The Money Bowl

Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football BY Gilbert M. Gaul. Viking. Hardcover, 272 pages. $27.
Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America BY Diane Roberts. Harper. Hardcover, 256 pages. $25.

The cover of Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football The cover of Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America

By any measure, the business of college football is booming. The sport is more popular and, thanks to market-savvy conference realignments and a round of expansive new television deals, more lucrative than ever. In January, the first edition of the College Football Playoff delivered record audiences for ESPN and a windfall for the sport’s major conferences that dwarfed the once gaudy-seeming returns from the defunct Bowl Championship Series. Ratings for the college semifinals and the subsequent national-championship game surpassed even those for some NFL playoff games—a powerfully valuable proof of marketability for a media age in which many homes embrace live sports as the main excuse to keep shelling out for cable TV. In May, awash in riches from the successful debut of the ESPN-owned SEC Network the previous summer, the Southeastern Conference distributed a record $455.8 million in revenue to member schools—a 56 percent increase over such disbursements in 2014, which had also marked an all-time high. The core marketing dynamic is the same in every conference and has only continued to gather momentum: The numbers have risen so quickly, by such dramatic leaps and bounds, that any conference that isn’t shattering the old benchmarks on an annual basis is losing ground.

Evidence of this largesse is everywhere. Because most big-time athletic departments operate as independent, self-sustaining subsidiaries of their host schools, their financial outlook tends to be much healthier than that of the campuses granting them their brands. In the midst of economic recession and accompanying cutbacks in education, coaches’ salaries have bloated in concert with those of corporate CEOs, making the football coach (or, in a few cases, the men’s basketball coach) at the largest state university the highest-paid public employee in most states. A handful of coaches have managed to maintain that status even after they’ve been fired for failing to win enough games, thanks to generous buyout clauses in their contracts; others have attained it with relatively thin résumés but a keen willingness to exploit the going market rate. Meanwhile, perpetual expansion, renovation, and outright replacement of perfectly functional facilities have become the norm, lest programs risk falling behind in the all-important arms race for top recruits. Entire teams traverse the continent regularly on chartered flights—support staff, cheerleaders, and marching band in tow—and stay in good hotels. Last year, the five richest conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) successfully carved out a new niche within the NCAA bureaucracy that allows their members to offer beefed-up athletic scholarships and other in-kind perks that less-well-heeled schools can’t afford. Even after accounting for the intraschool subsidies they provide to so-called nonrevenue sports, big-time football programs are bringing in more money than they know how to spend.

Yes, business is good. But here’s the problem: College athletics wasn’t ever supposed to be a business in the first place, which means its ludicrously flush condition now poses something of an existential crisis. The great, enabling fiction of college sports—that their star athletes are selfless amateurs, unsullied by motives of profit and career advancement—never was able to pass any credible smell test. But today, with such vast sums of money at stake, the profits raked in by college-sports combines are stoking a widening debate over the sentimentalized (and, not coincidentally, nonprofit and tax-exempt) vision of college sports as enlightened amateurism—a controversy that’s unfolding on nightly talk shows and the Internet as well as in federal courts.

Challenges to the status quo tend to cleave into two starkly opposed camps, which antitrust economist Andy Schwarz has labeled “Team Market” and “Team Reform.” Team Market is, strictly speaking, less of a direct challenge to the present system than an appeal to end the charade: Retire “amateurism,” reap the profits, and pay the players (and the taxes). The upshot would be an open embrace of an overtly professionalized, capitalistic future that the sport’s overseers continue to deny only out of a combination of greed, paranoia, and inertia.

How Team Market’s vision squares with the college part of college football, or with the ongoing existence of the NCAA, is unclear. But the general sentiment of Marketeers is that the institutional trappings of higher education are but a fig leaf anyway; in practice, the formal uncoupling of college sports from the ivory tower would merely represent an acknowledgment of what everyone already knows. Team Reform, on the other hand, proposes a far more radical course: Rein in the excesses of college sports, so that the games actually resemble the rhetoric of amateurism and academic integrity.

Gilbert M. Gaul’s Billion-Dollar Ball is a manifesto for Team Reform; as such, it’s guaranteed to alienate all but the most casual (or rabidly dissident) college-football fans. And that, apparently, is the point. Gaul, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and investigative journalist for the Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer, declares no particular personal rooting interest in the college-sports arena—a posture that allows him to approach his subject as a curious outsider, marveling at the anachronisms and excesses that anyone who engages regularly with the sport likely takes for granted. Early on, for instance, he describes his shock at the realization that most athletic departments oversee their own budgets and run their finances almost entirely independently of the schools they represent.

