Corruption, fraud, violence, injury, death. The ruin of college football was complete by the end of the century. The 19th century. The rest of its history has been the gold-plated accounting of a long-running hit.
It can reasonably be said that American college football has never been more popular. Or more profitable. It can just as well be said that college football hasn't found itself under such a sustained assault by the wider culture since 1905. From the New York Times to the Atlantic magazine, from talk radio to The Journal of the American Medical Association -- and from institutional corruption and front-page scandal to epidemic head injury and academic fraud, from bowl game graft and performance enhancement to rampant professionalism and moral bankruptcy -- the criticism pours out while the billions pour in.
We make a monster of what we love, and to make a point about what our society honestly values, a writer might post here a comparison of the state-by-state salaries of head football coaches and governors. There's no longer any reason to do so, as the highest-paid governor in America earns a salary of well under $250,000 a year, and any 10-year-old fan knows this won't buy even an assistant, much less a coordinator, a quarterback or a head man.
The debate over the true cost of college football came through New York City not long ago, and after an evening's worth of indictments it was resolved by simple majority that the game of college football be banned. That no one who cares about college football cares what anyone in New York City thinks of college football is a given. Still, on the evidence of terrible violence and graft a statement was made. And that statement is "nothing has changed since 1905." OK, body counts are down, revenues are up, but that was the year president Theodore Roosevelt saved college football even as the game was being condemned for its terrible violence and graft. From the San Francisco Chronicle to the Washington Post and the Atlanta Constitution, editorial writers were calling for the abolition of football.
In a New York Times piece from that year called "Two curable evils" the writer proposed simple solutions to America's two biggest social ills: lynching and college football. The first he sought to eradicate by making local governments liable for financial restitution to victims' families. Of football he wrote:
"Take away the gate money and the game will revert to its proper status of an innocuous pastime. The great public jousts and massacres yield fifteen or twenty thousand dollars each from the sale of seats. The money is all expended in the training and equipment of the team. So large an amount could not be obtained by subscription or a college tax. The game would be played for exercise, not for money; for the olive crown of recognition with the student body, not for the plaudits of bawling mobs of the unlettered and the dubious distinction of rough-hewn portraiture in yellow journals. A young gentleman engaged in getting an education ought not to exhibit himself for money and he and his fellows ought not to raise a mere sport to the dignity of an occupation. The tremendous loss of time which overattention to football occasions is its worst feature, though the brutality and maiming are serious evils, too. Both will be cured by cutting off the money supply, which the Faculties can do by two-line resolution.
"Make lynching expensive and public football unprofitable."
Tradition in this country is whatever outlasts questioning, and college football and the attack on college football are two of our grandest traditions. Has another year of scandal and revelation and condemnation finally undone the sport? Are Petrino, Tressel, Paterno, Miami or Montana the beginning of the end?
C'mon. Does any casual fan, any casual reader, any casual viewer, any reasonable person anywhere at the beginning of the 21st century think of "big football schools" as anything other than big football schools?
As it was in 1905, it was another tough year for fans. How do you root for what's on the helmet without worrying about what's in it?
In the end we remain helpless against ourselves.