Bowled Over (Michael Oriard, 2009) was enjoyable in the way that a lecture on political instability in the Middle East is enjoyable. Not exactly fun, but informative and interesting, while at the same time acknowledging a certain amount of futility in the exercise of analysis.
I say futility because this book isn’t about the history of football; rather, it’s about the history of the sometimes-tenuous relationship between collegiate football and the institution of the university. The author investigates the professionalization of college football and its impact on athletes, athletic departments at large, university administrators, student bodies, and professional football.
The author’s background is important: he is a professor, but more importantly, he played both college and professional football in the 1960s and 1970s. He has a unique perspective on this situation, and lest you think that he is biased in favor of “student-athletes,” let me assure you that he appreciates the complexity of the situation. In fact, he is highly critical of the concept of the “student-athlete,” going so far as to enclose the term in quotation marks in his text.
Oriard points to two key events that managed to alter the direction of college football: the racial integration of universities and sports teams through the decade of the 1960s and the 1973 NCAA decision to change athletic scholarships from four years to one year. According to Oriard, the second event was at least partially motivated by the first.
The book is divided into two sections: the first deals with the difficult process of integrating college football teams, and the impact on football of the newly-discovered black pride in the years after integration. [Just as a side note, Louisiana is distinguished by being one of the last universities to integrate, just in front of Mississippi. In 1972.]
The second part of the book investigates how college football was “remade” first by the changing NCAA rules for eligibility, and then by unevenly distributed financial resources (i.e. the biggest universities with the richest football programs reaped the biggest rewards, while the small, poor programs continued as such).
One of the most interesting sections discusses the impact of television on college football and the divisions of college teams into conferences. Oriard lost me just a little bit here, as he got into the nuances of the changing allegiances of universities and the athletic conferences they belong to, but I could appreciate the numbers. He provides as much financial information he could find about the revenue that football teams generate for their universities. It’s staggering.
One of the most important lessons I learned from this book is that all the hand-wringing and agonizing over student-athletes’ priorities (i.e. are they students or athletes first?) has been going on almost since the invention of American football in the late nineteenth century. Throughout football’s history, even before scholarships, administrators and teachers worried that football players didn’t focus enough on academics. There’s nothing new under the sun.
The two most interesting chapters were the ones that dealt with what Oriard calls “football’s fundamental contradiction” (p. 9). This contradiction–the vital importance of football to universities’ fundraising/recruiting vs. the fact that the football players are supposed to be amateur students–is the central point of the book. Or, more subtly described, “for the nonprofit extracurricular activity of a few dozen students to generate as much as $60 million in revenue…and expecting athletes who generate those millions to put in full-time hours, at the equivalent of minimum wage, and also be full-time students…is obviously crazy” (p. 9).
I’m no fan of college football, but even I was surprised at the data that Oriard provides here, which supports a really interesting look at how college football came to be the way it is, and how football and colleges are uneasy bedfellows.
Recommended if you have any interest in the history of higher education in the US, or in the history of sports. But the emphasis is really on football’s development in the context of higher education.