Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bowled Over

It's New Year's Day, for sports fans the day on which college football bowl games are played. When I was a kid, there were 4 major bowls, the Cotton, Sugar, Orange, and Rose. The Gator and the Tangerine were tangential. Today there are 35 bowl games, starting before Xmas and finishing on Jan. 10, Monday Night College Football. While three of the old four major bowl games are still played on Jan. 1, their names have changed to include their corporate sponsor: The Discover Orange, the Allstate Sugar, and the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. The hoary Rose Bowl resisted at least the indignity of becoming the VIZIO Rose. (Cf. Tokyo Rose.) The AT&T Cotton is slated for Jan. 7.

The current biggest bowl game is the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, with the finalists chosen by a controversial rating system, and it's the one to be played on Jan. 10. The same sponsor has named the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, scheduled for today.

Two perennial football powers, Auburn (BCS Game) and Ohio State (Discover Orange), have stars playing under a cloud. The fabulous Cam Newton, Auburn's quarterback and the Heisman Trophy winner for best player, was cleared to play after the NCAA ruled that he had no knowledge of his father's efforts to auction Cam to the highest bidding football program. A football program is the raison d'être for the existence of the modern university: it makes the most money for a school's athletic department, offers a free minor league for the National Football League, and helps recruit players and other students who love big-time college football.

In the case of Ohio State, 5 of its football stars were convicted by the NCAA of violating rules by selling their autographs and were punished by being suspended for 5 games--next season, if they are even still enrolled to play Akron, Bowling Green, and Northwestern, the first 3 patsies on the Ohio State schedule. If you wonder why their suspension does not include their next game, in today's Orange Bowl, it's for the same reason that Cam Newton was judged innocent of his father's illegal machinations on his behalf: without these stars, attendance would suffer, and the NCAA's main function is to assure that money keeps rolling in to athletic programs, which make big bucks from bowl-game participation.

On this New Year's Day I can't help wondering what would happen if universities returned football to amateur status, and the Auburn Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes were just club sports teams, and their institutions cared more about higher education than stadium box-office receipts. More likely, college football might become a formal minor league for the NFL, which would subsidize its "programs" in exchange for naming rights for the season-ending bowl games, which would host a playoff of the top dozen teams to determine the national champion. When that happens, we'll welcome the Miami Dolphins Orange Bowl, the New Orleans Saints Sugar, the Dallas Cowboys Cotton, and the Rose Bowl Game presented by the NFL.

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