In the wake of Saturday’s brutal murder of the entire Savannah State football team at the hands of notorious serial killer Ted Gundy (Mike Bundy? I don’t know), it’s time for the annual bitchfest from people who are appalled, appalled I say, at the very idea that top-level colleges should sully themselves by scheduling the poors.
Look. I say this with all love and respect, and indeed the match that lit this post’s fuse was wielded by one of my bestest innernet bros. There are a bunch of words I can use to describe that mindset. “Idiotic” is one. “Paternalistic” is another. I might even go with “pompous”, “arrogant”, and/or “smug”. In a certain context, even “imperialistic” works.
I realize that many people with this mindset have legitimate arguments, and aren’t necessarily making the mistake of turning their team into a blithely ignorant and uncaring Mitt Romney (whereas poor West Texas A&M is Bob the electrician, working 40 hours a week to keep a roof over his family’s head and trying to get his kids into a decent college, and Valley City State is that homeless guy on the corner, only able to survive because there’s a free clinic down the street and a soup kitchen on the next block). They want their team to play a strong schedule, they don’t want to watch their team club baby seals to death. Sadly, though, they mostly don’t want to find themselves undefeated and ranked #3 in the BCS poll at the end of the year. It’s really no surprise that the most vocal proponents of this entire idea are SEC fans and fans of other schools which have been left just outside the door for the crime of having played a “soft” schedule.
However, the intersection between FBS and FCS (and between FCS and D-II, and so on) is a vitally important part of the college landscape. There are traditions involved in many cases, and in other cases there is even the force of law (Arizona and Arizona State are required by law to alternate playing Northern Arizona, for example). Cross-divisional play makes it possible for computer formulas to give us guidance as to just how good those lower division schools are compared to the folks above them. And, of course, there’s the most important reason these games need to survive: the survival of football itself at those lower division schools.
“How do the lower divisions survive?” someone asked me early this morning. The NAIA subsists primarily on local support and alumni donors. Russell Athletic is a primary sponsor of the NAIA as a whole, and provide equipment assistance. NAIA teams play on glorified high school fields, and receive virtually no subsistence from the national organization (indeed, the BIGGEST difference between the NAIA and NCAA is that the NCAA subsidizes post-season play while in the NAIA it’s all on your dime, buddy). Their expenses are, in large part, limited to scholarships, and most NAIA schools have modest tuitions. Occasionally, they’ll manage to land a date with a D-II school which can afford to pay them a modest appearance fee. (Hint: it’s nothing like the million bucks Boise State asks for to come play you on your home turf. It’s not even like the $385,000 Savannah State accepted from T. Boone’s coffers before they were so cruelly taken from this earth before their time.) Further, their conferences are pretty compact, except for the Frontier Conference; when you have a 10-team conference whose members are ALL in Kansas, it’s pretty easy to see that your travel expenses amount to “gasoline” after the opening weekend is in the books.
D-III is in mostly the same situation, though they tend to eschew the payout game and stick to their own. Of course, most D-III schools are considerably more well-heeled than their NAIA counterparts; when you don’t have scholarships to pay for, little things like upgrading facilities and buying uniforms and paying for that 1200-mile trip for the season opener aren’t really that big a deal if you’re a Hampden-Sydney or a Johns Hopkins. You have literally thousands of extremely wealthy alumni, because your school is that kind of school*, and football is a point of prestige. Still, there ARE many D-III schools who do take payout games to open the season, and as such the money does trickle down and affect them.
* – Hell, odds are you didn’t even need your degree if you went to many D-III schools, because trust fund that’s why.
D-II has more media support; they have a television deal with CBS College Sports, and it’s far more likely that a D-II school has at least radio carriage on its local area’s major sports station if not occasional carriage on a regional sports network. The NCAA provides better support for them in terms of exposure as well, with occasional live streaming of games. But they’re still subsidized, in part, by playing payout games against FCS teams.
Which brings us to the top of the pyramid. If FBS teams suddenly stopped coughing up appearance fees for home games against FCS teams, what the hell do you think would happen to FCS? Last night, Oklahoma State University essentially paid for half of Savannah State’s scholarship bill for the entire year. Florida State’s probably covering the other half. That, of course, frees up money for Savannah to toss a little money at Edward Waters (an HBCU member of the NAIA) to come play them in Savannah on October 20. You get it yet? Playing FCS schools, for members of FBS, is charitable work. It is their way of helping to support the game. Ultimately, via trickle-down through levels whose expenses decrease as you go, a single “bodybag” game could be keeping a half-dozen or more schools on the football field.
