Among college counselors I would take it as a complement if I was considered to be the “pro football” counselor. That does not mean that I am a fan of the NFL, though I am. It means that I understand that college football brings considerable good to the life on many college campuses.
There have been many adjectives to describe college football players, quite a few unflattering. But at the same time you are not likely to see many schools, including some of the most selective, make the decision to drop the game. Whenever I meet someone who feels so strongly that college football has been a bad influence, I often advise them to consider schools where the sport is given a much lower priority. No one should ever feel forced to go to a college football game or support a team if they don’t want to.
Last Saturday I watched Rutgers, my undergraduate alma mater, lose to Nebraska. That was not unexpected. The Huskers were favored by 8 1/2 points when their plane set down in New Jersey. Given the poor quality of play by both teams I was led to think about what it took for Rutgers to produce a football game, aka create the “game day experience.”
The game day experience on a college football Saturday is, or course, better when your team is winning. I have seen winning Rutgers football teams sell out their stadium, just as I have seen bad teams fill barely half the seats. The same is true for the University of Illinois, where I saw a Rose Bowl team during the last semester I was enrolled to pursue my first master’s degree. I have to respect the schools such as Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State that can fill a stadium regardless of their record.
What is the game day experience?
For students it includes not only the fans and the players; it also includes the band, jobs in customer service and safety, singers, dancers, cheerleaders and mascots, among others I surely missed. There are likely more students engaged in a home football game, even during a bad season, than for any other campus activity during the school year. If you go to a school that has wins and good weather, the games become more festive.
Sports events, especially college football games, are probably the only events where total strangers can meet and have a good conversation for three or four hours. Especially when they are rooting for the same team. However, I have met fans of the visiting teams, especially Nebraska this past week, who are very nice people who will freely admit the weaknesses of their team in a friendly conversation. It’s not to say that a basketball or soccer game will not bring out the same types of conversations. But they involve much fewer people while having little of the week-to-week drama that’s associated with a winning college football program.
It’s very hard for a university, especially one the size of Rutgers, to help organize an off-season events that have the magnitude of a college football game. Purdue has its Grand Prix go-kart race, Indiana has the Little 500 bicycle race. Penn State has THON, an exceptionally successful dance marathon that raises millions of dollars towards pediatric cancer care. But these student-run events are quite rare. They demand a lot of time as well as unity to succeed. Failure is never an option when you do an event of that scale.
What about the athletes?
Too often I read that schools admit “student-athletes” who are not really students at all. That they are recruited only for their athletic ability. Yes, there are schools that want these football players as athletes. It’s foolish to deny that. However, a wise coach makes his players realize that not all of them will set foot on the field, let alone become stars who will be seen on Sundays after they leave campus.
Typically, a college football team that offers scholarships adds 20 to 30 new faces onto their roster each year. They could be scholarship freshmen, walk-ons or transfers from other schools. Out of the freshmen, at least half will earn a degree from that school, as well as complete their eligibility. My bet is that most of this half could have gained admission to the school outside of football, unless the school is exceptionally selective. Others may decide not to play, but remain students on campus, and still earn a degree (they won’t be tracked as throughly). Still others may transfer to another school, sit out a year (if the new school offers scholarships) in the hope that they will receive more playing time elsewhere. Then there is a rare fifth-year senior–Rutgers appears to get one or two every season–who already has a degree from another school but also has another year of eligibility. Last year’s fifth-year star, Andrew Turzilli, was just added to the Tennessee Titans active roster.
Aside from the players who came in as fifth-year seniors–they already have degrees–those who came in as freshmen and transfers will typically fare no worse than their peers who do not play sports in terms of earning a degree. In some cases the sport might have been the best way that they could cover the costs of their education with as little debt as possible, maybe none.
Now I’m hearing the detractors who say: “But they’re earning useless degrees. They just want to maintain eligibility.” However, their classmates who do not play football have the same educational options. No college in America can force an education down a student’s throat. I would doubt, even at a university the size of Rutgers, that the majority of the students who have declared a so-called “easy” major also play a sport.
Not to mention that there is nothing stopping a school from discontinuing a perceptually easy major if the faculty and administration are truly concerned about academic integrity as well as the value of their degrees. Students also have access to peer tutors, whether they play a sport or not. The ones who have helped the athletes to cheat or get around the system make the news, of course. But the newsmakers are vastly outnumbered by the peers who take their jobs seriously.
I’m in my tenth year as a season ticket holder for Rutgers football. This season has been the hardest to get through because of the poor record as well as the controversies that surrounded the team as well as the head coach. As an alumnus I feel angry at times when I see a poor quality of play. But I also know what a successful college football team has meant to this campus community. It instills more pride and a stronger school identity. It engages many people in ways that other things cannot.
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