This may be remembered as the year college football died. Like most deaths, this one has been a process of years. But two recent events show how drastically the sport has changed. First was the news—almost universally cheered—that college athletes can now be paid through endorsement deals. Then came the revelation that Texas and Oklahoma, two of the sport’s most celebrated programs, are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC.
In narrow terms, both of these decisions make a great deal of sense. When colleges and coaches are making fortunes off the sport, why should athletes go unpaid? And given the growing disparity between cash-flush conferences like the SEC and a faltering Big 12, why shouldn’t Texas and Oklahoma make a move?
Yet both developments suggest that what made the sport appealing in the first place has begun to disappear. Like all ideals, college football’s ideal of amateurism was never upheld perfectly (witness the sport’s long history of more or less open cheating). But even as a pretense, it encouraged an ethic of self-sacrifice. Individual glory was bound up with collective success. “No man is more important than The Team,” as one coach famously said. “The Team, The Team, The Team.” It would be impossible to say such things today, when schools entice star recruits with the prospect of endorsement deals, and coaches chase their millions as they hop from school to school.
Likewise, the prospect of television money has led many schools to cast off ancient rivalries as they join wealthy leagues. My own home-state team, Nebraska, left the Big 12 for the Big Ten a decade ago. The money is better but the football—on our end, anyway—is not. In the Big Ten, we play some of the nation’s finest and most storied teams. But their stories are not ours. We share no memories. Playing them will never be as enthralling as facing our former rivals was, just as making the acquaintance of the most brilliant and charming people cannot match the company of an old friend.
If you come from a certain kind of place, it can be hard not to care about football. The population of my rural county in northeast Nebraska peaked 100 years ago, around 1920, and has since declined by nearly half. The buildings on Main Street seemed always to be boarded up or half empty. We took pride in the few things that were ours, however artificial they happened to be. Going to Cabela’s for hunting gear was a kind of pilgrimage. But in time even Cabela’s was bought up, and the headquarters were moved out of state.
College football was one of the few things that couldn’t be automated or relocated. Our city, state, and country might have changed, but the colors and fight song remained. In the Huskers we found a semblance of continuity.
Football also spoke to something deeper and darker in us, something that was supposed to have been banished from everyday life. For a few hours each Saturday, it was permissible to rejoice in strength. To love your own and hate the other. Men who had learned to regard every race, class, and creed with perfect respect cultivated guiltless contempt for the other team. It was a fantasy world, in which the pleasures of hierarchy and hatred could be indulged without upsetting the balance of everyday life.
William James wanted a moral equivalent of war, and college football provided. It diverted the martial spirit away from politics, just as it tamed the fanaticism and devotion that might have sparked revival or revolution.
Conference consolidation and paying players may be rational, economically speaking. But these changes make football a less perfect vehicle for local rivalries and communal pride. Just as the advance of capitalism hollowed out real traditions and attachments, market logic has begun to destroy their shadow. People who have long lived without real community will soon lack even its counterfeit.
If football were the only thing being remade by these forces, its transformation would hardly matter. Americans could simply look elsewhere to find a moral equivalent of war. But if every superficial form of solidarity is taken away and all casual chauvinism dries up, people will begin to seek the real thing. They will not find it in small towns or local byways, which are already all but extinct. They will look to whatever forms of solidarity remain, most likely the crude and often cruel ones embodied in divisions of nation, race, class, and creed. College football will die. The passions it channeled will not.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things magazine, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.