Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through The Big-Money Culture Of College Football, by Gilbert M. Gaul
I found in reading this book that while I appreciated the author’s wit, the author’s politics had a clear negative side for me. A great deal of the vitriol that the author shows for the context of college football appears to be his socialist leanings and his opposition to capitalism and the workings of college football as a market. Now, plenty of criticisms could be made about college football  and its nature as a cartel, but this author’s problems appear to be of a different nature than my own are. That does not mean that this is a bad book. It is, in fact, a pretty good book, and certainly an entertaining read about a corrupt business that takes odd and surprising angles. That said, everything the author says has to be read with a critical eye, as the author’s worldview and approach are ones that cannot simply be trusted or taken at face value. If you have critical feelings about college football as a business and the way that academic institutions prostitute themselves for revenue sports, this is a good book to read, but be prepared to have some critical feelings about the author as well.
In terms of its contents, this is a book of slightly more than 200 pages of material that begins with a look at Penn State and the author’s thoughts on real universities. After that the author bloviates about this being the guilded age of college football and comments that college football is an unusual charity with its demand for seat deposit donations in order for people to obtain season tickets. The author then turns to a look at colleges paying their coaches not to coach–here’s looking at you, Charlie Weis, who turned the enviable trick of being paid not to coach by both Notre Dame and Kansas. The author takes a walk through a university campus with someone who is hired to help college athletes go to class and then looks at why the SEC wins at football so much. The book then closes with a look at how women’s rowing provides key numbers of female athletes to balance out football teams for Title XI purposes and a look at how college presidents fumbled the chance for reform of the athletic systems. The book then comments on the fate of poor little colleges that spend a lot of money to keep up with the Joneses and notes on sources as well as acknowledgements and an index.
The author clearly prefers an egalitarian model where universities recruit only serious students and eschew the changes that result from corporate sponsorship and fund their sports in an egalitarian fashion. If we wanted our universities to have a socialist and egalitarian mindset, that would not be a bad thing–clearly the author wishes to be consistent with his worldview, even if it’s one I don’t agree with. Even for those who do not like the mindset of the author, though, there is clearly something wrong when taxpayers and students are supporting through increased fees mediocre to poor football teams that should be competing on lower and less demanding levels. The question is, what do we want college football to look like, and who has the power to do anything about it? So long as people watch games and buy tickets and jerseys and cheer on teams, not much is likely to change. Whether or not that is a good thing is up to each and every person to decide for themselves. I see no problem with college football being a big business, so long as we are all aware of the dangers to players and everyone is compensated fairly for their efforts. The author, though, seems to have a different goal in mind in seeking to delegitimize college sports because it is such a profitable business.
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