Is Buzz Bissenger Right? Should College Football Be Banned? Is He KIDDING? Of Course It Should. And Everybody Knows It.

Scholars all, I’m sure.

Not for the first time, sportswriter and commentator Buzz Bissinger has everybody buzzing about one of his frank opinion pieces, this one launched in the Wall Street Journal. His provocative title: “Why College Football Should Be Banned.”

Bissinger deserves credit for being willing to bite the hands that feed him: he is the author of “Friday Night Lights,” and many of Bissinger fans, at least up to now, tend to be football fans too. His article, however, is also one of those periodic slaps in the face of cultural apathy that occasionally causes a shift, as when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a little novel that alerted a lot of people to the obvious fact that a system in which human beings were bought, sold, and bred like cattle might not be consistent with civilized morality. It doesn’t take a genius, a revolutionary or a careful analyst to conclude that big time college football is corrupt and corrupting to the core. It only takes a willingness to brush aside rationalizations and face the truth.

Here are the arguments Bissinger presents to support his thesis:

  1. Football has nothing to do with academics.
  2. It is a distraction from both the purpose of higher education and attention to the serious problems facing the university system.
  3. With college tuition reaching outrageous levels and the college loan system teetering, university expenditures on pricey football programs are unconscionable.
  4. The major beneficiaries from college football are the NFL, which uses it as its minor league system at minimal cost; pathetic alumni, who wrap their self-esteem up with the fortunes of their alma mater’s football fortunes; and obscenely-compensated football coaches.
  5. Football programs, contrary to what the public might think, often lose money and become a drag on tuition funds.
  6. Colleges like Maryland have cut other varsity sports (eight of them, in Maryland’s case) to allow it to pay for football.
  7. The representation that the athletes are students is largely a sham, with many of them failing to graduate and the majority spending minimal time on substantive course study.
  8. The athletes are exploited.
  9. The game entails serious health effects, primarily head trauma, that are only now being recognized.

I’m sure we can come up with a #10, too. Oh! I have one: Penn State. We were just given a front row seat to a frightening display of how even a “model” football program could warp the priorities and ethical values of an entire campus culture.

Of course Bissinger’s attack has college football supporters scrambling into a defense formation. What can they come up with? Not much, but it’s a fascinating study of how rationalizations rush into voids caused by the lack of substantive arguments. One college football-hyping blog’s first response was this:

“…Why hasn’t the Wall Street Journal started pictorial galleries about the fraudsters at insurance companies, banks and investment funds – the guys who actually pay their wages?”

This is a rationalization I call the “They’re just as bad” excuse, a pretty pathetic one that tries to distract attention from genuine wrongdoing by pointing out similar or worse wrongdoing elsewhere. That’s just the beginning of a long trail of lame protests in the piece, all mustering only rationalizations in support of what should have solid, well-understood and persuasive justifications, if there are any. Sportswriter Tim Hyland’s twitter feed is a cornucopia of peripheral attacks on Bissinger’s arguments, some of it a thinly veiled suggestion that Bissinger’s case is motivated by racism. He also likes one of my least favorite rationalizations, a variation on “Everybody does it,” the one that holds that if you don’t focus on everything that’s wrong, you shouldn’t focus on anything. “I find it dishonest to pick just on college football; if those players are exploited, aren’t other college athletes, too?” he tweets. The exploitation issue was just one small part of Bissinger’s brief, of course, and in my view, it’s the weakest and least important. Never mind: if Hyland thinks the prospect of returning all college sports to intramural levels would harm students one bit, he is wrong. Students should not go to college to learn to play games. It’s not a radical concept.

Hyland is shameless; in his paucity of genuine rebuttal points, he descends to absurdity. “…ban all sport for all kids. Let America get even fatter than it already is,” he tweets. That’s nothing, however, on the absurdity scale compared to actor Jay Thomas, who told CNN’s morning gang today that if college football was banned, there would be a massive increase in violence and domestic abuse, like removing thorazine from the regimen of mental patients. Note to self: “Stay away from Jay Thomas!”

