November 19, 2013

Does football have a justified place in college?

By Daniel Runnels–


We are a football nation by now, right? Baseball occupies a special place in our national identity and we find time for basketball, but as Stephen Hayes pointed out in a recent appearance on Fox News, game one of the 2013 World Series got “basically the same [television] ratings” as the—apparently terrible—Monday Night Football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Giants. My personal beef with the sport of football is not aimed at the NFL, but the observation by Mr. Hayes helps to set up an important point: we sure do love our football.


What I have come to wonder though, is why exactly football is a part of our higher education system? I’m a full-time student with an eye on a career in academia, but the whole spectacle of college football doesn’t strike me as very pertinent to what I think universities are supposed to be about: academics.


I’m not the first to wonder this, nor did I invent my opposition out of thin air. I owe most of my considerations to Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger who first got me thinking about college football in a critical way. Indeed, they explain their opposition much more eloquently than I am about to do.


To start, I call my anti-college football views “mostly principled” because I don’t mind admitting that, although I played and watched football as a child, at some point the sport simply started to bore me—I’d rather watch paint dry!


In many cases, athletic competition goes a long way to inspire us to take care of our bodies. In the case of football though, there is a good deal of evidence pointing to the real damage done to player’s brains due to the repeated blows to the head sustained during each and every play. Seeing a player get knocked out on the field is a powerful image, but there is research showing that the real damage goes unnoticed throughout the course of a game. Constant hits and collisions have lasting neurological consequences that are physically hurting the young people that play the game. It is bad for their brains. Universities ostensibly exist for the purpose of shaping and enhancing young minds; does football contribute to this goal?


After having this conversation with a friend the other day, it occurred to me that my university’s mission statement might shed some light on exactly where college football fits into the picture. Easily accessible via the University of Louisville’s website, the mission statement of U of L states, “The University of Louisville shall be a premier, nationally recognized metropolitan research university with a commitment to the liberal arts and sciences and to the intellectual, cultural, and economic development of our diverse communities and citizens…” It goes on to list five focuses of the U of L community that include things like “educational experience” and “research, creative, and scholarly activity.” I don’t see much room in a statement like this for an activity that is inherently violent and hurts people.


I understand that by taking this position I sound a lot like The Fun Police. After all, I’m just a young, artsy-fartsy, liberal, ivory tower aspirant who is casting aspersions on something that a lot of people love. My goal, however, is not to be The Fun Police or to convince everyone to stop playing football. My objection is with football’s close ties to the university institution. I admit that I’m not interested in the NFL either, but I see that as a very different issue. If Peyton Manning wants to sell his labor to the Denver Broncos in the form of quarterbacking his team and getting pummeled while doing it, he can do it! That’s capitalism! We have a market for the sport and people are filling the market. As a commercial enterprise, the NFL is great at what it does and I wish it the best.


College football, though, is tougher for me to be okay with. The University of Louisville is a great school that has a strong tradition of academic excellence, but I’m not convinced that football helps us get there. Instead, it creates a show out of 22 young athletes doing long-term damage to their brains, and occasionally breaking an arm or a leg. That being said, my stance is entirely non-dogmatic. Maybe it would be worthwhile to hear Teddy Bridgewater, Coach Charlie Strong, or even President James Ramsey himself give a strong defense for football in the university arena.


Photo by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal

1 thought on “Does football have a justified place in college?

  1. As a newcomer to Louisville, I have often asked this same question. Actually, I’ve asked it about all college sports. The salaries of the football and basketball coaches seem to have no relationship to the academic world. The Courier-Journal goes into detail about the latest potential athletic recruits. Why aren’t they recruiting science fair winners, or academic All-Americans? What is the real purpose of the university? Furthermore, your Cardinal newspaper devoted six pages out of 20 to sports, and your website’s homepage is mostly sports headlines.

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