When he talks to university presidents and athletic directors, the common refrain is that “football pays for itself” through the exorbitant revenues it generates—after all, it’s not as if Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban’s donor-funded $7.2 million salary were being covered by Alabama taxpayers, or as if any of the money being poured into Ohio State’s tricked-out new weight room were generated by the history department. For Gaul, though, this explanation is less a justification than one more instance of the skewed priorities of the entire NCAA-sports leviathan. The presidents, he reports, are embarrassed by their inability to keep athletic programs in check, so they fall back on feeble characterizations of football as the university’s “front porch” to the rest of the world. Athletic officials, for their part, are more defensive about their financial privileges, although some of them, like longtime University of Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, express a kind of aw-shucks wonder at the scale of their market conquests. Over the course of Dodds’s tenure, Texas’s athletic budget expanded from a reported $4.6 million in his first season (1981–82) to $165 million in his last (2013–14). “Football is the train,” Dodds tells Gaul over lunch. “You ride it for all it’s worth.”

Much of this material will be familiar to followers of college football, and it reads a bit like the musings of a stranger in a strange land. (Indeed, this is more than just a metaphorical description of Gaul’s project—at one point, the author reports how he had to call on a pair of Austinites to point him in the direction of sprawling, 100,119-seat Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium, and then proceeds to imagine the sort of derision they showered on their hopelessly lost Yankee interlocutor as he drove away.)

But if the reader is not already acquainted with the rationalizations and compromises that form the scaffolding around what the author terms “the gilded age of college football,” Gaul’s inquisitive-outsider approach supplies a useful vantage onto a cloistered system that functions according to its own Byzantine set of rules. And some of his most pressing questions about the economic state of the sport are likely to stump even cynical critics of various NCAA boondoggles. How, for example, can athletic departments simultaneously accept “seat donations”—i.e., gifts, commonly running into the tens of thousands of dollars over and above the nominal cost of the ticket itself, needed to secure a premium seat—while also assuring these ticket buyers (accurately) that they can write off the additional fee as a charitable contribution? What, exactly, is the charitable benefit of this straightforward transaction? And why is it that the richest departments in conferences like the SEC and Big 12 tend to sponsor far fewer athletes in far fewer sports than schools much further down the food chain, opting instead to lavish the spoils on their cash cows? Is it fair that schools spend millions on academic-support facilities and staff tasked solely with keeping athletes academically eligible, when regular students get nothing approaching this level of coddling for their own classroom struggles? Why do ostensibly “big-time” football schools like Eastern Michigan, Florida International, and New Mexico State, which have no prayer of competing with the Michigans, Floridas, and Texas A&Ms of the world, insist on remaining in the sport’s top division, despite years of losing records, dismal attendance, and flood tides of red ink? Most important, what does any of this have to do with the larger mission of higher education?

The Doak Campbell Stadium at Florida State University during a football game, 2012.
The Doak Campbell Stadium at Florida State University during a football game, 2012. Arctic_Whirlwind/Flickr

Gaul does a good job of framing all these questions, even though he largely fumbles his implicit, quixotic appeal for all college athletic departments to look more like the one at Haverford College, a tiny liberal-arts school that doesn’t award athletic scholarships but nevertheless sponsors more athletic teams than the University of Texas on a budget of “a million or two” (Haverford’s president isn’t exactly sure). Gaul’s most compelling line of argument is his straight-on refutation of the “pays for itself” shibboleth. After all, he notes, the appearance of wild profitability in major sports programs stems largely from their IRS classification as tax-exempt charities. If schools were actually forced to adapt to something like a free market, Gaul argues, not only would they have to pay taxes on revenue like any other business: They also wouldn’t be able to place exorbitant “seat donation” premiums on tickets with the promise of a subsequent tax break, which would drive down demand and likely cost the schools millions. “Does any of this work without the tax deduction?” Gaul asks a University of Alabama staffer who oversees the Crimson Tide’s seat-donation program, which has seen its revenue swell from $6 million to $30 million in the past twenty-five years. The reply? “That’s a good question.”

Other good questions for the NCAA’s marketing-cum-administrative caste abound—but, as Gaul notes at length, the lawmakers who safeguard the tax-exempt status of college athletic programs have gone to great pains to ensure that none of them will ever be answered. Congress thwarted an attempt by the IRS to tax seat donations in 1988, voting at the behest of lawmakers from Texas and Louisiana to allow an across-the-board deduction of 80 percent. “The 80 percent rule was nothing more than a straight-up giveaway,” says John D. Colombo, a law professor at the University of Illinois. “There is no real argument or larger principle at play here.” Of course, larger principles are in the eye of the beholder: This additional tax break to the college-football colossus was enacted to preserve college football as we know it—and for fans in large swaths of the country, that remains an argument sufficient unto itself.

