Monday, January 2, 2012

Thoughts on NCAA BCS football - part 1

I don't resemble an athlete in any way, and never have.  My athletic prowess is minimal and I've never had much involvement with sports on a competitive basis at any level.  I played at various sports as a boy and realized I had no talent for it.  But over the years, I became something of a sports fan - not a true fanatic, but definitely a willing spectator.  My two favorite sports are NCAA football and NCAA wrestling.  These are two very different athletic competitions:  football is one of the ultimate team sports, whereas wrestling is one of the ultimate individual sports.

Anyway, we're now in the process of winding down the NCAA football season for another year.  My favorite team, the Oklahoma Sooners, finished the year 10-3, having won the Insight Bowl game.  But it was a year that began with high expectations for a BCS national championship.  The team played really poorly in the three games they lost, including a thorough beatdown in Stillwater.  I'm among the many fans disappointed at how this year's team performed.  But a friend recently drew my attention to the long period of consistent football mediocrity at the University of Minnesota, and I regained my perspective on the Sooners.  Oklahoma football has had an incredibly long run of football success, with occasional short spans of relatively poor performance on the field.  We Sooner fans are terribly spoiled, like those of other "top tier" NCAA football teams:  Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Texas, Southern California, and so on.  To not be competing for the national championship is to fail.

It's obvious that the main result of being consistently competitive at that level is a huge fan base that essentially pays for the program's success with their ticket purchases, game concessions, purchases of team memorabilia from the university-sanctioned franchises, and huge donations from rich alumni.  The fans want their teams to be competitive at the highest possible level and are willing to pay the price to make that happen.  In fact, some fans go beyond the legal limits on what they should be doing in order to help their favorite team become successful.  This corruption is but one of the downsides to the transformation of NCAA top-tier football into a business, rather than a mere sporting event. [This transformation mirrors the transformation of universities from being educational institutions into businesses!]  As with any business, success breed more success - just as failure breeds more failure.  Big-time NCAA football schools tend to remain successful for long periods and the next tier can only hope for occasional flashes of moderate success that aren't sustained.

The BCS system emerged from the legacy of the old Division 1A within the NCAA.  But the BCS has become a huge cash cow for the universities that manage to make it to the top levels in the sport.  The bowls that form the post-season for good teams mostly are big money-makers for the sponsors.  The fans spend their money on travel as well as tickets, concessions, parking, and memorabilia.  Successful coaches command enormous salaries before they even win a game at the institution that's buying their services.  Some of the players themselves are corrupted by the vast amount of money flowing into the university coffers, wanting to get a piece of the action in exchange for their services to the success of the program.  After all, they get little or nothing in return for their contribution - except a free education, and room and board  [for which non-scholarship students (or their parents) pay many tens of thousands of dollars], which isn't valued very highly by some of these athletes who believe, with some reason, that they aren't ordinary students.  Sports agents hover around the top athletes, hoping to convince the players to buy their services and command the largest possible salaries as NFL rookies.  To many of the athletes, the university is mostly a path to the big NFL payoff to come, not an education.  In turn, the university regards their athletes as expendable assets.

I enjoyed NCAA football most at OU because the four years I spent following football at the University of Wisconsin were characterized by declining football success on their way to an extended period of mediocrity.  Of late, things have changed for Wisconsion, and although I still root for them as an alumnus, I don't have the same emotional involvement with them as I have with OU.  Why is that?  My very first year at OU, the fall of 1967, the Sooners had a 10-1 season, winning the Orange Bowl.  Being at the games in Owen field was tremendously exciting and I was hooked as a Sooner fan.  Everyone likes a winner, of course.  When the team is winning, it's "we" are winning - when losing, it's "they" who are losing!  Clearly, I loved being associated with a winning team, like any fan, after the blah feelings I experienced in Camp Randall.

More to come in Part 2

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