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Is It Responsible of Us to Care So Much About College Football in Times of Economic Crisis?

My thanks go out to Senator Blutarsky, who called my attention to this piece by Chris Brown, one of the smartest and most thought-provoking football writers out there, in the blogosphere or elsewhere. Like the Senator, I don’t agree with everything Chris had to say, but he makes some interesting points concerning the emphasis upon football in the South.

Naturally, I would encourage you to read Chris’s posting in its entirety. The part that most caught my attention, though, was this passage:

The one troubling wrinkle to me is that, yes, you get money by being able to have legions of fans who will pay for tickets 80,000+ stadiums, along with everything else. And yet, the south -- and the midwest for the Big 10, and southwest for the Big 12 -- which are unequivocally the most football mad areas of the country, also happen to be among its least educated and poorest. I don't know why this is. I mean, I suppose a proper metric would just be to evaluate percentage of recreational or entertainment expenses as a proportion of total income or total expenses, and then just see if the southern, midwestern, and southwestern states spend their money on football while people on the coasts or elsewhere spend it on other entertainments that could, roughly at least, be substituted for one another.

It just is strange the consider the hoopla surrounding the recent SEC media day in light of the fact that the south is being hit worse than any other area (sans some of the most overpriced real estate markets, i.e. New York, San Francisco, etc). And the fact that the SEC brings in more money than any other conference despite servicing the poorest (relatively) area of the country.

As will be clear to anyone who reads the whole article, Chris is not denigrating the South. (He is from the South, although he lives outside the region.) He is, however, raising an interesting point, which I would like to address, albeit far less than comprehensively. I begin by quoting a passage from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men:

This is a poor State, they always screamed. But the Boss said: "There is a passel of pore folks living in it and no mistake, but the State isn’t poor. It is just a question of who has got his front feet in the trough when slopping time comes."

The SEC states are not, strictly speaking, poor states. They all have many poor people in them, and they may have larger portions of their populations living below the poverty line than some other states, but that does not make the states poor.

Consequently, the median incomes of football season ticket holders at SEC schools likely are vastly different from those of the populace as a whole. Undoubtedly, there are many middle class citizens who make football their lone luxury, but the tickets wastefully being purchased by those who cannot afford them are for the lottery, not for college sports.

Culturally speaking, though, previous conditions of poverty may have led many fans to identify especially strongly with their teams, as I noted in response to a Big Ten fan’s questions:

College football is ingrained in our cultural heritage. When Alabama beat heavily favored Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl, it became a real point of pride for the citizens of an impoverished state that had struggled since Reconstruction. When Georgia beat Michigan in the Big House in 1965, the Bulldogs were greeted at the airport by what Erk Russell swore was the largest crowd ever seen in Athens. SEC fans have carried "Remember Gettysburg" signs into the Superdome for Sugar Bowl dates with Penn State.

Folks without a lot of material wealth to be proud about tend to develop strong associations with such points of pride as they have available to them, and sports teams representing the areas after which they are named often become those points of pride. This has quite a lot to do with why many underdeveloped countries around the world are so passionate in their support for their national soccer teams.

With very few exceptions (e.g., the Boston Red Sox), professional teams seldom inspire the level of passion of World Cup soccer fans around the world or college football fans in the United States. This is because of what euphemistically is called "franchise free agency." You identify with your home town because it’ll always be there; you identify with your family because they’ll always be your family; you identify with your college football team because that university will always be there, regardless of whether you attended it.

This is not the case where professional teams are concerned, as I have learned through personal experience. Although I was raised as a fan of the Atlanta Braves, it didn’t bother me in the slightest to learn that my son may prefer to be a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays, after all, didn’t go on strike and sabotage the 1994 season. The Rays also didn’t bolt Boston for Milwaukee before arriving in Atlanta two years before I was born there. I was a major league baseball fan before I was a college football fan---I had been to I don’t know how many Braves games before attending my first game between the hedges---but my emotional connection to my local National League franchise isn’t one-tenth what my emotional connection to my alma mater is. In part, that is because I know the University of Georgia ain’t leaving Athens.

