The title of writer Gregg Easterbrook’s new book states its theme: The King of Sports. “King” is the right word, and no mere figurehead. Super Bowls are Roman numeralized in the manner of monarchs and popes. Super Bowl Sunday has become a de facto national holiday. The 20 most-watched Super Bowls are also the 20 most-watched television programs of all time in the U.S., including the one played on February 2. The Super Bowl’s main competition during the coming 12 months will not be from a presidential address or the Dancing with the Stars finale but from the first-ever college football championship game on January 12, 2015. (Meta Bowl I?) Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, will occupy an even hotter seat as one of the 13 members of the College Playoff Committee who determine which four teams will compete to play in that game. She’s not unusual in her love of football: more women now watch the NFL than the Oscars.
It was not always thus. Football’s popular status in the late 19th and early 20th century coincided with a flurry of deaths and a blizzard of disabling injuries on the playing field, triggering calls from prominent educators and Progressive writers to abolish the game. For a time, schools such as Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford, and Cal actually did eliminate it. The New York Times ran an editorial in 1903 called “Two Curable Evils.” One was lynching. The other was football.
As Hillsdale College’s John J. Miller records in his sparkling The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football (2011), football then was not the sport it is today. It was entirely a ground game. Five yards in three plays earned a first down and forward passes were illegal. College coaches routinely urged their players to hit and gouge each other within the opacity of the mass pileups that marked every play. They often recruited oversized ringers to pose as student athletes. Players wore minimal equipment; in lieu of helmets, many put their trust in the protective effects of long hair.
“Football is on trial,” President Roosevelt—who loved the game for its cultivation of courage, endurance, teamwork, and other warrior virtues—told a summoned gathering of delegations from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale at the White House on October 9, 1905. The Yale and Princeton coaches nodded but did little more than sign a statement pledging “to carry out in letter and in spirit the rules of the game.” Harvard’s Bill Reid took the ball and ran with it. Reid formed an alliance with New York University Chancellor Henry MacCracken to press for the formation of a new rules-making body called the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) of the United States, soon to be renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association. For all the NCAA’s subsequent (and current) failings, the new rules it ushered in opened up the game by legalizing the forward pass and lengthening first downs to ten yards. The short-term result, Miller writes, was to establish football “as a game that featured high-speed end runs rather than a long series of battering-ram line plunges.” The long-term effect, thanks to Roosevelt’s intervention, was the game as we know it more than a century later. “Except for this chain of events,” said Coach Reid years afterward, “there might now be no such thing as American football.”
Easterbrook’s and Miller’s are just two of a recent flood of ambitious books dealing with football as something more than a subject for team adulation—that is, books unlike (they are legion) Roll Tide!, 100 Things 49ers Fans Should Know and Do before They Die, and God Bless the Vols: Devotions for the Die-Hard Tennessee Fan. Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, which soaked up all the critical rapture available for football books last fall (“an instant classic,” gushed the New York Times Book Review), actually is closer to the latter genre than the former. Embedded with the New York Jets coaching staff in 2011, Dawidoff’s recurring theme may be fairly summarized as: “Isn’t it cool that all these manly men seem to like me?” In return for this perceived acceptance, Dawidoff lauds Coach Rex Ryan, 8-8 that year and 14-18 ever since, as “the ascendant figure among headset-and-ball-cap wearers…his eyes clear blue, his teeth porcelain tiles, his spirits infectious.”
A Modern Game
Thoughtful books about football have traditionally been a backwater in the literature of sports. When Sports Illustratedpublished its list of “The Top 100 Sports Books of All Time” in 2002, only 12 concerned football. Forty-two fit author George Plimpton’s “Small-Ball Theory” (“the smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature”). Twenty-nine of these were about baseball, eight about golf, two about tennis, two about ice hockey, and one about cricket. Another 18 were about sports that involve no ball at all: boxing (seven books), mountain climbing (three), horse racing (two), and, one apiece: fishing, running, figure skating, gymnastics, body building, and even pro-wrestling.
