College Football Today: Running Toward the Wrong Goal

An article in this morning’s local paper has determined my blog-subject for this week. For some who are football fans, my take on the state of college football will ring true; others will disagree. For those of you who do not follow football, the issues involved and the lessons to be learned from the discussion apply to many of our social and governmental struggles.

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The problem in college athletics is MONEY. Yes, the corrosive influence of MONEY is polluting yet another aspect of our lives (see my blog of 8-11-13, The Best Government Money Can Buy? Follow the Money!).

The article which appeared on the sports pages of this morning’s paper is headlined, “FAN UPROAR KEEPS GAME IN BERKELEY.” What game? No less than one of the great rivalries in college football, the so-called “BIG GAME” which has been played virtually every year with few breaks since 1892 between Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley!

Yes, this has long been a truly BIG game. Until several years ago when Stanford replaced venerable old Stanford Stadium with a modern, downsized version, all of its 80,000 seats were occupied every other year when Cal came to town by fans who reveled in the rivalry. Perhaps you have heard of “THE PLAY” which occurred in the final seconds of the 1982 BIG GAME at Cal; it was replayed over the national networks for days because it was undoubtedly the greatest/most unbelievable/zaniest play in the history of football. I am sure you can still find it on the internet. It is worth your time and trouble. I mention it because it typifies the uniqueness of this game and this particular rivalry. Anything can – and does –happen in the BIG GAME.

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           Postcard addressed to Pennsylvania postmarked Nov.14, 1904 at Palo Alto, Ca. w/ 1904 BIG GAME score: Stanford 18, Cal 0     

 If Not At Berkeley’s New Stadium –Where?

What was the proposed alternative to playing this game next year in Cal’s just-completed, on-campus, 474 million dollar stadium/facilities renovation? How about the NFL San Francisco 49ers’ expensive, grand stadium now under construction in nearby Santa Clara? This new stadium is at least 40 miles south of San Francisco (they will still be called the “San Francisco 49ers” despite the move to Santa Clara). It so happens that the new 49ers’ stadium is also located much closer to Stanford University than to the Berkeley campus of Cal who would be “hosting” the game in 2014.

Why would the athletic department and the coaching staff at Cal consider        such a ridiculous proposal? You guessed it:

 FOLLOW THE MONEY! 

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My ticket stub from the 100th BIG GAME, Nov. 22, 1997

 According to the reporting in the article, the Cal administration and the coaching staff joined the athletic department with plans to go ahead with the proposal – that is until they received an avalanche of fan protests. Amen! Cal just spent 474 million dollars renovating their Memorial Stadium and ancillary facilities, and then they would rather not play there because they can make more money playing the BIG GAME in the new 49ers facility currently under construction – near Stanford.

My goodness, how ludicrous is that?

Does it not make one ponder the likelihood that perhaps 474 million dollars was too much debt to incur in the first place by Cal in order to have a first-rate facility on-campus with which to recruit the best athletes for their program? Is that truly not “good enough” to host the BIG GAME? I have always enjoyed the high caliber of football played by Stanford and Cal within athletic programs which ostensibly had not “sold out” to the money which comes with athletic success to the detriment of fundamental academic charters. I long believed that we fans were still seeing STUDENT/athletes on the field. Now I fear that many major college and university programs are in the process of “selling-out” not only their loyal fans, but their academic missions as well.

Here Are the Indicators:

1. The aforementioned news article.

2. Huge athletic department budgets and bulging salaries for the head football coach which dwarf the academic salaries of even the most prolific faculty scholars. Although extremely well-paid, many coaches are ready to jump-ship after a brief tenure for a larger salary and a “better opportunity” at another school. This has become more than merely “professional advancement,” all at the expense of academic integrity.

3. I question the dedication of many big-time programs to the concept of true STUDENT/althetes representing their schools. I hear of too many ridiculously low graduation rates among basketball and football athletes that convey the taint of big-time, money-based college athletics. Many colleges and universities have become athletic farm systems for the NBA and the NFL. Like major league baseball, those professional sports should develop their own farm systems. I propose that college athletes be barred from the pros for four calendar years once they first take the field in college – unless they have already gotten their degree. I am tired of seeing two-year athletic wonders leave campus early for lucrative professional offers. I do not begrudge them their professional opportunity; I just do not like the pretense and the hypocrisy that would have us believe that they are in college for an education. I wonder how much studying they really did or even intended to do during those truncated college years of preparation for a pro career. How can schools run meaningful athletic programs while dealing with a revolving door which provides a quick exit to the pros?

4. The ridiculous scheduling of games, not for the convenience and enjoyment of athletes and the fans who buy expensive tickets to attend, but for the almighty TV dollar.

As an alumnus of Stanford University and a follower of Stanford football since 1960, I have witnessed the virtual extinction of the long-traditional Saturday afternoon games at Stanford Stadium. I fondly recall the sun-drenched tailgates which began in the morning under the eucalyptus trees surrounding the stadium and the building anticipation of the 2:00 kickoffs. I recall the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun over the edge of the stadium glinting off the band instruments across the way, the whole scene backed by the bright red and white sea of the Stanford student section. I fear I will not see this wonderful sight very often again because games are now often scheduled for 5:00, even 7:00 for the TV minions.

Often the ticket purchaser has to put up with TBD game times – for the scheduling benefit of the networks, of course. I am willing to bet the TBD flexibility is more than a scheduling convenience for the networks; I believe as the season unfolds, they pick and choose winning teams to televise prime-time so as to maximize their viewer-base….and their profit, of course. The implied message to the fans faced with TBD: “Just deal with it, folks!”

In the early years, the rare, nationally televised game at Stanford Stadium meant a meaningful contest was about to be played; there was an air of excitement on campus. For a long time now, that excitement has faded into the numbing realization that television means a long, drawn-out game with action on the field constantly being held during countless, long television commercials. “Just deal with it, folks!”

5. My little grandson Matthew (age 6) has been a huge Stanford fan with a fascination for Stanford’s recent, great quarterback Andrew Luck  (Grandpa has something to do with that!). I promised him I would take him to his first Stanford game this year, but I want him to experience Stanford football as it used to be, as it should be. The ticket prices today are very high, and sitting under lights at 9 pm with my grandson on a cool October evening is not what I had in mind. It is a shame that these games are not even conducive to a youngster’s proper bedtime!

Is Anyone in Charge Listening to Us, the Fans?

“You Are Running toward the Wrong Goal!”

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