Commentary: And You Thought You Were Watching Football

Wagstaff: ...Where would this college be without football? Have we got a stadium?

The Professors (in unison): Yes.

Wagstaff: Have we got a college?

The Professors (in unison): Yes.

Wagstaff: Well, we can't support both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.

The Professors (in unison): But Professor. Where will the students sleep?

Wagstaff: Where they always sleep. In the classroom.

--From the 1932 Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers

With the holidays and that crush of college bowl games behind us, it might be instructive to reflect on just what we were watching all those afternoons in front of the TV.

The National Collegiate Athletic Assn. says its purpose is to maintain college sports as an integral part of the educational process and the athlete as an integral part of the student body. By doing so, the NCAA seeks to maintain a clear line between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports. But over the past decade, the already thin line between college sports--especially big-time football--and the pros has all but disappeared.

LOSS LEADERS. In pro sports, the '90s saw a significant trend in corporate ownership of big-league franchises. Large media and entertainment companies in particular sought to exploit the promotional value of franchises and, in some cases, to acquire relatively cheap TV programming. By using their teams as marketing vehicles to increase the worth of their primary holdings, corporate owners allowed their franchises to be "loss leaders": Profits or losses mattered less than the overall value the teams added to their parents' portfolio of assets.

Over the same time and for many of the same reasons, schools became more aggressive in using their athletic departments to accomplish a similar goal. That's why profits and losses at the athletic departments of jock factories matter so little: Sports at such schools are simply high-profile programming designed to lure and keep customers. It's eerily similar to how Time Warner views its ownership of the Atlanta Braves or Fox looks at sports properties such as the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But much like a corporation, a university's value is determined by the success of its departments, programs, and operations. And the media and sports fans, especially alumni and boosters, have such an insatiable appetite for sports that some schools--particularly "football factories"--have gone overboard in emphasizing them. This is not a new phenomenon. Some 50 years ago, Dr. George L. Cross, president of the University of Oklahoma--home of this year's Bowl Champion Sooners--remarked to his football coach, Bud Wilkinson: "We're trying to build a university our football team can be proud of."

While success on the gridiron may stoke interest in enrollment, there can be a detrimental side effect--an excessive "college experience" in which a focus on sports leads to a party atmosphere and neglect of academics. But many universities are not above marketing their athletic prowess and, by extension, party atmosphere to impressionable high school students and placement offices. After all, it is through televised sports that many high school kids discover colleges outside their communities. Parents, convinced by their teens and by marketing-savvy sports universities, spend billions to send their kids to such colleges without ever recognizing that sports has closed the sale.

In his State of the Association address on Jan. 7, NCAA President Cedric Dempsey cautioned: "The level of cynicism over the commercialization of our most visible athletic programs has reached epidemic proportions." It's only likely to grow as the hunt for student-customers becomes more intense and as the public increasingly realizes that college football games have become little more than carefully packaged infomercials brought to you by the marketing geniuses of higher education.

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