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Why does college football exist?

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Why does college football exist? According to many critics, college football exists to exploit impressionable young men–often from economically disadvantaged backgrounds–in the pursuit of profit for schools and administrators. It’s become fashionable in the press to speak of college football players in dehumanizing historical terms like “slaves,” “indentured servants,” et cetera. Aside from betraying a shocking lack of historical education, such hyperbole provides no real perspective on the nature of college football, and intercollegiate athletics generally, and only fuels an emotional narrative designed to draw attention to the speaker.

William Harper and the Emergence of Modern College Football

Since college presidents moved to assert “institutional control” over football in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the sport has not been an end unto itself. Football might well have been banned by the elite eastern colleges from which it originated. In its formative years, football was extracurricular activity directed first by students and then alumni. The early game’s violence and its perceived incompatibility with the academic mission of the university eventually prompted the move towards institutional control.

Not every academic, however, considered football an anathema to higher education. In 1891 industrialist John D. Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago and hired a 35-year-old Yale professor, William Rainey Harper, as the school’s first president. Harper had witnessed the impact of football firsthand at Yale, where alumnus Walter Camp emerged as an early pioneer. Harper invited another Yale alumnus, Amos Alonzo Stagg, to start a football program at Chicago. Stagg became the first person specifically hired (and paid) to coach college football. John Sayle Watterson wrote of Stagg in his 2000 history of college football:

Stagg was promised not only an ample salary but also support for the athletic program at the University of Chicago. In keeping with his belief in institutional athletics, Harper made Stagg a tenured faculty member, placed him at the head of the athletic department, and encouraged him to build a prominent football team. “I want to develop teams that we can send around the country and knock out all the colleges,” Stagg later recalled Harper proclaiming. “We will give them a palace car and a vacation.” In other words, he wanted to send the team on the road to advertise the school.

Harper, Watterson wrote, saw football as a means of instilling “the school tradition his new institution would inevitably lack.” Chicago football was certainly not conceived of, at least initially, as a standalone for-profit business. For instance, in 1894, Stagg took his team out west to play Stanford on Christmas Day (Chicago’s 19th game that season). Attendance was so sparse the team needed to play three more games–a rematch with Stanford and two contests against semi-professional clubs–just to earn enough money to make the return trip to Chicago.

Two years later things were starting to look up financially. Chicago had played a Thanksgiving game against Michigan annually starting in 1893. The 1896 game boasted a then-record gate of almost $300,000 in today’s dollars. This early rivalry game, John Sayle Watterson reported, “became a late-autumn society event that attracted the wealthy and prominent acquaintances of William Harper, potential friends and patrons of the fledgling university.”


In January 1895 Harper and six other university presidents met in Chicago to discuss the regulation of college football. This gathering, which preceded the NCAA’s founding by a decade, led to the creation of what is now the Big Ten Conference and provided the blueprint for modern intercollegiate athletics. The principles approved by the group included (1) restricting athletics to full-time students in good academic standing; (2) institutional control of athletics; and (3) no player should be paid for his participation in any athletic contest.

From Marketing to Cultural Identity

While most of us associate “college football” with the high-quality product produced by the SEC and a few dozen Division I FBS programs, there are over 650 NCAA members that sponsor football in all divisions. On top of that there are non-NCAA football programs that belong to groups like the NAIA and the National Junior College Athletic Association. It’s safe to say that well over 90% of intercollegiate football programs earn no substantial revenue. And even the revenue-producing programs often spend well beyond their means, as editor Nick Gillespie recently observed with respect to his alma mater, future Big Ten member Rutgers:

According to a database compiled on an annual basis by USA Today, Rutgers’ athletic department spent just over $60 million to field all its teams, pay its coaches, etc. in 2011. The school generated about $9 million in ticket sales, $7.6 million in alumni and corporate donations, $8.8 million in rights and licensing fees, and $6 million in other revenue. The school also sucked a whopping $9 million in student fees and another $19.4 million in school funds. When all is tallied up, USA Today calculates that Rutgers is subsidizing the operation of its athletic department to the tune of 47 percent of its expenses. Let’s underscore that: This is money that is overwhelmingly going to field football, baseball, lacrosse, and other sports teams. It’s not going to create new sections of Biology 101 or English 251 or underwrite the discovery of the next Streptomycin or publish the next Economics and the Public Interest or anything that remotely comes close to education or research.

So why spend all this money subsidizing football and other non-academic athletics? There’s still the concept that athletic spending is a marketing expense. But the football market is far more crowded than it was in William Harper’s days. It’s difficult for a university to advertise itself through football superiority when the sport’s top echelon is well defined. (Even Chicago lost its zeal for football and abolished the program in 1939; it was revived in the 1970s as a Division III program.) College basketball has surpassed football to some extent in this area as marginal schools can gain short-term notoriety through the basketball lottery known as NCAA tournament (see Florida Gulf Coast). But that still doesn’t explain why schools like Rutgers spend millions on mediocre football and a gaggle of other sports.