Why did football, as a subject of book-length excellence, lag so far behind baseball and barely exceed golf? One reason is that technically, writing about football—a game in which 22 men run around a large playing field executing specialized missions at the same time—is extremely hard to do without getting lots of things wrong. Part of what makes Don DeLillo’s second novel, End Zone (1972), so good, for example, is that he got nearly all the football stuff right.
A second reason becomes apparent only after digging a bit deeper into the list to discover that of the 12 books about football, just two were about the college game. Many talented writers doubtless think it’s beneath their dignity to spend precious time describing what teenage males do on playing fields—a disdain felt especially by professors deciding whether to chronicle an activity engaged in by the very large students whom they typically think of as farthest down the great chain of academic being. For similar reasons, it is infra dig to write about the coaches who make much more money and sometimes wield far greater influence in university matters than the faculty. When ESPN announces that it wants to televise a Tuesday night game from your campus, for example, expect as a matter of course that all classes from 3:00 pm on will be canceled by order of the college president.
The best explanation, however, may be found in political scientist Michael Mandelbaum’s The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do, a book that surely would have ranked high on the S.I. list if it hadn’t been published two years too late, in 2004. Mandelbaum argues that during most of the 20th century, when the Top 100 books were written, baseball was America’s leading sport because the game served as a pleasant reminder of an agrarian past to city dwellers who often were just a generation or two away from the farm. (Hence, the national pastime.)
Football, according to Mandelbaum, was the right game for the mid- and late-century urban industrial nation. As with modern life in general, and in sharp contrast to baseball, football “is played by the clock” and in disregard of weather. It is, he writes, “the sport of the machine age because football teams are like machines, with specialized moving parts that must function simultaneously.”
Television and football rose to prominence hand in hand, which makes sense because “television, with its close-up pictures and its slow-motion replays, can dissect the action and present each slice of it in a way that the naked eye cannot see.” Dawidoff, quoting then-New York Jet safety (subsequently a Denver Bronco and Buffalo Bill) Jim Leonhart on the frequent movement of players, coaches, and front office personnel from team to team, describes the NFL as “a corporation with thirty-two branch offices.” George F. Will, who dislikes football intensely, nonetheless acknowledges its manifest modernity. “Football,” he has written, “combines the two worst things about American life: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
Race and Sex
To the extent that sport mirrors society, changes in one intertwine with changes in the other—for better and for worse. That is implicitly the theme of New York Times reporter Samuel G. Freedman’s intelligent and captivating Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights. On its face, Breaking the Line is the story of the longtime rivalry between two traditionally outstanding black college football teams, Grambling and Florida A&M, under their legendary former coaches, Grambling’s Eddie Robinson and A&M’s Jake Gaither. The book is all of that, with riveting descriptions of games played and lives lived.
Underlying the narrative, however, is Freedman’s sad account of the world that was lost in the wake of racial integration in the South. The saving grace of that world, riddled as it was with injustice and cruelty, was strong black institutions, from neighborhoods in which, necessarily, African Americans of all classes lived together, to schools in which black principals, teachers, and coaches were respected leaders.
All of these institutions (and more: churches, small businesses, funeral parlors, doctors’ and lawyers’ practices, and so on) placed young African Americans in a world rich with models of success and virtue. “Your boy will graduate college and your boy will go to church on Sunday,” Robinson would tell the sharecropper parents of high school recruits—and they did, in overwhelming numbers. Like Robinson, Gaither prized the “hungry boy”—the poor young man “hungry for recognition” and achievement. Gaither was proud of the 42 team members who later played professional football, but even prouder of the results of an academic study confirming that 89% of his players graduated and 63% went on to earn postgraduate degrees.
