A few months ago, an editor for whose section I've written for gave me Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football by John U. Bacon, and asked me to review it. Ultimately, I told him I just couldn't do it fairly. I felt terrible about that, not only because it meant admitting defeat in this particular instance, but because I struggled so hard to get through the damn thing in the first place without wanting to light the book on fire, one page at a time.
What I ultimately wrote up reads more like an op-ed piece than a book review, and it's not destined for mainstream publication. But as a mainly Pittsburgh, mainly sports blog, that's why we're here: we pass the factory surplus of haterade on to you. Special bonus: I've left all the courtesy titles in so that you may repeatedly chuckle at the use of the words, "Mr. Bacon."
You might have noticed that we don't write a lot about college football in this space. Read on to find out why:
Kids growing up in America today generally aren’t encouraged to spend time on bouncing on trampolines or learning to skateboard. Nobody necessarily makes them learn to ride bikes or take swimming lessons.
Football, on the other hand, is an American tradition. Rare is American city, town or hamlet in which the Friday night high school game, the Saturday college game or the Sunday professional game not the most popular distraction in a given week.
In Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, author John U. Bacon profiles goings on within four Big Ten football programs — Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern. College football, he argues, is football’s oldest and most important denizen.
Mr. Bacon does this under the guise of examining how college football has changed, contrasting its historic traditions with its current realities by examining some of the game’s more admirable characters. The trouble is that he doesn’t seem to be able to separate his love of those traditions from those realities.
In this sloppily written, borderline-unreadable 350-page love letter to the way things used to be, Mr. Bacon posits that the game is being ruined by greed — that regional rivalries, school pride and the idea of passion are all suffering. In a sense, he’s right. College football isn’t what it used to be, and greed is the reason. But he also isn’t willing to embrace the kind of change the game needs, not just to fix it but to bring it closer to something less resembling organized crime.
College football isn’t just a multi-billion dollar industry, it’s the third-most profitable sport in America. Yet Mr. Bacon advances the naïvely altruistic and absurd notion that college football is above the business of business and should operate on some romanticized and antiquated idea of amateurism.
In an attempt to establish college football as something important and special, Mr. Bacon runs out a series of patently ridiculous claims.
“College football fans actually care about college football.”
Unlike hockey fans, who readily admit they’re just killing time.
“College football is one of those few passions we have in common with our great-grandparents.”
Unlike these newfangled inventions of baseball, reading and being outdoors.
Jerry Sandusky’s arrest and the scandal that followed, “surely accelerated Paterno’s decline and death.”
Sure, because the prognosis on an 85-year-old man with lung cancer is normally outstanding.
“College teams play on college campuses, where student actually go to school.”
Unless they don’t, as is the case with the Universities of Miami, Hawaii, Washington, Baylor, South Carolina, Oregon, Northwestern and Pittsburgh, just to name a few.
“College football is selling romance, not prowess,” Bacon writes. “…it is not supposed to be a business.”
I hate to break it to Mr. Bacon, but college football is a business. Just like the NFL, it’s run by an abhorrently hypocritical governing body. And the nearly 68,000 kids who play college football every year are America’s most exploited workforce. By merely playing the game, they’re subjecting themselves to a myriad of long-term health issues — including self-destructive neurological disorders and shortened lifespans — and receiving nothing in return but the opportunity to earn a farcical education.
Every college with a football program is more than fine with this arrangement because the last thing administrators want is a challenge to an unchecked system which affords them a license to print money off the backs of young kids, many of whom are black and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
In leaning heavily on college football’s many traditions, Mr. Bacon shows he’s more interested in longing for the sport’s bygone era than he is in fixing its numerous ailments, and he offers little in the way of proposed solutions. At one point, he writes that the now widely adopted corporate approach to college athletics administration is akin to selling the Gettysburg battlefield to Disney “so they can ‘maximize the brand’ and give visitors a ‘wow’ experience.”
It’s true that tradition can be valuable. But when treated with the kind of blind reverence that brings someone to compare the sanctity of amateurism to that of blood-soaked hallowed ground on which was fought a war to end slavery, tradition becomes a sad excuse to maintain the status quo, regardless of any inconvenient necessary evils or immorality inherent in the system.
As literary candy for die-hard college football fans, Fourth and Long delivers well-reported information on of players and coaches who continue to forge ahead, both out of respect for and in the name of tradition. Mr. Bacon’s exposition on the Penn State football players who found themselves caught up in a scandal they had nothing to do with makes for an interesting story.
But anyone looking for thoughtful analysis, insightful perspective or new ideas on the abjectly broken game is better off looking elsewhere, as Fourth and Long spends most of its time preaching to college football’s stubbornly unflappable fans.