Bowl Disinterest and the 2010 CFB Narrative

As Texas fans, we've become pretty accustomed to going to bowl games.  Good ones, too.  In fact, in recent years, anything less than a trip to a BCS bowl was considered a disappointment.  Only a few short months ago, this season appeared to be no different.  We went to BCS bowls with Vince, we went to BCS bowls with Colt, and we damn near won a National Championship game with Garrett Gilbert getting his first meaningful action of his career.  And then UCLA happened.  Iowa State happened.  Baylor happened.  And, yeah, Kansas State happened, too.  This season contained no shortage of beatings and embarrassments.  We would not be going to a BCS Bowl, and, after the final whistle against A&M, we lost our chance to go to *any* bowl.  For many "new generation" Texas fans, these were unchartered waters.

In discussing the bowl season with many of my UT Friends, I've been mildly suprised by their overall lack of interest in the bowl season.  With Texas licking their wounds from a 5-7 season, I expected most UT Fans to have a diminished interest in the bowls.  What I didnt expect was a sense of total apathy towards the entire bowl season.  One of my best friends--and a legitimate CFB fan--was so turned off that he couldnt even name all the BCS matchups.  Another went on a lengthy rant over how none of the bowls except the BCS Championship even matter.  These individual positions werent surprising.  However, I found it interesting that the overall lack of interest seemed to reflect something larger altogether.

To wit, while much of the bowl disinterest likely correlates with UT's terrible season, I've been probing a larger sense of discontent with the entire NCAA system.  In fleshing this out, I was astonished to think of all the major "negative" NCAA stories from this season that I could conjure off the top of my head.  When it comes to college football, the narrative for this season is largely written, and it isnt pretty.  Even more importantly, the nature of the overall narrative seems to cut against the entire selling point of NCAA athletics. 

After the jump, I'll try to pull this whole thing together, largely by taking a trip down memory lane... 

To summarize, my main point for this article is that most of the media coverage from this college football season has centered on stories that undercut the main selling point of the NCAA, which is having amateur student-athletes who play football solely in exchange for a college scholarship.  This season has seen story after story after story bringing into question the legitimacy of this selling point, as a series of extremely high-profile players and programs have been sanctioned.  Or, in some cases, they have not been sanctioned, which drew even heavier criticism. 

But outside of these scandals--which happen in some version every season--this season has seen additional stories stories that further erode the distinctions presumably separating the NCAA from professional sports.  In combination, I think these additional stories have helped diminish the interest in the bowl season from general fans unattached to any of the participants.

Before I go any further, I think it's important to look at all the "negative" stories from this season.  It's a pretty staggering list, especially when you consider that they all relate to either money of the lack of "amateur" status of student-athletes.

1) NCAA Nearly Expands March Madness to 96 teams (February 2010)

This story had nothing to do with college football, but I think it remains the perfect precursor to discussing conference realignment.  In all honesty, I dont remember if I've ever been as upset by a sports story as I was by the prospect of the NCAA ruining March Madness by expanding the field to 96 teams.  I vividly remember the pit in my stomach when I read it was a "done deal," and the entire proposal was about one thing and one thing only: mo' money. 

I fully understood the rationale--once again, mo' money--but I was devastated that the NCAA was considering destroying an essentially perfect product.  Almost immediately, the proposal was roundly criticized, and the NCAA eventually chose to expand to only 68 teams.  

2) Conference Realignment (Summer 2010)

While Hopkins Horn remained our resident expert over Conference Realignment, I was pretty heavily invested in the story myself.  I co-authored a chapter in "The Eyes of Texas 2010" with PB and DimeCoverage over Conference Realignment, which required such heavy revisions that the initial version was almost entirely unrecognizable from the finished product.  I dont want to rehash the entire story, but I do want to summarize its overall effect.

For the most part, all the stories over realignment—including those dissolving long-standing rivalries and associations--have been purely about money.  This also hurts the overall NCAA narrative, as it’s hard to sell "rivalry, history, and tradition" when it’s clear that schools will abandon their existing relationships for a certain price.  In a largely forgotten part of the Big 12 realignment story, Missouri took nearly comical efforts to express their interest in joining the Big Ten.  And, no, their interest wasnt primarily motivated by academics. And, like the potential March Madness expansion, I get that.  But it doesnt mean that I have to like it, especially from the Texas perspective.

