Ban College Football? Buzz Bissinger’s Idea is Off-Base


Buzz Bissinger pulled no punches in his suggestion for college football’s future — there should be none. Bissinger penned a column in Friday’s Wall Street Journaltitle “Why College Football Should Be Banned.” A blunt introduction to be sure, and probably enough to outrage some folks before they read a word.

Bissinger is no sport-hating elitist, though. He authored the definitive examination of big-time prep football, “Friday Night Lights.” He’s a writer whose work I have long admired. Nothing would indicate a begrudging attitude toward the sport.

Now, details of the 20-plus years of research to which Bissinger eludes are glossed over. I suspect we’ll have a better understanding of what Bissinger and cohort “pop sociologist” Malcolm Gladwell have studied and concluded Tuesday, when they host a symposium on the topic.

The crux of Bissinger’s column, and presumably foundation for Tuesday’s lecture, is that football serves no purpose to the higher education process. Tied into that is the far more intimidating place of college educations on the nation’s shaky economic climate.

Perhaps the distraction of football is subtracting from the educational experience. Of course, the same could be argued for virtually any extracurricular activity. What purpose does the Greek system, intramural athletics, spring flings and Homecomings serve the educational process?

There’s surely a devaluation of education intrinsic in our culture. Anti-intellectualism is embraced with startling regularity. Emphasis on sports seems to trump that of education, and no sport is bigger than football. While athletic programs construct Taj Mahals for football, tuition rates rise, which in turns increases student loan expenditures, and that perpetuates a cycle vexing the country.

"The average student doesn’t benefit, particularly when football programs remain sacrosanct while tuition costs show no signs of abating as many governors are slashing budgets to the bone."

Instances of big money donors to football programs also further education causes, though. T. Boone Pickens fueled Oklahoma State’s gridiron rise with millions in contributions, but also invested $100 million into the university’s educational system. The state of Oklahoma matched his donation.

Maybe a lack of a football program means Pickens donates more to academics. Then again, maybe the campus pride and kinship that’s established through football lacks and he donates less. Either is equally feasible given they are hypotheticals. Universities could require a certain percentage of sizable donations be earmarked for academics.

The football climate is far from perfect and needs overhauls. The NCAA is littered with its own systemic problems. Eliminating football altogether is cutting off the nose to spite the face, though.

One sense in which college football mirrors the economy Bissinger laments is a growing gap between have and have-not. On the gridiron, the athletes are the have-nots. This needs rectificationg.

Football makes vast sums of money that line the pockets of everyone involved, except the players. Denying the athletes a share of the multi-million dollar deals they generate is not only immoral, it fosters an environment conducive to rule breaking.

Included in the WSJ piece is a slideshow of recent NCAA scandals. While there’s inclusion of the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State, a unique problem all its own, the rest (SMU, Miami, Ohio State, North Carolina) stem from improper benefits. While completely eliminating the problem is virtually impossible, doing nothing is far worse. The onus to avoid temptation is put on young men between 18 and 23, some of whom come from nothing. Give them something, and it alleviates some of that temptation.

Notorious B.I.G’s album “Ready to Die” contains an insightful line of growing up in the desperation of urban poverty:

Because the streets is a short stop / You’re either slinging crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot.

The basketball reference applies to football, as well. Football is an opportunity for teens in dire situations to elevate out of these environments. From the gang temptations in South Central Los Angeles, to decaying western Pennsylvania towns in the Rust Belt, and poor cities in West Texas like the subject of Bissinger’s book, football has been the key to giving countless young men college educations. Such opportunity would elude some of them if

Bissinger suggests a minor league system to replace the collegiate system. Assuming that only applies to scholarship Division I programs, exempting the Patriot, Pioneer and Ivy Leagues, that’s somewhere in the ballpark of 15,000 athletes jockeying for the few hundred NFL roster spots available. And they do so while not bettering their opportunities away from the gridiron with the education afford to them by college football.

Of course, this is another avenue that needs retooling. “FNL” focused on Boobie Miles at great length, and how a knee injury derailed his life’s path. If universities treat athletes less like commodities, and more as students, a young man doesn’t need to rely on his physical tools exclusively. That means remaining committed to a high schooler through on-field struggles, perhaps offering means to make college attainable even if circumstance prevents football from being so.

The game and academia don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And they shouldn’t be.