During this week of the 4th of July, it’s appropriate to mark America’s national holiday with a podcast about that most American of sports: college football. As past guests on the podcast have explained, widely followed, revenue-generating sports teams affiliated with universities are a distinctive feature of American sports culture, and college football has long been regarded as the one sport that best demonstrates American values. For outsiders, a useful analogy to understand American college football’s popularity and cultural importance might be European football. Like the soccer clubs of Europe, many college football teams date back to the 19th century, with long-standing rivalries and traditions. The teams have unbreakable connections to particular localities, unlike American professional franchises that are sold, bought, and moved. Generations of supporters attend Saturday games at storied grounds. Dressed in team colors, they sing songs and perform other time-honored rituals. And like European football, American college football is still fundamentally regional in organization. Teams compete in various leagues, planted in specific parts of the country, with the top teams in the table advancing to national games. College football fans tend to identify with the teams of their own regional league, arguing vigorously that “our” brand of football is better than “theirs.” Of course, American college football teams are also like European soccer clubs in that they bring in a lot of money, from tickets, television, and branded merchandise. According to one estimate, the top programs in American college football—if they could ever be sold—would be worth as much as clubs like Manchester City, Inter Milan, and Olympique Lyon.
But of course, these teams can’t be sold. Even though they draw hundreds of thousands of spectators in the fall season, millions of television viewers, and tens of millions of dollars in revenue, college football teams are the property of institutions of higher education, many of which are public, taxpayer-funded entities. Other nations have sports teams affiliated with universities. But only in the United States have college athletics become such a prominent part of the sports landscape. The history of how this curious system emerged is surprising.
In his book The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (University Press of Kansas, 2012), Brian Ingrassia shows that the early history of American football and the early history of the American university were intertwined. As universities developed, and faculties and administrators sought to give them a public face, they saw football as a means of gaining the allegiance of people who would likely never visit a lecture hall or laboratory. They argued that football was beneficial to players and spectators alike. There were critics who warned of the dangers of football, and for a brief time in the early 20th century some West Coast schools even adopted rugby as an alternative. But by the Twenties and Thirties college football was firmly established and hugely popular across the country. Snobby academics today will grumble about the scourge of big-time college football. However, the blame for its rise falls not on coaches, players, and boosters, but on university presidents and professors.