Where college football ends its regular season may say a lot about the inherent nature of the sport and its fault lines. Spencer Hall looks at the sport and the shaky ground it inhabits.
College football is a floating republic, and its coronation ceremony is an appropriately fluid affair. The four-bowl rotation of the BCS moves between Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and those cities all have something very important in common: they're warm, and especially pleasant around January when winter dulls their scorching heat. They all boast ample hotel rooms for the occasion, large stadiums for the games, and colorful nightlife and attractions for attendant non-football festivities.
Most importantly, like college football, they are all artificial, corrupt, and yet still exist despite the best efforts of logic, Mother Nature, and the American legal system. There are a few things we should explain to you about college football, and to do so we'll need a map of the four places where we crown our imaginary champions every year.
Like New Orleans, college football is old, chaotic, and full of ghosts. College football is the second oldest sport if you count baseball as a sport, and for the purposes of a common reality, I'll admit it for this argument. It has Continental roots with an American finish, a variety of rugby refitted with static sets and an ever-expanding set of rules requiring a lawyer's logical acumen to properly enforce. It was violent, is violent, and will remain violent. Its local color is undeniable.
The parallels to New Orleans are obvious, but consider the most important one: corruption. The city itself only exists thanks to a series of levees and walls, an artificial separation of the city from the waters, and those barriers are breached too often with disastrous results. Business itself is often conducted under the table. The city authorities make wildly inconsistent judgments about the laws governing the citizens, and often appear to be complicit in the grand fraud itself.
Yet, at the end of the day, it's beautiful in its own way. The restaurants open, the party cranks up, and it has its own filthy splendor. Don't lose that in the metaphor. In trying to explain how a sport spends five months or so actually playing and then another seven months rolling in its own scandal, you have to understand there are reasons for this, and why people bother to put up with it in the first place. It is corrupt, messy, and falling down its own ears with no sense of order. It is also unlike anything else.
It shouldn't be here, either. Phoenix sits in the middle of the desert, the place where a coating of spikes and ability to live without sustenance is a bare minimum for survival. The city thrives, somehow, sitting in the middle of a great hot nothing on the back of large corporations and some truly odd legislation promoting an arid brand of prosperity. The Fiesta Bowl's right there, too, created out of nothing and boosted into the pantheon of BCS bowl games through another brand of less-than-odd legislation: corruption sponsored by government legislation.
Laws keep this kind of thing going long after common sense should have thrown it to the wayside of history. College football operates as a sport attached to non-profit institutions--bowl games, universities--whose day-to-day lives are a matter of profits and losses. Bowl games pay no taxes. Legislators' action through inaction keeps antitrust investigations into the BCS from ever getting out off the meeting room table. An entire organization exists to codify the system and give it the appearance of propriety in the NCAA, and for its troubles it gets to sell a billion-dollar basketball tournament and sell it under the guise of being a non-profit.
Like a lot of things in the desert, the Fiesta Bowl itself has proven hard to kill. It will keep its slot in the BCS rotation despite a report detailing widespread corruption in its administration: sloppy accounting, bowl money going to employees' personal use, and business meetings conducted with cronies at local strip clubs. The game's current home is a perfect vessel for this side of college football's legislated: a stadium paid for largely by hotel bed taxes made to generate more hotel bed taxes, slapped thirty miles outside the city near nothing in particular. In a not-small irony, it is sponsored by the University of Phoenix, an institution that hasn't had the audacity to run a for-profit football team under the umbrella of its brand. (Yet.)
College football is also in the throes of a boom. Once the sleepy regional phenomenon, it is now a largely lawless city with no mayor, no central governing authority, and outstanding scenery in more than one sense of the word. The money that built Miami came from cocaine, an irrational good not necessary for survival whose market price nevertheless erected gigantic skyscrapers along the edges of Biscayne Bay.
The money building college football's coke towers is coming largely from television, and, like the shifting neighborhoods of Miami, that demand can change seemingly fixed geographies in a second. Television money took TCU, already playing in the semantically indefensible position of being a Mountain West member sitting in Forth Worth, Texas, and put them in the equally ludicrous situation of "Big East Member." That money nearly broke the Big 12 into fragments last year, and could do it again before too long.
The boundaries between neighborhoods have never mattered much in college football, which is yet another confusing thing to explain to outsiders. This is not the NFL, and never will be. The NFL sits in a comfortable office in New York City and oversees its empire from an address that does not change. College football's only proper comparison in the New York Metropolitan Area comes from The Godfather, and involves five families who constantly stab each other in the back over and over again in an ever-shifting fight over new business, resources, and what constitutes the permissible and impermissible. Like the universe in The Godfather, those rules are broken frequently and with flair.
(It's a mess, but you should see the beach down here. It is simply spectacular.)
The Rose Bowl sits in another aberration, the city of Pasadena, a town nestled above the bigger aberration of the city of Los Angeles, a place that wouldn't exist without the benefit of some creative marketing and water management. California's bankrupt, and it's not alone: only eight schools showed a zero balance on their athletic subsidy sheets for the year 2010, and it's often less than that from year to year.
It's all unstable, too. California has a thousand ways of telling people not to live there: wildfires, flash floods, large deserts and forbidding mountains spanning its geography. Don't even think about the San Andreas Fault, an obvious "Do Not Touch" sign left by Mother Nature running the length of the place that periodically hiccups and knocks down a city or two. The entire state's geography is by design unstable.
So is the sport that chooses to land in the Rose Bowl once every four years for a championship game. The premise of college football relies on an inherently unstable fault line: the artificial border between amateur labor and professional labor. For every true student-athlete trying to live out the Hellenic ideal of sport enhancing and revealing character, there's two kids who believe they have a chance to make it to the league. Most of the time two out of these three can run a 4.4 and beat two blocks on the way to the quarterback, and the other one is the student-athlete. All three are denied proper pay for their labor at the top echelon of competition, and all three cost their schools money in the name of entertainment at the lower, less profitable ends.
The only honest approach to either is to admit the instability. There's no fixing a fault line, and there's no fixing the root problem at the heart of college athletics that people pay to watch. Problems are things that get solved, and dilemmas are what you live with when solutions evaporate. For the moment, what we have here is a dilemma, albeit a beautiful one when viewed from the seats of the Rose Bowl. This whole thing is old. It could come down in an instant, and maybe it should. Until then, though, the San Gabriel Mountains, in the fading light of a West Coast sunset, look like bronzed, mute sentinels, watching us from the edge of a better, imaginary world.