When I need to restore my soul, I've long watched massive numbers of these made-for-TV college athletic spectacles. There are something like 41 of them this year beginning December 16. Most are pedestrian, but a few are delights. All offer their moments and their quirks.
Of course, Division 1 NCAA football has long been a business, a Darwinian contest among sports administrators to showcase teams that will excite alumni donors. For decades, that meant attracting promising high school athletes with "scholarships" which rendered them something like indentured peons under all-powerful coaches, subsisting on the favor of their masters (almost all men) -- and perhaps their talent. This might lead to a continued athletic career at the professional level for a very few. And college degrees for about 73 percent of high level players -- slightly higher than their non-athlete peers. These graduation rates are something like 15 percent higher for white players than for black ones.
Legal challenges during last decade have reduced the power of college athletic administrators to keep players in penurious servitude and allowed some direct compensation to athletes from the schools, but even more from booster collectives. But it's the conferences that control the TV money and rake in big bucks.
And it's the NCAA and the conferences that shape post season (bowl) play. Over the next few years, all the accreted anarchic bowls will be sucked into the College Football Playoff National Championship. Forget iconic bowls like the Rose Bowl serving as contests between regions of the country. Which schools play where will be determined by "national standings," not accidents of history. This may make economic sense and even for some less-mismatched, but more exciting, contests, but something is lost.
Something else that has gone bye-the-bye is the expectation that college football players will give their all for their schools in post-season play. Players with strong NFL prospects routinely choose not to risk injury (or have their weaknesses highlighted) by "opting out" of bowl play. Just about every bowl game I have watched this year has begun with a recitation of a list of absentees "preparing for the NFL draft." This is understandable; football is these guys' ticket, not that degree in sports management.
And besides, coaches are doing the same -- jumping to the next job before the post season finishes. This might be one of the most surreal outcomes I've run across:
Wasabi Fenway Bowl - Cincinnati vs. Louisville, December 16
Cincinnati: Head coach Luke Fickell left for Wisconsin and won't coach in the bowl. Kerry Coombs will remain on staff under new coach Scott Satterfield and is the interim head coach for this game. ...
Louisville: The Cardinals lost coach Scott Satterfield and a couple of assistants to Cincinnati. Deion Branch will work as the team's interim coach for this game. ...
College football players, their peon status newly loosened, play their own game of musical chairs. In theory, the NCAA has long defined eligibility for its athletes as four seasons in their sport, plus a "red shirt" year when they play little or not at all. Teams red-shirt (hold out) players for development or major injuries and sometimes can squeeze an additional year out through administrative legerdemain; this is why I keep hearing of "six year players." Also why one hears that some athletes are in graduate school for academics while still playing undergrad college sports.
And currently the newly implemented "transfer portal" allows college football players to jump from one academic institution to another, perhaps for a better deal, or better TV exposure, or to follow a preferred coach who made a move. The portal is a database of athletes hoping to make a jump. Until this was put in place, transferring students had to sit out a year at their new digs. No longer. The transfer portal rules are somewhat intricate and evolving. Players who have entered the portal can play in bowl games with their old college, but mostly don't. That's another list of opt-outs announced at the beginning of this year's games.
There's a heck of a lot of money in college football and its post-season. And so long as we don't, as a society, conclude that American football is too lethal to continue to attract masses of customers, there'll be young athletes who want in. I will miss the less blatantly commercial version of the college football post-seasion. But the new one will undoubtedly put on a grand show. Guess I'll have to learn all the new rules. It's more fun when I understand them, at least superficially.