“So what?” I know some of you are thinking that. Who gives a damn if Millsaps can afford to play football? After all, “tens of fans are watching that game”. I will refer you here for my opinion on your entire attitude. Hell, let’s be brutally honest: the odds of you just being a damned sidewalk fan who never even attended whatever football factory you’re obsessed with anyway are fairly significant, so what the hell would you know about the importance of collegiate athletics to the campus environment anyway? To the sidewalk fan, all that matters is ego and Gameday. In reply to a Yahoo! post by Holly Anderson a few years ago, commenter Brian B. said “Laugh about things, and stop wishing you won state when you were 30 years younger.” The obvious meaning there: your team isn’t that damned important, and your attachment to a bunch of college kids is obsessive and creepy, the residue of your own regrets at not having been able to do it your own damned self. It’s one thing to be a fan. It’s another to care so much about it that you actually think it’s important enough to rub other’s noses in your team’s success and pretend superiority.
Ironically, it’s the sidewalk fan that’s put us where we are today, in an environment where people actually have the gall to suggest “nobody cares” about football at Kansas Wesleyan. Or Oberlin. Or Northern Michigan. Or Valparaiso. Or North Texas. Or Iowa State. I think you see what I’m getting at. Although it’s certainly true that actual alumni of big-time football schools are capable of feeling this way, it’s fairly rare; after all, most people who actually get through college have their act together enough that they don’t need a bunch of 18-22 year olds to prop them up. The sidewalk fan requires his team to be the most important team because it’s all he’s got, and requires you to think so too because he demands validation; that inherently requires every other team to be meaningless and irrelevant and beneath notice, whether that team is Oregon or Montana Western.
(There is another sort of fan that also doesn’t care about anything but “their” team, and that’s the bandwagon fan who doesn’t even pay attention to college football unless “their” team is doing well, and is so out of touch they don’t even realize South Florida is an FBS team. But they’re not even worth dissecting here, for obvious reasons.)
Folks who attend a lower-division institution are morally entitled to the college sports experience just as surely as those who attend (or, you know, didn’t attend) Notre Dame or Alabama or Southern Cal. They’re not entitled to the same level of success. That’s something a school has to work for. They’re not entitled to the same level of coverage, either; although I think the lack of coverage of small-college athletics is criminal, I recognize that it’s right and proper that the further up the ladder you go, the more coverage you deserve. What they ARE entitled to is respect: respect for the fact that they are an educational institution (in many cases, one far superior to your own) which participates in athletics as an adjunct to the educational experience. They’re entitled to have you know something about them before dismissing them out of hand as irrelevant. (And if you’re such a good damned fan, knowing something about your opponents or your opponent’s opponents is just good obsessiveness, now isn’t it? You’re such a fucking expert, shouldn’t you be able to tell me whether the bodybag your team scheduled that you’re so irate about is actually any good within their own level of competition?)
So in that vein, isn’t it right and proper that the big kids on the block open their season (or take a “break” before rivalry week) giving a school on the next tier down a little assistance? Never mind the fact that college football teams don’t get a preseason, so such games are a good way to work out some kinks and finalize position battles against live competition. Me, I think it’s a good thing; maybe you don’t. But even if you don’t believe in “welfare” in this sense, surely you think they’re entitled to at least freakin’ participate?
Here’s the thing. If you do away with the bodybag games, you’re going to set off a chain reaction which will kill the lower divisions. Thirty years ago ABC would actually show Appalachian State vs the Citadel, and people would actually watch it. The changes in perception over those thirty years have brought us to the point where you won’t even watch the FCS championship game even though there’s no other football on at that time! What’s going to happen twenty years down the road if the public isn’t even afforded the annual opportunity to give just a little bit of a shit about that one FCS team on their school’s schedule? And how’s that going to roll downhill? You know the answer.
There’s only one way to respect the lower divisions and secure their continued existence and relevance while at the same time enforcing the “equal” and “competitive” schedules for the big boys which the “don’t play games against FCS teams” crowd desires, and that’s a complete upheaval in college athletics resulting in a promotion/relegation scheme. The problem with that, of course, is that nobody is truly willing to risk their annual game against their most hated rival, nor are they willing to risk the possibility of it being their team everyone makes fun of when they get relegated. But the reality is this: you never hear people complain in England about their League Two team being ignored… because they know that if they can just string together a few good seasons, they can be on BSkyB every damned weekend. And even though they’re almost never in the same division anymore, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United still hate one another just as much as they ever have. They survive.
We’re not asking for that, though. The schools in the lower divisions are perfectly content to stay there, until and unless such a time comes that it’s economically sensible for them to upgrade their programs (and even then, most D-III schools would stay put for academic vs athletic reasons). Just stop pretending like your team — which, I may remind you, would get their asses kicked by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and are thus not even remotely the best football team in the country — is inherently superior to programs at lower levels. If that were true, losing a bunch of scholarships due to probation wouldn’t send your program into a tailspin. Alabama, you remember what happened to you after Albert Means. You would have been hard-pressed to make the FCS playoffs in the wake of that mess. You’re only objectively better than Wofford because you have 22 more scholarships to offer, and you need to remember that. Wofford, in turn, is only objectively better than Mars Hill because they have 35 more scholarships to offer. And Mars Hill is only objectively better than Guilford because they have 30 more scholarships to offer.
It’s really that simple.