmare. With all the practice, pre-season practice, game practice, spring practice, and off-season weight training and conditioning, he had little time left over for anything else. All those "special privileges" that football players get, a separate dorm, separate eating facilities and a special high-protein diet, tutors when they need it, slide courses, etc. served only to accentuate the difference between himself and the other students who regarded him and his teammates not altogether undeservedly he thought like some kind of freak or animal. In fact, he repeated to me almost verbatim without a trace of humor in his voice the words of a cartoon I once saw: One football player to another:
"This is a nice college. When my playing days are over I think I'd like to come to school here."
The only difference between his words and that of the cartoon was his added remark that when he returned he would like to use his spare time to write an expose of the football program. By that time I was convinced it would be a bestseller.
Mindful of the academic chain of command and my lowly place in it, I went to the professor who was the lecturer in charge of the course and told him of our problem with the football players. I suggested that our efforts were being undermined by the football program and that through the dean of the school of business we should register a complaint. He responded to the effect that I was evidently unaware of where power lay in the institution, and that was the end of that. (Actually, it was not the end of my efforts to do something about the matter, but, in the interests of time and not wanting to appear to be trying to puff myself up, I did not tell the audience about what I did next. Recalling the student journalist who had just written what for the time was a daring article about the homosexual hangouts in Chapel Hill for the Daily Tar Heel, I sought him out and told him what I had learned about the savagery of football on campus and offered to put him in touch with my students. He showed little interest and declined the offer. At that point, I gave up.)
On a hot, muggy August afternoon that same year, while doing end-of-practice wind sprints, wearing full football gear, including a helmet, a fine, handsome young offensive guard for the Tar Heels by the name of Bill Arnold collapsed from a heat stroke. He hung on for about a week and then died.
A faculty committee was soon appointed to investigate the death. They rendered a report that proposed stricter medical supervision of football practice, more frequent water breaks, etc., but they absolved the coaching staff of all responsibility in the unfortunate occurrence. Once again, that was the end of that...I thought.
About a week later, on a Sunday afternoon, as I was on my way up to the campus to do some work, I heard on the car radio that a group who called themselves something like "The Committee of Concerned Athletes" was getting ready to give a news conference at the student union. No more details were given. My curiosity aroused, I hustled up to the union and joined a small audience of about 20 people, mainly reporters. Eleven UNC students, all former football players, sat at the front of the room. Their leader and chief spokesman was Bill Richardson, the defensive captain of the previous year's team who had used up his eligibility. Not one of my six students was among them. One of the committee passed out a mimeographed statement several pages thick which attacked the faculty committee report as a whitewash. Then, one by one, the eleven former players told their own stories of what had happened to them in the football program and what they had seen done to others. To me it was mainly a familiar tale by that time, except for some rather graphic descriptions of "running off" techniques and accusations of several of having been forced to play while injured.
As you might expect, the news conference caused a mild sensation, but a good deal more mild than you might expect. The sportswriters either studiously ignored the whole matter or tended to take the side of the coaches without dealing with the substance of the charges. It is interesting in this age of Woodward and Bernstein that investigative reporting among sportswriters remains virtually nonexistent. Every one of the writers that I mentioned at the beginning is a former athlete, not a professional sportswriter. When Professor Finney begins his dictatorship he will need a compliant press. I suggest that he jail all regular reporters and turn the papers over to the sportswriters. (See how naive I was. Now I know that that would not be necessary.)
The faculty stuck by their report. The coaching staff denied all the charges, and, admittedly, they were almost impossible to prove. What the eleven "malcontents and quitters," as they were called by the football people, most hoped for failed to occur. None of the members of the football team defected to their ranks. In fact, several, in most manly fashion, shaved their heads clean as a sign of support for the program, and the tradition continues even today.
A week or so later, in an attempt to salvage a losing cause, Richardson scheduled a bigger, better- publicized news conference. As the meeting began some of you may have seen it on Channel 11 in Durham with TV cameras whirring the head football coach arrived from the practice field with the whole team in tow, all in full football armor. An ugly confrontation occurred. I got there a little late this time and watched with amazement as 60 or so players, looking stern and formidable, clattered in their spiked shoes down the steps of the union. One of them, bald-headed and mammoth, I barely recognized as one of my students who had complained most woefully about practice conditions. I had time only to splutter out, "What are you doing here?" He mumbled something like, "Gotta have a winning season," and rushed out with the others.
The Heels did have a winning record that year, and hardly anyone noticed when a senior on that team, a journalism major who had held his tongue and played with the others through the successful season, published a series of articles in his home-town Winston-Salem Journal. The articles vouched for almost everything the dissident 11 had said, but by then it was old news, and everyone was more interested in reading about basketball. That, finally, was the end of that.
I would like to reiterate at this point that I do not intend to single out the football program at UNC for condemnation. Everyone knows that football is emphasized much more at some other schools in the country. From what I have heard, too, practice sessions at Carolina have become much more reasonable. In fact, I read in the paper not too long ago that the embittered, articulate former all-conference linebacker had, indeed, returned to UNC, but not to write an expose. He had taken a job as assistant football coach.
