Another Day of Shame on the Gridiron

College football season opened with another humiliation for my school, to go with our financial disasters (last year we spent $2m on a coach and athletic director who no longer work for us), bottom-of-the NCAA graduation rates, and lousy on-field performance.  We beat Grambling State University, a historically black school in Louisiana, 73-14! Late in the fourth quarter, I think  a 110-lb cheerleader was our right tackle. If it had been a boxing match, the ref would have shut it down (52-0 at halftime); in kid’s sports they would have invoked a mercy rule.

But who would schedule such a senseless, unsportsmanlike exercise in the first place? Grambling’s entire athletic budget, one of my colleagues  found out, is third from the lowest of all Division I public schools’, 1/15 the size of ours.  Their football  roster is 89 players, almost all from east Texas and Louisiana; ours is 133, recruited from all over the west. Their coach makes $195,000; ours makes ten times that.

Until now, I had idly wondered why our first couple of games are always complete mismatches (next week, San Diego State), but I am learning how naïve I was. It turns out we pay these schools to lie down and get trampled, in this case $500,000, or about three professor-years with fringes.  They’re called “guarantee games” and apparently common in football and men’s basketball.  The idea seems to be that  athletes prepare best for real competition by administering a complete beatdown to a helpless adversary; builds courage, character and sportsmanship.  Odd, because the Marines and Seals know something about ‘tough’ and ‘winning’, but as far as I know the navy sets these guys against each other, not out in the street to beat up homeless drunks and skinny high school kids. There’s no shame for Grambling in being so poor that they have to roll over for the amusement of fans at a (relatively) rich school (with so few black students, awkwardly, that we are rolling out a big project to fix it) to get their uniforms laundered. But it’s a shanda for us that we do it.
This theory of building competitors by making them bullies is insulting to our players and at least as repulsive (and, I hope, wrong) as the idea that sexual entitlement and abuse of women gives male athletes a competitive edge. I can’t for the life of me understand why our guys take the field for this perversion of a game they say they love to play, or keep trying as the score heads for basketball numbers: what are we teaching them in those locker-room character sessions?  However, what do I know? Big-time, big-money college football is managed by People Who Understand These Things.
Like our San Francisco Chronicle sports reporter, who kvelled for multiple column-inches over the event, framing it as a practice, and provided this truly priceless quote: “Cal stuck to its blueprint, built morale and gave young players critical experience. But Dykes [the Cal coach] was careful not to let Saturday devolve into a merciless shellacking.” A 59-point margin…he what?
There’s more, unfortunately. GSU’s real pride is it’s enormous and nationally famous marching band/dance team. They turned their practice at a Richmond high school in a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken part of town into a 90-minute pitch for black kids to go to college. At the game, they put on a hell of a show, but it got precisely sixty seconds of air time in the TV broadcast; too many important commercials and too much vapid commentary on tap to waste time on a bunch of kids who, face it, wouldn’t offer a single really satisfying hit.
I’m tired of being a grinch about big-time sports, especially at Cal, and I am happy to say I can make a real contribution to the enterprise.  If it’s OK to rent out players as punching bags, why don’t we make money on the deal instead of spending it? Our athletic program runs a deficit, too! Wouldn’t the Raiders or 49ers be happy to build their own players’ character by having them beat up on the Cal team, and pay nicely for it?

Chancellor, AD, coach: get on it! And I want credit for this idea when the money starts rolling in.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.