Monday, November 18, 2013

College Football: The Hermit Crabs of Universities?

After hearing, for the thousandth time or so, complaints that college football dwarfs the colleges it purports to represent, it occurred to me that it might be possible to characterize the large NCAA football teams as hermit crabs that have lodged themselves in shell of just the right size, shape, and location. Then, once firmly inside, the football team’s locomotion is what moves the school along its track.

The new underlying school vision has been changed, and it puts football front and center, instead of the “old school” notion of college courses, exams, dorms, sororities, fraternities, late nights in the “old stacks” in the library, and the adrenaline charged exploration of old knowledge, new ideas, canonical thinkers, and new, fresh people and their energy for the future.

In an ideal world, the football program would help make the traditional college experience a viable part of today’s world. Critics scoff and say they’ve turned some colleges into pro football farm teams. And, who are the people who park their RVs for days in the largest college parking lots? Why has the university paid to install RV hookups?

The majority of tailgate campers are not and never will be alumni, and yet, they have driven a hundred or so miles to spend a few days relaxing with their friends and families, charcoaling, and streaming video from the internet connections supplied by the university. Why is the college team so important to them? And, given that the team is a gateway to an appreciation of the university as a whole, what are the implications?

It’s all in the hermit crab.

What’s a hermit crab?
Before we begin, let’s refresh our knowledge of hermit crabs. As you may recall, a hermit crab is born without protection for its soft, vulnerable belly, and it grows very quickly in warm, nutrient-rich waters. So, it finds a shell of just the right size and moves in. Once it’s in that shell, it’s in its own little paradise – it can move about at will and can go wherever it needs to go to find the best conditions and the best food for it to thrive. It may be a bit creepy to the spectator.  After all, those huge, spiny ungainly hermit crab legs drag the weird, unmatching shell under shipwrecks, into reefs, over tricky, rocky terrain, and into other places where the original inhabitant of the shell would never, ever go. But, at the same time, there is something sublime about it (and I’m using the word as Edmund Burke would use it, to mean awe-inducing as well as horror-inducing), and the spectacle is strangely riveting. It is a grotesque perversion of the original shell owner’s m├ętier and way of being, but that’s neither here nor there. The shell belongs to the hermit crab now.

Now, let’s look at Hermit Crab Football. The football team is the hermit crab. The college is the shell. But is that the end of the story?

No. It’s more complicated than that. But, it’s worth examining, because there are many new revelations and insights about our world and our society that come to the surface as we look at the metaphorical model.

It’s not simple. In fact, the situation has become fairly vexed  (and complicated by the emotional nature of the topic), and there are many areas of contention in the new Hermit Crab Football of the nationally ranked NCAA football teams. I think I could extend this to basketball, too, but that’s another story. 

Win at any cost.
First, there’s the issue of “win at any cost.” I would say that this is a consequence of the importance that college football has, not just to the local economy or college enrollments and endowments, but to an entire swath of the populace that may have never had even the most ephemeral or tangential contact with the university in question, except for their football team.

In a society that is more and more fluid and faceless, where jobs are  uncertain and technologies are both door-opening and disruptive, there is very little to cling to that offers a constant, unchanging feeling of security and belonging. There is very little to cheer for – in the past, we could cheer for our employer, but that’s hard to do when you’re working three or four jobs, all part-time and without benefits. In the past, we could cheer for our hometown, but how many of us live in the “exurbs” – an affordable place to acquire a home where we can sleep, but requiring a 2-hour commute?

Or, if we’ve chosen to live near our downtown jobs, how many “warm fuzzies” do we feel about our one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartments with gated parking and security to make us feel better about the gunshots at night, noisy 3 am altercations at street level, and the people who roam the streets, perhaps homeless, perhaps simply drawn to the classic Craftsman home that has now lent its shell to meth entrepreneurs? It’s hard to get behind a community like that, and to find like-minded, like-spirited folk we can wear face-paint with and cheer heartily at the arrival of familiar mascots and colors.

The college football team provides all this. It’s provides a sense of home, of community, and belonging, and above all, it does not change, disappear, or make you feel physically threatened. The college football team creates a uniting presence, and games are a way for people to come together to share their time, energy, ideas, hopes, and dreams. The game is the cocooning moment – the time when you and your group can comfort retreat to a safe, pre-birth existence where all is possibility, and all is safe.

In the past, the “game cocoon” (at the field, at buddies’ homes with snacks and big screen, or in sports bars), usually involved alumni.  Now, it’s not the case at all. Loyalty to the team (and by extension, the college) extends far beyond alumni. Now, the team’s fans consist of people who feel passionately about the team, the team concept, and their fellow fans.

But, the team has to win.