After the national championship-bound Clemson Tigers snapped the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs’ 15-game winning streak in 1981, an anonymous institutional editorialist writing in The Red and Black had this to say about the emphasis placed on college football:

A university’s mission is to educate; its function is to enlighten; its purpose is to question and challenge. There’s no harm in fun; but there’s serious harm in "fun" that distorts the University’s goals and distracts students and scholars from their tasks.

Welcome home, Georgia Bulldogs. And we thank you for restoring our sense of priorities.

I get what that guy was saying, but, even apart from the tackiness of kicking the football team while it was down, he was missing the point. Part of a public university’s mission---much the larger part of it, actually---is to serve the state that supplies it with most of its funding, most of its enrollment, and the whole of its existence. Giving citizens of the Empire State of the South a reason to feel a connection with and a commitment to the University of Georgia even if they have never matriculated there is more than mere "fun" and it certainly does not distort the institution’s goals or distract students and scholars from their tasks. The fact that my family had such a strong bond with the University had a great deal to do with why I wanted to go there and why I thought it important to succeed when I got there . . . and that was true despite the fact that only a few of my relatives who love the University went to school there.

The number of undergraduate applicants to Northwestern University increased dramatically in 1996. Why? Northwestern had been an outstanding academic institution long before that point . . . but the Wildcats went to the Rose Bowl in 1995, raising the profile of the institution. That feat did not distract students and scholars, it attracted them.

Around that same time, the University of Georgia conducted a fundraising campaign under the auspices of the Vincent J. Dooley Library Endowment Fund. The drive raised a great deal of money for the University library. The first two large donations came from the members of the 1966 and 1968 Georgia football teams . . . Coach Dooley’s first two SEC championship squads. Did winning football distort the University’s goals or contribute to them? Anyone who argues for the former proposition should start the James Rayford Goff Library Endowment Fund and see what kind of donations are received.

Warren St. John noted in his fine book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer that, far from being singleminded, sports fans tend to be focused and devoted in all aspects of their lives, to their families, their hobbies, and their careers as well as to their teams. Our recreation isn’t merely recreational---it is an interactive and heartfelt activity; I arrive home from football games more physically spent and emotionally drained than after almost any other thing I do---because our passions are not merely passions; they are informed, educated, rooted in the mind as much as in the heart.

It is no accident that the same society that produced the Olympics also produced the Socratic method. The development of the whole person involves the physical as well as the intellectual; anyone who considers "scholar-athlete" a disingenuous oxymoron needs to recognize that an academically incapable football player and a nerdy smart guy with no athletic ability are equally incomplete human beings, each of whom can profit from the opportunities offered in the university setting if he applies himself adequately. For those of us Dan Hawkins would have told to go play intramurals, brother, the experience of watching sports---of watching the striving for excellence, the fruits of devotion to regimen far from the onlooking eyes of 92,000 souls, and the commitment of a team to a common goal---can be, as George Will has noted, enlightening and ennobling.

No one I know or care about has ever wanted for anything important because of anyone else’s devotion to college football. Quite frankly, if the rest of our economy was performing as well as our college football teams, we wouldn’t be in this condition right now. In the meantime, the knowledge I gained from my University, and the passion I feel for my University, remain inextricably intertwined. The amount of money I spend for the purpose of enjoying a game between the hedges is negligible in comparison to the economic contribution I am able to make on account of the fact that being raised a Bulldog fan led me to pursue my education in Athens.

Accordingly, our fixation on football in these trying times not only isn’t unhealthy, it’s actually a pretty sound long-term strategy. Train up a child in the way he should go, and, when he is older, he will graduate from the University of Georgia, get a good job, and cheer for the Red and Black.

Dang, I’m ready for some football.

Go ‘Dawgs!