Football is an amenity. It’s not that every student plays or attends games. It’s that the mere presence of a football team serves as a sign of the school’s permanence and legitimacy.

There are two broad answers. First, intercollegiate athletics project a physical presence that remains integral to the university “brand.” The Nick Gillespies of the world may dream of smaller centers of higher learning that focus exclusively on the production of knowledge, but the existing college market remains the province of large institutions competing for undergraduate student-loan dollars. In this context, football is an amenity. It’s not that every student plays or attends games. It’s that the mere presence of a football team–and the accompanying constellation of non-revenue sports–serves as a sign of the school’s permanence and legitimacy. This applies to SEC and Division III schools alike. A small college may not have international notoriety, but if it has an athletic department, it’s still considered legitimate in the eyes of most people, certainly more so than a mere trade school or for-profit online college.

The second factor is what William Harper identified back in the 1890s as “school tradition.” Another way to describe this is cultural identity. This is not a college-only phenomenon. Sports has proven to be the most potent source of cultural identity in modern times outside of language and nationality. Even professional teams with a long history of losing maintain devoted fan bases. Fandom is not a product of economic exchange or cost-benefit calculation. It’s a statement of one’s identification with a larger community. College football has always been in a prime position to exploit this because, unlike professional sports, teams are tied to fixed universities that won’t simply pack up and move to another city offering a better stadium deal.

Bureaucracy Is An Inevitable Part of College Football

There is still the age-old question of “amateurism.” For the handful of schools that have managed to convert football from student amenity into commercial product, must the athletes remain bound to the convention of receiving no compensation, aside from scholarships, in exchange for their services?

First let’s note that amateurism itself has undergone a number of refinements. In William Harper’s time there was no such thing as an athletic scholarship. It was not until the mid-20th century that the NCAA formalized and regulated such grants. So it’s not as if the system is incapable of changing with the times.

It’s equally important to reject the hyperbole from NCAA critics that the present system uniquely places student-athletes outside the purview of the free market. Just talk to any graduate teaching assistant or medical resident. Higher education is filled with such non-traditional employment relationships.

We know that universities are structures as nonprofit entities. The meaning of this is sometimes obscured by the commercial success of football. The critical distinction, as noted by the 20th century Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, is that a for-profit firm is subject to entrepreneurial management while a nonprofit organization relies on bureaucratic management:

In profit-seeking business the discretion of the managers and submanagers is restricted by considerations of profit and loss. The profit motive is the only directive needed to make them subservient to the wishes of the consumers. There is no need to restrict their discretion by minute instructions and rules. If they are efficient, such meddling with details would at best be superfluous, if not pernicious in tying their hands. If they are inefficient, it would not render their activities more successful. It would only provide them with a lame excuse that the failure was caused by inappropriate rules. The only instruction required is self-understood and does not need to be especially mentioned: Seek profit.

Things are different in public administration, in the conduct of government affairs. In this field the discretion of the officeholders and their subaltern aids is not restricted by consideration of profit and loss. If their supreme boss–no matter whether he is the sovereign people or a sovereign despot–were to leave them a free hand, he would renounce his own supremacy in their favor. These officers would become irresponsible agents, and their power would supersede that of the people or the despot. They would do what pleased them, not what their bosses wanted them to do. To prevent this outcome and to make them subservient to the will of their bosses it is necessary to give them detailed instructions regulating their conduct of affairs in every respect. Then it becomes their duty to handle all affairs in strict compliance with these rules and regulations. Their freedom to adjust their acts to what seems to them the most appropriate solution of a concrete problem is limited by these norms. They are bureaucrats, i.e., men who in every instance must observe a set of inflexible regulations.

The idea of “institutional control” espoused from the days of WIlliam Harper through today’s NCAA is merely a synonym for the bureaucratic management Mises described. Since the goal of college football is not to make a profit for its own sake–as there are no owners to pay dividends to–bureaucratic management becomes necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the system. A nonprofit organization does not ultimately answer to consumers but is a sovereign unto itself. That’s true even of a small charity, where the goal is to serve the greatest number of people using the available resources. The point of intercollegiate athletics is to provide amenities for the greatest number of students and student-athletes possible, including those in non-revenue sports.

None of this should be construed as an unqualified defense of the NCAA or any specific policy. If you think players should be paid a stipend, or receive a percentage of licensing revenues, or be classified as full-time employees, then so be it. Such propositions can be debated on their own merits. The critical thing to understand is that so long as college football remains an auxiliary to the nonprofit university system, bureaucratic management in some form must exist. If the goal of reform is to spin off the top tier of college football into a standalone, for-profit entity, then you’re no longer talking about college football at all but some new type of business firm whose prime directive would inevitably be to directly compete against the NFL. And we all know how well previous competitors have fared against the Shield.

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Comment 1

  1. Wonderfully stated. Excellent article.