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An Excerpt From 'Billion-Dollar Ball'

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Excerpted from Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football by Gilbert Gaul, published on August 25th, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Gilbert M. Gaul, 2015.”

Check out Gaul's conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.


The idea for this book originally came to me more than a decade ago when I was thinking about college sports. I had become interested in what I thought was a simple but troubling question: Why were some of America’s largest and most prestigious universities spending ten times more on football players than on their smartest, most ambitious students? I wasn’t entirely naïve. I knew football dominated the cultures at many of these schools. Still, I was taken aback by the size of the disparities. Penn State, for example, gave $2,250 scholarships to the students in its Honors College, a kind of university within the university for students with SATs above 1400 and perfect 4.0 grade point averages. By comparison, a football player on full scholarship received $25,000 in aid. And that didn’t include the cost of tutors, counselors, writing and reading specialists, and an array of other academic advisers required to keep players eligible.

At the time, Penn State was being touted by the media as a model for balancing education and big-time football. Unsurprisingly, school officials embraced this narrative. Penn State, even had a slogan, courtesy of its iconic coach, Joe Paterno. It referred to its approach as “The Grad Experiment,” as though the idea of balancing studying and playing football were so challenging—or possibly heroic—that it deserved its own motto.

I wondered what I was missing. At $42 million, Penn State’s budget for athletics was ten times larger than its budget for the Honors College (a gap, incidentally, that has only widened in the last decade—a football scholarship now costs about $50,000, an Honors College scholarship, $4,500). So I called the professor in charge of the Honors College and asked her if I was misreading the budgets.

No, she told me, I had it right. The university could afford only so much.

It was at this point, I think, that I sputtered: “But what about football?” or words to that effect.

“Football pays for itself,” she said. “They get to spend as much as they want.”

“You mean football isn’t part of the regular budget?”

I could almost hear her laughing, only I wasn’t imagining it. She was laughing at me.

“I’m sorry,” she said after a moment. “Football operates according to its own rules, and the rest of us just go along for the ride.”

A few days later I briefly met with Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State, and then shared a longer telephone conversation. Spanier enjoyed a reputation as a savvy guy who rarely passed up a photo op or a chance to boost his school. He was trim, handsome, and engaging. Certainly he was persuasive in explaining to me how much Penn State valued the students in its honors program. Among other advantages, the students had access to the university’s best professors and smaller classes, he said. Some of them even qualified for additional aid: A physics major, for instance, might get aid from the physics department.

I asked Spanier if he knew how many honors students got additional aid. It seemed like he might want to know.

“Penn State has a lot of majors,” he replied.

“How about football?” I asked. “How many scholarships does football get?”

Spanier seemed disappointed by my questions. “They get eighty-five,” he said. “But none of that money comes from the university.”

He said this as though it were a good thing—as though all football teams should operate like stand-alone businesses.

Spanier suggested that I call several academic departments to see if they had information on scholarships they awarded to honors students. So I contacted the English department and asked if it had a secret stash of money to help its brightest students. “That would be nice,” a professor told me. “ We have a lot of good kids who could use the help.” The woman who answered the phone at the physics department must have though she was getting a crank call. She kept asking me which research lab I was with, and when I explained that I was a writer, she abruptly hung up.

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All of this occurred in the spring of 2000, nearly a dozen years before the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal derailed Graham Spanier’s career and tarnished the reputation of Penn State. In the intervening decade, college football vaulted ahead in both popularity and wealth and came to occupy a transcendent place in American sports. It was, in nearly every respect, the key component of a vast money culture that dominated college campuses. There were billion-dollar television deals and games on ESPN virtually ever night of the week. Billions more flooded in from ticket sales and luxury suites and premium seating in massive Erector-set stadiums. These arenas were draped in corporate logos, and even the players’ uniforms were adorned with advertising. At the University of Oregon, Nike consultants decided which color uniforms—there were scores of possible color combinations, all bearing the company’s ubiquitous swoosh—the players wore on a given Saturday. Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, an Oregon alumnus, had single-handedly reinvented Oregon football, spending more than $100 million of his own money on lavish training facilities and stadium renovations. It was no wonder some of the students now referred to their school as the University of Nike.

The corporatization of college football was on one level unsurprising. It could even be viewed as inevitable. After all, hadn’t universities themselves become giant entertainment businesses that happened to do a little education on the side? Certainly the athletic departments of the largest and richest football schools operated like entertainment divisions, with CEO-style executives and celebrity coaches collecting Wall Street-level salaries. The athletic directors had even invented a new financial model built around monetizing every last detail of their football programs. It was so successful that schools like Texas, Michigan, and Auburn, now had profit margins that put the oil companies to shame.

When I asked DeLoss Dobbs, the longtime athletic director at Texas, how it was that his football program had made $80 million in profit in 2012, he grinned at me as if to say, Silly boy. Dodds once boasted that Texas didn’t need to keep up with the Joneses because it was the Joneses, implying, among other things, that the normal rules didn’t apply. Now he looked at me through dark, pebbly eyes and said: “Football is the train that drives everything and pays for everything. It just is. Everything begins and ends with football.”

So there it was: a perfect summary of the new economics of college sports.

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