By Hunter Hampton
College football is the most powerful sport in America. I am serious. College football holds more power than the NFL, NBA, PGA, etc. It is not that it owns a day of the week, or its TV revenue, or its number of teams. I’m confident in this argument because college football holds power over universities. Many academics have a love/hate relationship with college football. They despise coaching salaries, budgets, stadium renovations, and preferential treatment of players. All you #twitterstorians out there see or write tweets bemoaning students caring more about the next football game than their impending midterm. In light of the upcoming college football season, I want to spend a little time analyzing the curious case of college football’s power in hopes of moving the dialogue forward.
The uneasy alliance between universities and their football team is not a new phenomenon. Brian Ingrassia’s The Rise of Gridiron University analyzed this relationship from football’s founding through the Progressive Era. He referred to football as “the cultural cornerstone of the ivory tower.” He cited the importance of college football as providing a culturally relevant face to the masses outside the walls of the academy. But the unforeseen consequence of this tense relationship focused on who held the power. On the one hand, professors, administrators, and experts inside the academy preached on the power of football to teach student athletes discipline and morality. Sports writers and fans outside the academy, on the other hand, longed for their team to win, make money, and entertain. Andrew McGregor wrote a great post on this power dynamic. He expanded Ingrassia’s idea of sports being a medium to connect universities to their tax-paying constituents that have nothing more than geography in common by creating imagined communities.
Today, college football holds these relationships in tension. Football possesses the power to grant some students a college education that they may have never received without their ability to run, tackle, or pass. But universities retain the power not to pay these same athletes a fair wage for the revenue they generate. Those in favor of the university argue for the virtue of amateur sports, the quality of a “free” education, or emphasizing academics over athletics. But those in favor of the team care more about victories than virtues or vices.
One arena where college football holds the power over the university is in the conferencing. A personal anecdote here, I was in the first year of my Ph.D. program at Mizzou when the school decided to leave the Big 12. There were two rumored landing spots, the Big Ten or the SEC. As the debates swirled, those outside of the ivory tower rooted for the SEC since it is the best football conference in the country, no debate. In the history department, graduate students and professors wanted to be associated with academic programs like Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern, and Penn State, not Arkansas (I can say this because I have a degree from the UofA, and forever and always Go Hogs!). The SEC and football won. But this victory had serious implications on the inner-workings of the academy. The agreement to play certain football teams and not others ripples out to faculty exchanges, travel abroad programs, and research awards/rewards, not to mention the injection of funds to update Mizzou’s athletic facilities.
This is not a new phenomenon with power conferences. From the outset of the Big Ten (B1G), participating schools were required membership in an academic institution formerly called CIC or “Committee on Institutional Cooperation.” This consortium shared libraries, guaranteed student tuitions rates at other member schools, etc. Interestingly, the University of Chicago remained a member of the CIC until this summer. What makes Chicago interesting is that it built its reputation originally on the back of football success only to abandon the game in favor of academics at the beginning of the 20th century. The B1G also prided itself on having all of its schools holding membership in the Association of American Universities. That is until Nebraska got voted out five years ago. So, the power of football conferences over the university’s academics is certainly not a new phenomenon, but a powerful one that needs more thoughtful consideration.
A second element of the power of college football over the university is the ability to build prestige, both athletic and academic. Historians love small case studies to extrapolate big conclusions. So let’s do a blind comparison between two Midwestern colleges. Both were founded before the invention of college football. Both are religious schools. Both are located in small towns, even by current standards. One went all in on collegiate football at the turn of the 20th century. The other did not start a team until 1919. The one that started the football team now has an endowment of $10 billion, while the other school’s is 2% of that. Forbes ranked the football-playing school as America’s 13th best school. The late adopter was 260th. The football school is Notre Dame. The non-football school is Valparaiso. This is not my attempt to throw shade at Valpo, but a case study that illustrates the power of football. Certainly, football is not solely responsible for the divides between these schools, but ignoring the influence of college football to raise the prestige of a university would be a great oversight.
A third, and most commonly discussed, element of college football’s power is the money it brings in to colleges and universities. The Huffington Post in conjunction with The Chronicle of Higher Education published a study last year on the financial demands placed on smaller schools trying to imitate college football powerhouses. The study revealed that most of these schools relied on student-fee subsidies to fund their athletic programs. While this is certainly a problem, the study overlooks the influence of sports on student enrollment. Douglas Chung, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, researched the impact of collegiate football on perspective students. His study focused on football programs that went from mediocre to great. He found that both the quantity and quality of students a university can attract increased significantly. In total, applications increased 18.7 percent, students with higher SAT scores submitted applications, and schools became more academically selective. This is the power of college football and why college administrators gamble on pumping funds to college football. They may possibly, one day, maybe get TV revenue, but they are more likely to see more tuition dollars. As the trend of state governments continue to cut education dollars, the importance of tuition increases, and with it football’s influence in the university.
As the college football season starts this weekend, the discussion around the game and its power needs to shift. For too long, money has been the focal point. The worn out questions about college football are: Should coaches be paid X amount of dollars? Why aren’t student-athletes paid a fair wage? Why is my university building this new football (insert name of multimillion dollar structure here)? While valid, they dismiss and distract from the real power of college football. Last year, I had a front row seat to see college football’s power fully utilized for the first time. As the Mizzou football team supported Concerned Student 1950, they brought not only their university, but the entire University of Missouri system of higher education to its knees. When the football players posed for a tweet, they did not intend to throw their school into a tailspin. Like a superhero first discovering his/her superpower, it was a little terrifying for all sides. Some people witnessing the power the football team responded with a sense of reverence and others rebuffed. Therefore, when the college football season starts, I will of course be interested in the cursory stories of wins and losses. But I am more interested to see how, if, or when college football truly taps into its power or how, if, or when the ivory tower seeks to limit it. What will happen to the narrative surrounding Baylor if they win seven straight games? How does Mizzou react to an 0-4 start or a 4-0 start? This power struggle makes college football’s relationship with its university a curious case.
Hunter M. Hampton is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of Missouri. His research is focused on religion, sports, and popular culture. He is writing a dissertation on the muscular Christianity and the making of Christian manhood in 20th-century America. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @hhampton44.