Speaking of the Texas perspective, I think the entire issue was perfectly summarized by Scipio Tex's epic realignment piece.  If you havent read it, this is the most important segment for the purposes of this article, and I think it encapsulates party of why the realignment stories weren't exactly helpful for college football:

The Texas Longhorns

This is the third part of the Longhorn Trinity. The Holy Spirit. The fans.

Let me write this slowly: The. Texas. Longhorns. Are. Not. A. Business.

We should be run as a business, but we are not a business. Maximization of profit isn’t our only endpoint. This is supposed to be fun. Seriously. Fun. And interesting. We’ve now lost the two best road venues in the league and the 10 team full conference slate now assures us of frequent visits to some of the most depressing venues in the Corn Belt.

Columbia, Missouri – by all accounts a fine little college town, but not exactly Paris – is now our road gem. Our fans can look forward to road trips to Ames, Stillwater, and Manhattan over Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Eugene, and Phoenix.

Explain to me exactly what this current move did for Longhorn fans? Fans. Me? You? Us? Not Longhorns, Inc.

3) USC Hammered by NCAA Sanctions (June 2010)

After a four-year investigation, the NCAA slapped the "lack of institutional control" label on USC and bombarded them with sanctions.  This was a huge story, as most fans seemingly expected the dynastic Trojans to get off with a slap on the wrist.  This got the NCAA some good press, but it also caused the media to call into the question the legitimacy of USC's 2004 National Title.  About a month later, USC decided to send back their copy of Reggie Bush's Heisman trophy.

4) UNC Suspensions and Dismissals (July-September 2010)

Stories about UNC being investigated emerged over the summer.  The investigations quickly proved fruitful.  On the verge of their marquee matchup with LSU, UNC suspended 13 players (and 6 starters) because of various allegations and infractions.  Most notably, star player Marvin Austin was suspended and then later kicked off the team for accepting improper benefits.  The story eventually led to John Blake resigning on September 6th, presumably due to his ties with agent Gary Wichard.  There were tons of other little nuggets and rumors about this case, but let's move on.

5) Various NCAA Coaches With "Conference Call" Over Problems with Agents (August 2010)

After a series of off-season rumors and scandals, Nick Saban spearheaded a conference call over how to "protect" players from unscrupulous sports agents.  The depth of the problem was explained pretty succinctly by the linked article:

Saban organized the first call -- which included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell -- in the wake of investigations involving alleged improper dealings with agents at Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. He said the American Football Coaches Association is also involved.

6) Alabama Player Marcel Dareus Suspended (September 2010)

I could have gone with some of the other investigations mentioned above, but the suspension of Dareus--who ended Colt's career and returned the ill-fated shovel pass for a touchdown--was probably the biggest of these stories.  And it reinforces the fact that a lot of the pre-season chatter was diverted to discusssions of investigations, illegal benefits, and suspensions.

7) AJ Green Jersey Suspension and Controversy (September 2010)

Unlike some of the other stories, the AJ Green suspension dovetailed a much larger discussion.  After he was suspended for four games for selling a game jersey, several pundits declared the NCAA to be hypocritical.  As Michael Wilbon--and many others--noted, Georgia sold 17 versions of Green's jersey to the general public. 

8) Reggie Bush Returns the Heisman Trophy (September 2010)

Before we can get out of the month of September, we have to mention that Reggie Bush returned his Heisman trophy.  This once again reignited all the stories over his illegal benefits and his role in the most dominant program of the past decade.  Not exactly a shining moment for the NCAA.

9) "Death to the BCS" Eviscerates the Current BCS System (October 2010)

The work of several Yahoo Sports authors, "Death to the BCS" declared  itself to be "the definitive case against the Bowl Championship Series."  This book produced some strong indictments against the already unpopular BCS system, and it was widely produced and discussed all over the internet.  Additionally, the book forced Bill Hancock to repeat all of his tired arguments over why the current system should remain in place.

10) "30 for 30" Specials Highlighting Negative Aspects of NCAA/Recruiting (November/December 2010)

This fall, ESPN's "30 for 30" series included the stories of Marcus Dupree and the SMU Program receiving the "Death Penalty."  Once again, these were not very flattering stories for college football, and the documentaries pulled few punches.  If you are unfamiliar with either of these stories, here are Barking Carnival's excellent recaps of the subject matters of "The Best That Never Was" and "The Pony Excess".