No one likes to back a loser, and if you’re affiliating yourself with a team that makes you feel good, then, it’s clear that you’re going for that winning “winner” feeling – something that will help you feel good about yourself, your life, and the world, just by watching a game. Losing – especially losing to teams you do not respect – corrodes that good feeling.  So, when a team starts to lose, fans stop attending games. They stop flying banners and wearing branded, logoed outfits. They move to their “second choice” school’s football events. All the positive publicity that the college once received suddenly turns bitter, unpalatable.

If a college football team turns a blind eye to ethical and moral infractions being committed in the interest of “winning,” then no one has won at all, and the college team runs the risk of hurting not only its program and the university, but also the hearts and spirits of the fans, who look to the team for spiritual as well as emotional release.

So, there is no doubt that the burden to win brings with it a lot of baggage.

However, I think it’s too facile a solution to simply advise the university to get out of the football business. The world is what it is, and a university with a mission to develop the community and create an anchor in the world has to acknowledge the very real drivers (even if there is quite a bit of pressure, and the potential of an unanticipated ethical morasse) of what constitutes community and what constitutes an important intellectual wellspring.  So, like it or not, the university must do all it can (within reason and legal strictures), to help its team win.

Coaching staff salaries.
There is the issue of coaches’ salaries. The day before the local college football team’s first game of the season, I happened to overhear the familiar grumbling about the fact that the head coach was now earning a salary of $9 million per year (I did not confirm this). The tone of the person’s voice suggested shock and outrage, but there was also a bit of perverse pride in her tone.  It mattered that the university’s football team performed well – which meant winning a championships, going to bowl games, achieving high national rankings, and, above all, whipping arch rivals in games held in sometimes decrepit "neutral" stadiums equidistant between campuses.

I think you could make the argument that head coaches, in fact, could be paid more and the additional pay would be justified. In the past, the captains of industry – the industrialists who managed to corner the market on commodities (Carnegie and steel production, Rockefeller and oil), or to promote effectively (Jay Gould and railroads, J. P. Morgan and finance) – reaped the benefits.

I know there are fallacies in the analogy and that coaches are not robber barons, but we have to admit that in our post-industrial times, entertainment (which includes sports), has come to dominate a large sector of our economy. Yes, there are inequities – shouldn’t players be paid? And, as in the past, the media helps make empires, as in the role that ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc. play in college football.  It echoes the role that Hearst and Pulitzer played on public opinion.

The head coach, along with the coaching staff, must find a way to create a team that inspires the enthusiastic devotion of the fans. Not only does that require winning, it also involves a positive public image that must take the raw material of new recruits and skillfully craft a narrative that aligns with the university’s vision and mission. It’s not easy.

Further, there are the technological considerations – intelligence gathering to prepare for upcoming games; disinformation and dissembling moves to upset the competition’s intelligence-gathering moves, and also strength and conditioning training to assure healthy players who perform at peak physical and psychological levels at all times. Again, it’s not easy.

Exploited players.
It has always bothered me that college football players are not paid salaries. Yes, I do understand that it would not be fair for the smaller, poorer universities because they would not be able to compete for the best players.

However, I would argue the small, unranked teams can’t compete anyway. The best players are hoping for a berth with a pro team (at least that’s the conventional wisdom), and only the top-rated teams have lucrative (and frequent) television appearances. Scouts have to work hard to find good players in the small teams, and even if they see them, they have no idea how those players might fare against the big boys.

It bothers me to think that a college star might have a career-ending injury and never have a chance at a place with a pro team. It also bothers me that the player has helped the college achieve its rank, standing, and has been a fundamental part of the gargantuan hermit crab, but is never really compensated.

I realize it’s complicated, but there must be a better way.

The hermit crab represents the soul of our people.
Educational purists (and some faculty and staff members) maintain that the state’s premier research university should stick to academics. Colleges and universities should educate the populace and promote the creation and dissemination of knowledge. 

That’s all well and good, but it disregards the trajectory that college football programs have been on for the last 30 to 40 years, and which has accelerated in the last 10 – 15 to achieve a fever pitch, thanks to technology, social media, social change, and economic structural changes. Football programs create fans. Fans come from all walks and stages of life, and the football team becomes a part of their identity, sometimes to a remarkable (even shocking) degree.

Identity questions.
What have we become? How has social change altered us? What are we as a people? The need for community has not gone away; people still have a need for affiliation. However, the old methods of obtaining that sense of togetherness, belonging – even enfranchisement in a society – have disappeared. We do have many, many online communities, and social media gives us a way to connect.

The connectedness of social media may ultimately fail to satisfy, and the void is filled with concepts and events that unite people by means of their emotions, connected at times (but not always) with shared beliefs and values.

The college football program that can be a successful hermit crab and move the shell of the university to being aligned with the hearts, minds, and spirits of a changing social milieu can be an important bellwether for times to come.

That said, clear, calm hearts should prevail.

(c) 2013 by Susan Smith Nash / Texture Press