I think the Capstone Report made the rebuttal that best shows how desperately devoid of counter-arguments Bissinger-bashers are. The article on that site lurches from clichés to myths and back to rationalizations, with some non sequiturs tossed in. Among the selection:

  • U.S. universities are “the best in the world,” so why mess with a good thing?…except that college football has nothing to do with the quality of education, and many of the best universities have no football, or very marginal programs.
  • “No academic purpose? Well, colleges have many activities for students with little to do with academics. Colleges small and large hold pizza parties, support special interest clubs, and allow religious or political organizations to function on campus. Oh, and don’t forget the ubiquitous presence of fraternities and sororities on every major university campus in the United States. These extracurricular activities build on the underlying academic function of the college environment.”  Yes, but those other activities don’t distort college budgets, cost millions of dollars and send kids to the hospital with closed head injuries. Other than that, yeah, pizza parties are exactly like college football.
  • “Life is about more than work, and so too is college. Leisure has an important place.” Boy, he’s got Buzz there! If there’s one thing students need help finding, it’s leisure activities….
  • “How often do you see people of different political parties cheer together? How often do you see race truly ignored in this country? Yet, at football games, we see all of this.” Yes, and also at movies, rock concerts and field hockey games.
  • ..and a lot more. Go ahead and play “Spot that rationalization!” here.  (Yes, “Everybody does it” makes a prominent appearance.)

The inconvenient truth is that in this ethical argument, much as in the issue of raising animals for food and many others,  there really aren’t sufficient justifications to justify the conduct. Major college football programs in their current form, exist because of the raw fact that a lot of influential people like them a lot and/or profit from them, and are perfectly happy to overlook their flaws, distortions, corrupting influences and other obvious problems. Many of these people know Bissinger is right; they just resent being reminded.


Pointer: CNN


Graphic: Mad Mike’s America

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

6 thoughts on “Is Buzz Bissenger Right? Should College Football Be Banned? Is He KIDDING? Of Course It Should. And Everybody Knows It.

  1. Just a short while before reading this post, while driving I happened to tune in to Rush Limbaugh for about a minute. (Never mind bans on radios in cars, because of the distractions they can cause to drivers. That’s a controversy for another day; fans of NPR can hold forth on that.) I did catch that Limbaugh was talking about a ban on football. But I did not hear him mention any names, and I didn’t hear enough to know if he was talking about a ban on college football, or more. I only caught enough to hear him start a rant about “liberals” somehow being behind the attempted ban, and “wusses” who want to ban it. Click – radio off.

    I know Limbaugh is a football fan. But I think he is misunderstanding and severely underestimating the level of misgivings about the adverse impacts (literal and cultural) that football – in its current business model and in the way the game is played – is perpetuating in our society. While I often agree with Limbaugh when he addresses particular issues – enough to grudgingly concede that I may be a tad “conservative,” by the definition he seems to uphold – he and I are worlds apart in our views on football. If he takes the position that only “wusses” and liberals want to ban football, I predict he’s going to alienate a large number of his most thoughtfully supportive and conservative audience.

    Kudos to Buzz Bissenger on a fine opinon piece. I’m not for a ban-as-a-rule; I am for a ban-via-decisions, made by decision-makers who ought to be smart enough to do the right things without having rules imposed on them. If college and pro football continues in America for another half-century in the same manner of business it has enjoyed for more than that long, it’ll be because there weren’t enough non-wusses exercising their powers of ethical and other leadership of the society to voluntarily embrace less exploitative, less injurious forms of “friendly strife.”

  2. Colleges and Universities are headed for a certain “doom as we know it” in the next 10-20 years. Even if they continue on their path and survive, I think only the smartest of High School Grads will realize that they should have a purpose for spending money on education before they commit those funds.