Sometimes I read other things that give me a real feeling of deja vu. Such a time was late this summer during the drought when the citizens of Chapel Hill were forbidden, under penalty of law, to do such things as wash their cars, and restaurants had stopped serving water with meals. The athletic department was caught not once but twice watering the football practice field at 4:00 in the morning. They had some rationalizations for their anti-social and illegal behavior, but they did not compare to the ones the University had produced a few days earlier. This is from the Raleigh News and Observer, August 20, 1976.
CHAPEL HILL University of North Carolina (UNC) officials Thursday said
students returning to dormitories here next week face cold showers, even after
physical education classes unless they play for UNC's football team.
The no-hot-water policy was adopted, officials said, because several gallons of cold water normally flow through spigots and showerheads before tap water gets hot.
Asked specifically if hot water would be available to football players preparing for the fall season, [Vice Chancellor Claiborne S.] Jones said, "We will not cut off hot water in Kenan Field House, and this is on the advice of our sports medicine director.
"A great many medical authorities have said that without hot water there is a great chance of a streptococcal skin infection which we cannot risk for our athletes, or any of our students," he said.
However, another conservation measure announced earlier in the week was a complete cutoff of showers in Woollen Gym and Carmichael Auditorium, where university physical education classes are held.
Jones was asked how, with hot water turned off in dormitories and no gymnasium showers available, students who did not play football were expected to avoid streptococcal skin infections.
"The scientific studies that our sports medicine director has available," Jones replied, "indicate that these streptococcal skin infections are related to the kind of activity that is related to intercollegiate athletic programs and not to any other type of activity." (end excerpt)
What makes grown men in responsible positions talk this way? You might as well ask why the N.C. State coach had one of his own professors arrested as a suspected football spy, or why those disgruntled fans in Tennessee sent a moving van to Coach Battle's house (unrequested by Coach Battle), or why those people send threatening letters to Howard Cosell when he slights their team on Monday night highlights. Why do apparent adults drive around with the scores of football games on their cars?
It's all part of the larger lunacy of football in America. If Rollerball is the game for the future, football is the game for now. Even without its violence and its militaristic overtones (long bomb, blitz, ground attack, air attack, trenches) it is the perfect contemporary game. Like Exxon and General Motors it is a big business. The two-year ABC TV contract alone is worth $16 million for participating schools. Playing in a bowl game is worth, on the average, $300,000 to a school and its conference.
But more particularly, football is the perfect game for the over-specialized, alienated society. As life becomes more and more compartmentalized: live here, work there, find recreation somewhere else; as we become more and more sealed off from each other, age group from age group, social class from social class, car from car, department from department, football provides the perfect example of the over-specialized sport. The sport has offensive specialists, defensive specialists, passing specialists, running specialists, pass-catching specialists, blocking specialists, tackling specialists, even something called special-teams specialists. No one player is any more a master of the entire sport than any one worker is master of the production of an automobile.
Football rules change and specialists change, but the one immutable specialist is the spectator, the inveterate watcher of football. Football rounds out a life made dull and purposeless by the same kind of system that produces football. With work robbed of its meaning as expertise and power become ever more concentrated at the top, the only means of fulfillment left is in consumption. Football is the ultimate in sport as a consumer good. No one can produce it for himself.
Like most consumer goods it comes in a wide variety of packages to fit a variety of budgets. At one end of the spectrum is TV consumption for the working class beer drinker. At the other end is the conspicuous consumption that one can partake of by belonging to one of the college booster clubs. For $1,000 or more a year, one can buy, among other things, the privilege of parking for games close enough to the field house to smell the sweat. Just as the Exxon men claim to be only meeting the demands of consumers, so, too, do the producers of football.
The real problem is with these people who have little capacity for enjoyment except through the exploits of others, soap opera characters, Hollywood stars, football teams. Increasingly, that is all of us. Quoting Eric Hoffer: "The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim excellence for his nation, his religion, his race, or his holy cause."
He might have added, "His football team."
The corporate technological society has, step by step, taken away the creative ability of the individual and robbed him of his right to claim excellence for himself. Football and its friends are now rapidly taking away recreation and family fellowship. Thanksgiving, New Years, and, most recently, Christmas have been consumed. Pretty soon it won't matter because no one will remember what we did together during those occasions, anyway, and no one will have any resources of his own left to be taken over.
In conclusion, maybe in our inquiry into the phenomenon of football we have stumbled onto the real reason for the difficulties of small, liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts stand for the cultivation of the whole man. Such an endeavor runs counter to the current in modern society.
But as long as there are still institutions that truly attempt to cultivate wisdom and courage through Christian education there is still some hope. Maybe there is also some hope for the Greek ideal in athletics in which, according to Jacques Ellul, "physical exercise was an ethic for developing the human body" as opposed to the Roman concept of sports as a "technique for increasing the legionnaire's efficiency." Maybe as long as there are students who will attend institutions like Wesleyan, if you will, there are still people who are not content to take their recreation ready-made, or to have their identity defined by the automobile they drive or the football team they support. Maybe there is hope for us yet before the final whistle sounds.
March 11, 2001
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