One gets the feeling reading Diane Roberts’s Tribal that it’s specifically addressed to Gaul, or to readers exactly like him: overeducated coastal types who just don’t get it. Roberts, an occasional contributor to NPR and The Guardian who earned a Ph.D. from Oxford University and teaches literature and creative writing at Florida State, is an ideal blue-state emissary for the sport, in part because she makes no effort to justify her love for the game on a rational or even conscious level. Early on, she acknowledges that college football is “the preferred sport of Republicans, climate-change deniers, and people who think every American foreign policy issue can be solved by the 101st Airborne”—that is, for people who are everything she is not. Division I football, she concedes, is expensive, violent, and “a quasi-fascistic spectacle.” She compares it to a bad boyfriend whom she never can quite bring herself to dump. “You’re an intelligent, cultivated woman,” a fellow professor tells her in the book’s opening passage. “You cannot like college football. You don’t like college football.”

But for Roberts, as for nearly all fans who remain in thrall to the game against their more-enlightened cultural judgment, the lure of the stadium and the tailgate is something akin to a genetic imperative. She grew up in Tallahassee, rooting for Florida State’s storied (and scandal-ridden) football program alongside her father, and she devotes most of the book to persuading skeptics of the deep importance of the football fan’s obscure, nonsensical tribal bonds. “I knew I was a Seminole before I knew I was white or a Presbyterian or even a girl,” she writes. “I knew I was a Seminole before I knew what a Seminole was.” The quasi-religious significance that her Seminole tribe ascribes to the spectacle of pseudo-adolescents slamming into one another at brain-rattling speeds is, as Roberts writes, “sufficiently deranged”—but not so much that the sense of family, community, and ritual that goes along with the rites of collegiate sports is any less genuine, particularly for fans who, like Roberts, grew up in the nation’s rural or not-quite-urban culture. “During the ten years I lived in England, I figured my college football obsession would wear off,” she writes. “It didn’t.”

The book is assembled as a grab bag of short essays, which cover everything from hazing rituals and the enduring campus influence of the late-nineteenth-century “muscular Christianity” movement to the feeling of rooting for a team whose star quarterback, Jameis Winston, has been accused of (but never formally charged with) rape. Roberts cannot resist digressions on the Civil War, proper game-day attire, and the sport’s unsavory track record in matters of race, class, and gender, all in playful, twangy prose that simultaneously insists on, and mocks its insistence on, taking its subject seriously. But if Tribal has a thesis, it’s right there in the book’s title: the idea that the primal rifts that define college-football rivalries—“the epic, elemental, Us versus Them”—form a central theme throughout human history, forever bubbling to the surface in socially sanctioned contests, which provide a release valve for the fractious tensions that end up stoking actual wars. Football “may have begun in China,” she writes, “or in Greece, where it was called episkyros. Harpastum, a Roman game, also has a solid claim as football’s progenitor. Perhaps the Legions taught the Celts how to play: the Irish call it caid, the Welsh, cnapan—people have been playing some kind of football in the British Isles since at least the seventh century.”

And so on: Football is always there, lurking in the background with the Pilgrims, with the First Nations, and in King Lear. And in each of its incarnations, it has been a continual nuisance to people of high society and refined manners. (Which may, in fact, have been part of football’s appeal to President Teddy Roosevelt, whose efforts, along with those of Ivy League presidents including Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson, resulted in standardized rules and the formation, in 1906, of the league that would later become the NCAA.) But the spectacle persists because tribal passions persist, Roberts contends: our side’s boys versus yours, a human inevitability “passed down like junk DNA.” As she ventures into the dark heart of the illogical, impassioned animus fueling the dollar-outlays of today’s college-football scene, Roberts quotes William Hazlitt’s essay “On the Pleasure of Hating”: “Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.”

Like Gaul, Roberts probably won’t win over many readers who don’t already share her perspective. But in contrast to Gaul’s anguished assault on a decades-old state of moral crisis within the NCAA, Roberts’s effort to wring a deeper meaning from stereotypes and traditions that depart so radically from her other received cultural tastes and institutional loyalties ultimately yields a truer depiction of the sport. Along the way, Tribal also affords an explanation of one of the most profound puzzles of today’s college-sports scene: why the NCAA colossus has not only secured the American psyche in a stranglehold but continues to tighten its grip. The logic of the rise of a sweaty, billion-dollar enterprise from the halls of academia will never be found in spreadsheets, legislative debates, or tax law. It resides in the hearts of the faithful. The only part that Roberts gets wrong is her subtitle: As the soaring TV ratings have proved, it is no secret.

Matt Hinton writes about college football, most recently for Grantland.