No one, least of all Freedman, wants to return to the era of legally mandated segregation. But he laments integration’s high price. Black principals and coaches were bucked down to assistant, black professionals and business owners were free to move to previously off-limits parts of town, and—perhaps especially—black football players were scooped up by white colleges and “too often exploited for their football talent and allowed to falter in the classroom.” “Even African-American football fans,” Easterbrook caustically observes in King of Sports, “avert their eyes from the large number of black players used up and thrown away” by modern big-time college football, egged on by coaches to chase the “mirage” of an NFL career at the expense of earning a college degree. “Academics first,” LSU coach Les Miles would tell his players when he was at Oklahoma State, then hold up two fingers. “Football second,” he’d add, holding up one. The message was clear.
ESPN business reporter Kristi Dosh’s Saturday Millionaires: How Winning Football Builds Winning Colleges is a much less accomplished book than Freedman’s, Easterbrook’s, or Miller’s. But buried in her clunky prose and tendentious argument that all is well with college football is a solid observation about another social development that has powerfully affected sports. With the enactment by Congress of Title IX of the Education Amendments in 1972, girls and young women were guaranteed equal access to educational programs that receive federal aid. The practical implication for scholastic athletics has been that schools must provide roughly equal opportunities for male and female students to play varsity sports, including athletic scholarships for NCAA Division I and II teams.
Any parent of a girl in the last 40 years knows what a revelation it has been to see daughters playing soccer, basketball, softball, field hockey, volleyball, and other games at a high level from grade school on. As Dosh points out, however, Title IX would smother in its cradle any effort to pay college football players for playing. That idea received its most prominent articulation in an October 2011 Atlantic Monthly article in which civil rights historian Taylor Branch argued that “The Shame of College Sports” is a “plantation mentality” that encourages universities “to exploit the skills and fame of young athletes” by perpetrating the “cynical hoaxes” of “‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete.'” The idea received momentum from a September 16, 2013, Time cover story called “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes” and from an antitrust lawsuit filed against the NCAA seeking compensation for the organization’s lucrative licensing of former players’ images in commercial products. (E.A. Sports and Collegiate Licensing, companies that lease the images, settled their part of the suit last September; the NCAA has chosen to fight on.)
But, Dosh argues, “Title IX doesn’t distinguish among sports based on profit. Even though football and men’s basketball make the money, it can’t all be spent on them per federal law.” Pay all of a school’s varsity athletes equally—Timesuggested $225,047 as a reasonable figure for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel—and no college would be able to afford to field sports teams at all.
Easterbrook makes an even better point. To be of real value to players, he argues, “reforms must focus on sports’ leading to graduation, because a college diploma is substantially more valuable than any pay a college athlete might receive.” If college football rankings reflected graduation rates as well as winning percentages, he suggests, coaches would make sure their team members graduated. College football players aren’t stupid; if they were they couldn’t possibly master the dozens of formations and hundreds of plays that, in contrast to the much simpler game of just 50 years ago, they must know by heart to avoid tripping over their teammates and risk ending up in SportsCenter‘s Not Top 10 Plays of the Week. But coaches currently have little incentive to make their players spend the time it takes to excel in the classroom.
In addition to debates about race and sex, football also has become caught up in the nation’s growing litigiousness. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, brothers and ESPN writers, fairly describe the National Football League as for many years a League of Denial on the subject of head injuries’ severe long-term effects on mental health. Starting on September 28, 2002, the day when the first autopsied brain of a dead ex-NFL player was found to bear evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a massive amount of scientific research began to accumulate strongly suggesting that not just severe concussions, but also the cumulative effects of many routine hits, can damage the brain in ways that may later bring on CTE, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, severe cognitive impairment, and other diseases.
