I’m a graduate of the University of Georgia (class of ’88) and of Virginia Tech (master’s, ’90). In other words, I matriculated at two of the biggest “football factory” universities in the USA. They’re fine institutions in their own right, but when you mention either to the average American, the first thought that comes to mind isn’t “excellent engineering programs” or “cutting edge bioscience research”. It’s “football”.
I’m not immune to the all-pervasive influence of the gridiron. One of the main reasons I attended UGA despite growing up in Blacksburg, Virginia (home of Virginia Tech) was to attend a university with a lot of school spirit, and Georgia had that and then some after being named the college football national champions in 1980 and playing for the championship the next two years. People cared about attending UGA. A visit to the Georgia campus in the spring of 1984 showed that plainly: everywhere I looked, people had on Georgia spirit wear.
Back in Blacksburg, which hadn’t yet started its climb into the national football spotlight, people basically didn’t seem to care at all. It was just a place; you went there, you got your degree, you left. A lot of that had to do with the Hokies’ sports programs — never played for a championship in anything, never set the world on fire, never had people talking about ’em at the water cooler on Monday morning.
Academically, does it make sense to evaluate a university on this basis? Obviously not. But then again, when I was 17 and applying to college, I didn’t give a damn about academics. I’d been a loser my whole life and wanted to go off somewhere where I could start over, have a lot of opportunities, enjoy being there. Academics was pretty far down my list of criteria. (The phrase “Brilliant, but lazy” could have been invented to describe me.)
All across the USA, sports seem to make a huge impact on perception of institutional worth. You win your conference, you win a big bowl, you make the basketball Final Four, etcetera, etcetera — alumni open their checkbooks. Anyone who’s ever followed college sports knows this.
My raising this point probably all comes as pretty out of the blue, given that Georgia is going to be playing for the football national championship on Monday night against Alabama, their first shot at the national championship since I packed my bags and headed off to Athens in the first place. I know what you’re saying: “now he speaks up?”
I’m full of contradictions. I’m still a big Georgia and Virginia Tech fan, but on the other hand, I can’t help wishing football and sports in general played a lot less of a role in our society, and certainly in higher education.
Football runs academics. Universities are more like sports programs with classrooms attached. The NCAA Power 5 conferences behave as a law unto themselves, doing whatever they want and to hell with right and wrong. They refuse to let the NCAA actually run the football playoffs as they do in every other college sport — football money is too important and those NCAA bureaucrats would just screw things up! They lock the “Group of 5” teams into second-class status, even if, like UCF did this year, they go undefeated and beat the best the Power 5 conferences have to offer (Auburn, which beat both UGA and Alabama). It’s all about money, who has it, and who wants to keep it. Sports = money, and money = sports. In 39 states, the highest paid public employee is a college football coach.
People care more about whether “their” team is going to “win big next year” than whether they can pay their own bills, the quality of their kids’ schools, the environment, you name it. Here in Vermont, we’ve got a group of what I frankly consider idiots who are still fighting the South Burlington school board’s decision to change the high school sports’ teams mascot from “Rebels” to “Wolves”.
I mean, really? That’s what you consider a huge priority? I want to go shake these people and say “Are you so entrenched in the past, so rooted in your glory days from high school, that you can’t imagine the high school’s freakin’ MASCOT changing without grabbing a pitchfork and lighting a torch and heading down to the school board meeting with the rest of the angry mob?”
Don’t even get me started on those psychos in Pennsylvania who are still obsessed with proving Saint Joe Paterno was blameless and innocent in the Sandusky child molestation crimes.
There are high schools in Texas who’ve eliminated their foreign language programs at the same time they’ve paid for multi-million dollar football stadiums.
And yet, I’m a pot calling the kettle black. If you ever stop by my house, check out my closet. I’ve lost count of how many Virginia Tech and Georgia and Atlanta Braves and Durham Bulls and Vermont Lake Monsters caps and shirts and hoodies I own. I love sports, I love having something and somebody to root for, even if in the end I’m just using an imagined membership and affiliation to make up for how empty my own life is.
I love football. But if I could, I’d eliminate it tomorrow. And I’d probably accomplish nothing, because some other sport would just come along and replace it and continue to keep us from paying attention to society’s real problems.