Michael Oriard: How the 60s Changed Big-Time College Football

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Oriard is a professor of English and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University. This essay is adapted from his new book, Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football From the Sixties to the BCS Era, to be published next month by the University of North Carolina Press.]

Football has changed enormously since I grew up with the game in the 1950s and 60s. Most broadly, today there seems to be a general sense of a continuous path from youth leagues all the way to the NFL. Boys of my generation knew little about the NFL beyond what they figured out from watching the weekly game on Sunday. Boys today know everything about the NFL that SportsCenter and the rest of our 24/7 sports media and entertainment industries show and tell them. Boys of my generation might have dreamed of playing pro football some day. Like-minded boys today plot a course—through weight rooms, diet supplements, summer camps, personal trainers, recruiting gurus—for getting there.

What has happened in the National Football League in recent decades has powerfully affected what used to be known as Division I-A college football (now the Football Bowl Subdivision)—think only of the lure of million-dollar NFL salaries for "student athletes" and the impact on college coaches' salaries as pro coaches began making millions. Many NFL players, in turn, are shaped in part by their college experiences—think here of the sense of entitlement that follows some athletes from college to the pros.

In this new environment, college football struggles in new ways with a contradiction that is more than a century old. From the moment that university administrators in the 1890s realized that the new public passion for intercollegiate football provided opportunities for university building, college football has been torn between the competing demands of marketing and educating. Knowing that the contradiction at the heart of big-time college football is more than a century old is useful when the latest "crisis" erupts. That knowledge should also give us pause, however, to wonder why we have failed for so long to resolve the contradiction.

College football has changed in two ways since the 1960s: suddenly and gradually. It changed suddenly in "the long 60s," that period conveniently dated from November 1963, when John F. Kennedy was shot down in Dallas, to August 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. The 60s peaked around 1967-70—the years when Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, and dozens of other cities exploded in race riots, campuses from Columbia University to the University of California at Berkeley exploded in antiwar protests, and Woodstock, N.Y., exploded in rock music and free love.

Football, too, was convulsed in those final years of the decade. Black players called their coaches racist and boycotted practice. White players at the University of Maryland forced their coach out for demeaning them. Coaches everywhere were forced to adjust to the special needs of their African-American athletes and, by extension, of all their athletes.

No comparable cataclysm in either college football or American life has occurred since the 1960s, yet the experiences of playing and following the game today are astonishingly different from what they were just a couple of generations ago. The entire history of big-time intercollegiate football since the late 19th century has been a tortuous working out of the sport's fundamental contradiction of being, at one and the same time, a commercial spectacle and an extracurricular activity. But sometime in the late 1980s or 1990s, incremental changes reached a tipping point or crossed a boundary beyond which the contradiction has become unsustainable.

The beginning and end of the "long 60s" coincidentally bracketed my own football career. In November 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, I was a sophomore at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Wash., putting in my fall afternoons on the B-squad and awaiting my chance to be a varsity player. In early April 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. fell in Memphis, I was a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, a walk-on scrub who had not suited up for a single game the previous fall but was about to be given the opportunity to become an actual Fighting Irish football player. In May 1970, when college-age kids in National Guard uniforms gunned down four students at Kent State University, I was a senior, soon to graduate, not participating in spring practice and therefore not prodded to confront the protests engulfing college football. (My subsequent brief NFL career coincided with the end of the era. In September 1974, a month after Nixon left the White House in disgrace, I left the NFL after four seasons, cut by the Kansas City Chiefs at the end of a strike-torn training camp.)...

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