Yesterday at the Rose Bowl, something happened that had never happened before in a century of prestigious and lengthy history–a team from a “lesser” conference played, much less won, against top-flight competition, when the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs, a small private school out of Fort Worth, Texas, defeated the Wisconsin Badgers, co-champions of the Big 10 conference (which now has 12 teams, but anyway) 21-19 in a tough defensive battle.
Why is this important? In a century of games, the Rose Bowl was considered the most hide-bound and traditionalist of all bowl games, seeking every year only for the Pac-10 champion to play the Big-10 champion. That was the extent of its interests, leading for a long time for the Pac-10 and Big-10 (both of which now have twelve teams as a result of expansion) to be outside of the Bowl Alliance, the precursor to the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series. It would seem odd that a bowl game played in progressive Southern California would be so hide-bound and traditionalist in its approach, but we should remember that Pasadena is not exactly a very progressive city, and that traditionalists have abounded very well in the area (something I know perhaps too well from my own personal history).
Tradition seems to have blinded the people who run the Football Bowl Subdivision (or what I call Division I-A) of College Football from the best interests of the athletes, schools, and anything else. The unholy alliance of tradition and greed has preserved a system of rigid inequality by which the little guys are kept down and the fat cats collect big money and preserve their power and control. This is sickening to me in any field, especially one, like sports, that captures the interest of many people and is considered to be a realm where hard work and ability can trump prestige. In college football, though, tradition and prestige remain supreme .
Let us examine how this is so, at least in brief. To do so will require a bit of a history lesson, but hopefully not a boring one. There are 11 conferences (at least for now) in the top division of college football. Six of these conferences are considered “major” and the other five are considered “minor.” This is not necessarily because of the quality of the schools in the conference but because of their history and tradition. For example, the SEC and the Big-10 are often considered the “most” traditional of the conferences in terms of their membership, neither of them including any of the new powers of college football, but plenty of the “old” ones, schools like Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State in the Big 10 (which, with the addition of “old” power Nebraska from the ten-school Big 12, will soon have twelve teams) and Alabama, the University of Florida, and Louisiana State in the SEC.
There are three other conferences that are considered more or less traditional within the world of college football. The Pac-10, despite being very traditional in its approach (until adding Colorado and Utah to its ranks this past year, it had not expanded since 1978 with Arizona and Arizona State), is often considered the red-headed stepchild of the traditional conferences due to “east coast bias” with its teams playing games late at night when casual fans have gone to sleep on the East Coast. The Big 12 (now, after the defections of Colorado and Nebraska, down to ten teams) is itself a traditional conference, with “old” powers like Texas and Oklahoma along with other schools of lesser pedigree (with Baylor serving as its version of Vanderbilt), and the ACC (with recognized powers like Miami, Virginia Tech, and Florida State in its midst, despite a relatively new setup, along with Duke serving as its Vanderbilt or Baylor in football) is also recognized as a conference worthy of respect. However, the Big East lags far behind the other conferences in respect, with fewer teams than any other “major” conference as well as its addition of non-traditional power schools (like Louisville and the University of South Florida, as well as Texas Christian University within the next couple of years).
Why does it matter how good at team was in 1940 or 1980 when it comes to respecting a college now? Why is the quest to determine the best college football team hindered by hidebound determination on the part of elites to hold on to their power and domination of others who are denied the chance to compete fairly simply because their school was not a football power twenty or thirty years ago. Is this just or fair? Should we not seek, in our athletic activities, to enshrine the principles of fairness and justice that we think ought to judge our life as a whole. Do we judge people by which families they come from or how big and important they are, or on their own merits? Are we respecters of schools or persons?
The combination of the idol of tradition and the greed for money on a part of many universities leads to a great deal of scandal. Not only is there the scandal of the way in which there is no playoff to determine a fair winner of the football season, which I will discuss in a bit, but the search for winning at all costs leads to gross injustice in how schools make millions of dollars on the backs of slave labor–amateur athletes forbidden to receive the wage for their proper labor because that would violate standards, while schools and conferences and entertainment companies (like ESPN and its corporate affiliates) can make many millions of dollars off of the labor of others who work for free with all of the risk of injury and loss without any of the gain except for scholarships and dorms while they are students. And yet if students or their families (like Cam Newton, this year’s Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn or Reggie Bush, the former Heisman Trophy winner from USC) wish to make money from their talents, they are accused of behaving in illegal and unethical ways. We ought to ditch the whole illusion of amateur athletics in college and let athletes receive the just reward for their efforts. At least then they will be employees and not indentured servants.
Now, concerning the issue of playoffs, sportswriter Dan Wetzel has for several years promoted an excellent 16-team playoff system with 11 conference champion automatic qualifiers and five at-large teams . Now, there are many other playoff plans out there, but this one would create an NCAA braketology sort of feeling about the seeding of teams, and could do a lot for college football, making it more fair, rewarding the best teams with an easier path to the championship, with minimal disruption of school over weekends. Additionally, bowls can still be played if teams are willing to play additional games for additional money (many would, no doubt).
What does the class system within schools and between schools and companies that prophet while unpaid college students do all of the “labor” of providing the entertainment have to do with each other? Both of them result from spiritual problems. The exploitation of “lower” classes of schools and the pool of athletes for the profit of elites results from a failure to respect or honor those who actually do the hard work of sports. Nonetheless, a hierarchial set of elites (the media companies and big-name schools on the top, the lesser schools receiving smaller shares of the profits in the middle, and the athletes at the bottom, but still considered as elites among the student population as a whole) implicates everyone in some fashion, and provides a deeply troubling moral background to college football. What will be done to smash the false idols of tradition and allow for a more just and equitable system of athletic competition to be built?
 In the interests of full disclosure, I have attended and received degrees from schools with both great “traditional” reputation in football (namely USC) as well as those without such traditional reputation (namely USF).