How many times recently have you been told that college football—the big-time variety, anyway—is corrupt, evil, exploitative and the result of a system that is horribly broken?
Not only that, but it also remains tied to this antiquated contraption called the Bowl Championship Series that runs contrary to the way virtually every other sport at every level in American determines its champion.
So if college football is the product of a corrupt system that produces a flawed champion, why is it so incredibly popular, boasting of rabid followings, full stadiums, corporate buy-in and robust media ratings?
I’ll remind you once more why.
I’ve quoted him before, but his words remain true. Says author and big-time college sports critic Murray Sperber, we love our beer and circus.
So, once again, it’s time to tap a keg and gather under the big top.
Yes, it’s you and me, folks. Those of us who write the checks to the booster clubs, buy the tickets and turn on those televisions.
What we have is not just what we want but—for the most part—what we demand.
And to meet that demand, universities must come up with the supply. That means coaches with seven-figure salaries, athletes placed into a support system that requires enormous resources to sustain and state-of-the-art facilities in which to play and train.
After all, as Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has said, “we’re in the entertainment business.”
The conflict comes with just how the entertainment business meshes with the education business and all those rules trying to legislate competitive equity.
That’s when our devotion to beer and circus gets all messy.
Mostly, we just don’t want to know. So when the revelations come out about a University of Miami or a University of Southern California, we have the opportunity to direct our scorn and contempt at “those guys” and then quickly return to cheering for “our guys.”
Surely the great majority of fanatics at (no longer the) Ohio State University had no reason to believe the outwardly ethical Jim Tressel was leading the Buckeyes down anything but the primrose path to another trip to Pasadena. Turns out, the Bucks are more likely headed to NCAA probation.
But maybe they should have known, or at least suspected.
At any rate, this, too, shall pass, and the Buckeyes will soon overcome their embarrassment—and any NCAA sanctions—to return to behemoth status, satisfying their obligation to entertain the masses.
Recently, in an informal conversation with a group that included deposed IU coach Bill Lynch, the subject of rule breakers came up with the idea that certainly every program must be operating on the edge or outside the rules.
“Well I can tell you one who didn’t and it was me,” Lynch said emphatically. “But I got fired.”
A few years ago, I was in Memorial Stadium as Lynch’s Hoosiers beat Purdue to clinch a berth in the Insight Bowl. It was an emotional and euphoric moment and, at that instant, I was certainly not concerned with how the Hoosiers had gotten there, only that they had.
But I trusted they had done it the right way.
Today, I look out my office window in Pan Am Plaza and cannot escape the vision of a large banner featuring Lynch’s successor, Kevin Wilson, towering over the northeast corner of Illinois and Georgia streets.
Wilson’s visage is stern-faced, arms crossed. Beneath, in huge letters, is the proclamation, “WIN TODAY!”
Part of me looks at that and says, right. Win today! Do whatever it takes. IU is tired of being the Big Ten’s doormat. The days of giving up 83 to Wisconsin and being made fun of by the Jack Trudeaus of the world are over. We have a seven-figure-salaried coach, our own state-of-the-art facilities and it’s time to kick some behind.
But the other part of me wonders … can “win today” be accompanied by values, the pursuit of education and strict adherence to the rules?
If they win today, will I care about the circumstances?
As fans, boosters, ticket-buyers and those who just turn on their television sets to watch college football, we should care about the “how” as much as the “what.”
But mostly, we’re into beer, circus and scoreboard. Don’t blame the NCAA. For better or worse, college football is giving us what we want.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.