A wave of growing knowledge, media attention, grassroots group formation, and congressional hearings began building in a textbook case of how our constitutional system is supposed to work on matters of public concern. More than for the 1,696 men who play pro football in the National Football League at any time, the research raised fears for the roughly 50,000 young men who play college football, the 1.1 million adolescents who play high school football, and the nearly 3 million boys on youth tackle squads down to the pee wee level. After committees of both the House of Representatives and the Senate held hearings, the NFL began taking head injuries seriously as a medical problem with implications both for how the game is played (helmet-to-helmet tackles were banned, kickoffs were moved forward to the 35-yard line) and how injured players are handled. “Shake it off” was out, “no go” for games and practices without an okay from an independent neurologist was in. The Fainaru brothers tell this story with page-turning intensity.
At that point personal injury lawyers took charge, channeling much of the momentum for political and institutional reform into litigation. To the Fainarus, this development seems fine. Their book ends on August 28, 2013, when the NFL and plaintiffs agreed on a $765 million payout from the league to its impaired former players, with another $200 million earmarked for attorneys’ fees. But that was “chump change” for the NFL, the authors note, and in return for settling out of court, “there would be no public vetting of what the league knew and when it knew it” concerning the long-term effects of head injuries. In January a federal judge refused to approve the settlement pending proof that $765 million will be enough to cover all the affected players. For the Fainarus, like the judge, the problem was a lousy settlement for the players, not the fact that the issue devolved into a closed-door battle between lawyers. But with the political process short-circuited by litigation, here’s what we still don’t know: are there contributing factors (genetics? steroid use?) that explain why some former players suffer severe brain damage in later life while most of their teammates do not? Are there ages when, because the braincase is still hardening and necks still thickening, playing organized tackle football should be forbidden? Should additional rule changes be made, like banning the three-point stance for linemen that places their heads directly in the path of collision?
The brain-damage issue aside, marked as it is by the NFL’s indefensible concealment of important work-related information from its own front-line employees, it’s worth remembering that professional football players are just that, professionals: grown men who, with clear knowledge that the game is brutally punishing, choose to pursue a violent career in hopes of receiving massive compensation. Nate Jackson, a retired NFL player who lasted six seasons plus one on the practice squad (about twice the average), writes in a typically lyrical passage from Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile that professional players are “pulled toward the mayhem. The feel of the helmet and shoulder pads, the sound of the whistle, the taste of the mouthpiece, the smell of grass and sweat: sacraments for bloodshed.” But when the money is gone, he adds, “there is no incentive to continue. There’s a reason why you don’t see grown men at the park in full pads playing football.”
The college game is different in some important ways. For one thing, there is such a thing as college football. In a dramatic example of American exceptionalism, our universities differ from those of every other country by making high-level athletic competition a major part of their identity. In 1929 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching president Henry Pritchett imagined a visitor from a European university asking, “What relation has this astonishing athletic display to the work of an intellectual agency like a university?” Critics of big-time college football have been asking the same question, in almost the same words, ever since.
Duke University economist Charles T. Clotfelter is among those critics—at least to a point. In the series of thoughtful empirical studies that constitute Big-Time Sports in American Universities, he offers a number of interesting findings. Athletics is absent from universities’ own mission statements, a bizarre omission considering how much of a typical campus’s money, reputation, and real estate are devoted to sports programs. A major source of revenue for major football programs is tax-deductible “contributions” that are nothing more than fees athletic departments charge for the right to buy good tickets to games. An additional large revenue source is the tickets themselves, which explains why seasons now last into late December or early January instead of ending as they used to before Thanksgiving, in time for fall semester final exams. Success on the field attracts many large donors to the athletic department but few to the university. Judging from various measures of academic quality, universities neither rise nor fall in reputation if they invest in big-time football, according to Big-Time Sports. But their students spend “less time in class and studying” and engage “more often in heavy drinking.”
Coaches’ financial incentives for winning are 12 times greater than any incentives tied to their players’ graduation rate or academic performance while enrolled, Clotfelter shows. Players spend much more time on their sports than the NCAA-mandated maximum of 20 hours per week. In addition to practice, travel, and games, they must lift weights, do cardio, watch game film, attend meetings, and get treatment in the training room, among other activities. They often are directed by their coaches to maintain academic eligibility to play by “search[ing] out courses and academic programs that will present a minimum of challenge.” At Virginia Tech, for example, a program that Easterbrook celebrates at great length for providing its players with the best of all worlds, Clotfelter finds that 20% of football players major in residential property management, about 40 times the share of other students at the university.