    Keep a look out for the boom of the private university that doesn’t waste time and money on non-program course work and limits their sporting activities to intramural status.

    A change in the current system won’t come from the current leaders/universities telling us how to change it for the better. It will come from unlikely sources that focus on their core competencies of education and human development.

  3. But who would do the banning? The federal goverment? The individual states? And if the states did it how could you insure they all did it? I personally dont give a rats ass about college football, hell I barely like pro-footbal, so if it stays or goes it doesnt really matter to me. Its not like its a real sport like baseball.

  4. The sport may be in for some rough sledding because of the brain injury issue. The college game is as prone to it as is the pro game; how many of the pro players who have the injury brought it with them from the college game? When that gets determined (not “if”) the colleges will be reluctant to get into the “worker comp” issues of exposing (nominal) students to hazards with a lifelong potential for disability. The problem may well cure itself.

    In the alternative, I have always thought the colleges should offer a major in “professional athletics” and dispose of the sham of pretending the athletes were real students. If that happened at least the odds of actually getting a job upon “graduation” would be out in the open and classroom seating would become available for actual students.

  5. What is shocking is how big an impact this has on college student lives and how little anyone actually cares about learning and how little people actually care about the college students.

    If you have seen the news recently, there is a debate going on about college loans. There are also stories every few days about the high costs of college and skyrocketing college loan amounts that are the next big bubble to burst in the economy. It is obvious that this is going to end badly, with devastating consequences for the students, the education system, and the whole of US, but no one wants to actually do anything about it. Everyone wants to just stick their fingers in their ears and hope it will all turn out OK like that mortgage-backed-securities thing did. If you want to get to the bottom of the problem, you first need to start looking at where the money goes.

    How much does college actually cost?

    I have been teaching at colleges for over 10 years now. I go to meetings and they briefly flash the budgets on screens from time to time. They also show us budget breakdowns and show us what percentage of the cost goes to different units. What I have pieced together is that it costs about $14,000/year to educate a student at the small liberal arts college where I currently teach. Our tuition, however, is about $22,000. We don’t turn a profit. Where does the rest of the money go? It goes to sports! That’s right, fully 1/3 of the tuition dollars spent by EVERY SINGLE student goes to sports. It gets worse, students take out loans to cover the part they can’t pay for. They pay as much as they can, then they take out loans to cover the rest. This means that well over 1/3 of their student loan debt is to cover the cost of sports. I wouldn’t be surprised if well over 1/2 of the student loans on my campus were purely to cover the cost of our athletics programs.

    So what does this have to do with my state school?

    Well, a small, liberal arts college is probably the most inefficient way to educate people (costwise). I teach classes with 2-3 students every semester. My big classes have 40. At a large state university, a professor may teach a class with 600 students. They teach fewer classes, but they teach more students, so it is a cheaper way to teach. My state funds the state colleges and university by $18,000 per student (on average). The large state schools then charge an additional $10,000/year in tuition and fees. That works out to $28,000/year, but the actual cost of the education is less than $14,000. That means over half the cost is going to ‘extras’ like sports (remember, the football coach at Big State U. here makes more money than 150 faculty at my institution).

    The take-home message:
    •education costs significantly less than college
    •sports are a major portion of the ‘extra’ costs of college
    •college loans are used disproportionally to pay for these ‘extra’ costs
    •the college loan burden and the availability of a college education can be vastly improved by cutting down on the ‘extra’ costs such as athletics

    Oh, for the “But what about the students helped by athletic scholarships?” here is something to think about. At my school, every student is paying about $8000/year for athletics (including the athletes). Few athletes get full scholarships, most are less than $5000/year. School is more expensive for them with an athletic scholarship than without athletics! In addition, the costs of the fields, travel, staffing, etc sucks up more than the tuition they pay. Without the sports, my school could either cut tuition or give away an extra $8000/student in academic and need based scholarships each year! Most of our students’ financial aid problems would disappear!

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