11) Gordon Gee and "Little Sisters of the Poor" Comment (November 2010)

With many fans salivating over getting to see Boise State or TCU play a marquee post-season opponent other than each other, Ohio State President Gordon Gee decided to explain to everyone why they weren't worthy of a BCS title spot.  While his sentiments weren't entirely misguided, his comment that the non-BCS schools played "The Little Sisters of the Poor" was heavily criticized.  Additionally, as pointed out by Dan Wetzel, his comments actually served to spotlight some of the key problems with the BCS. 

12) Cam Newton Story With Bombshell after Bombshell (November/December 2010)

Everyone still reading this article knows all about the Cam Newton scandal, which became the biggest story of the entire season.  After the dust settled, and Newton was ruled eligible, the NCAA faced no shortage of criticism for their actions and inactions in the case.  But the story evolved into something much more than Cam Newton's eligibility.  As I pointed out in a Pundit Roundup column entirely dedicated to the Cam Newton coverage, the story allowed authors to cherry-pick from a buffet of issues related to the case.  These issues ranged from whether he should win the Heisman to whether athletes should be paid in college.  Authors were able to use the case as a way to project their own opinions over a variety of issues, most of which were unflattering to the NCAA.

Bottom line: However you feel about the Cam Newton case, it's hard to see how the story projected a positive image of the NCAA and its system.

13) Lackluster BCS Matchups (December 2010)

With the exception of the Rose Bowl and National Championship Game, I dont think fans were incredibly excited about the matchups in the other BCS games.  The lack of excitement is further demonstrated by the next item on this list.

14) Unranked UConn Cant Sell Fiesta Bowl tickets (December 2010)

In a further indictment of the current system, there were a flood of stories related to schools being unable to sell their allotment of tickets for bowl games.  Most notably, UConn had to resort to begging fans to buy Fiesta Bowl tickets, and the school was projected lose a significant amount of money on the bowl game. 

15) Ohio State Players *Not* Suspended for Sugar Bowl (December 2010)

Once again, everyone still reading this article knows about this story.  Around two weeks ago, several Ohio State players were found to have violated NCAA rules by selling various items.  After the news broke, various parties succesfully lobbied for a postponed punishment. The entire story--which culminated in Ohio State officials claiming the players were not adequately educated over the rules--caused me to roll my eyes quite a few times.  Apparently, I wasnt alone.

In discussing the issue, Dan Wetzel said Terrelle Pryor's acts "exposed the charade of college athletics."  Over the course of one column, Wetzel discussed the college football cash flow, inadequate player compensation, the silliness of Ohio State's defense, the USC sanctions, BCS cronyism, other potential violations at Ohio State, and the overall fecklessness of the NCAA system. 

After reading the article, it's easy to understand why someone would have simply skipped the game.  This is especially true if they didnt have cable, since the game--like all the other BCS games--was solely televised on ESPN.

Conclusion

I'm not one of the forefront authorities on College Football.  Far from it. There are thousands and thousands of people--including multiple authors on this site--more qualified to write about the sport.  I'm just a fan.  A Texas fan.  And I know a lot of other Texas fans.  To that extent, I've noticed a sense of apathy towards the bowl season this year.  This can potentially be explained by UT's terrible season.  If we had played in a BCS Bowl, I'm pretty sure that most of our fanbase would have been more plugged into the bowl season.  But maybe not.  Maybe the apathy is more systemic.

As I've tried to outline in this post, the narrative for this season is pretty indicting over the current state of college football in relation to its purported selling points.  I'm not a Chicken Little, but I think it's clear that things aren't functioning smoothly.  And I think it's clear that fans are frustrated.  Especially those who are supportive of teams who didnt get to play a 13th or 14th game this season. 

Maybe I'm off-base with this post.  Maybe this whole issue is irrelevant.  It's not like college football is going away.  The money for the sport is there, and it will continue to be there.  But I have found this bowl season to be especially interesting, as it has given Texas fans a chance to see the perspective of fans less fortunate over the last decade. And, from what I've seen, that perspective has led to an apathy that would have previously seemed inconceivable.

Hook 'Em. 

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