Clotfelter could have added a discussion, as Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian do in their well-reported The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, of “the scandals haunting the sport-the bidding wars for top recruits; the booster payoffs; the horrific injuries; the academic cheating; the rising tide of criminal acts.” Recently the University of North Carolina was exposed as the latest in a series of prestigious universities whose faculty was offering football players high grades in no-work, even phantom classes. In December the longtime head of the African, African American, and Diaspora Studies department was indicted for taking money to “teach” one such class.
All that said, Clotfelter suggests that because, as economists like to assume, universities are led by “perfectly rational” actors, they must know what they are doing: just look at the facts! “First,” he writes, “once a university embarks on big-time sports, it rarely quits. Second, there continue to be universities outside the circle of big-time sports that want to join its ranks.”
The saving grace of Clotfelter’s argument is that he goes beyond standard microeconomic reductionism to explain what some of the benefits of commercial college sports actually are. One is the enormous pleasure that varsity athletics, “by far the most visible feature of many American universities,” provides to millions of people. As writer John U. Bacon points out in his generally admiring account of the Big Ten conference, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, “College football is one of those few passions we have in common with our great-grandparents.” Unlike the professional game, “College teams never threaten to…move to Oklahoma City if you don’t build them a new stadium.” They are woven into the fabric of personal, family, and community life.
Another clear benefit Clotfelter finds in major college sports is the “civic values” they promote. On the playing field, before thousands and sometimes millions of spectators, “the rewards from competition…[are] distributed on the basis of merit, not family name, ethnic origin, religious beliefs, or economic status.” Beyond that, fans witness enactments of “the possibility and even the desirability of equality and cooperation across identifiable groups in society, in particular across racial lines.”
Politically correct writers won’t say it, so thanks be to Easterbrook for plainly describing another benefit of college football. The sport’s “he-man nature…provides balance for left-wing college subjects such as gender studies.” And “done properly, football not only helps boys learn to be men, it helps them learn how to cooperate with others and how to express their masculinity within a framework of respect for rules”—the very virtues Theodore Roosevelt was so eager to promote by saving football from itself a century ago.
Football occupies such a large place in our national life that eventually everything contentious about it overflows into culture, politics, or both at some point. Last fall, for example, an argument arose over the name of Washington’s NFL team. For decades (the team got its name in 1933), Redskins evoked little or no controversy. More recent resentment of the name stayed well below the horizon, as evidenced by the subject’s complete absence from all 11 of the books discussed in this essay, some of which did not go to press until last fall.
Then, in a rush, the Oneida Indian Nation persuaded ten members of Congress to write to Redskins owner Dan Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell demanding a change; Snyder responded inflexibly; prominent sportswriters and some news organizations declared that they would no longer refer to the Washington squad by name; the president of the United States said that if he owned the team he “would think about changing it”; Goodell altered his public stance from “What’s the problem?” to “We need to be listening,” and the issue was off and running.
Personally, as one who regards as beyond silly the NCAA rule that forced the removal of admiring team name the Fighting Sioux from the University of North Dakota and mascot Chief Illiniwek from the University of Illinois, I am nonetheless persuaded by Charles Krauthammer’s argument that “simple decency” requires that “Redskins” must go. As Krauthammer points out, no one would either publicly call an Indian a redskin or privately use the word in any but a pejorative way. But that’s not the point I want to make. My point is that the controversy has unfolded exactly as it should have—and as the concussion issue did not: through open discussion, political organization, consumer pressure, and moral suasion, with plaintiff lawyers for the most part relegated to the sidelines. For a culturally important phenomenon such as football, that way of dealing with the issue, as well as with the other concerns described by these authors, leaves little to be improved on.