It's Only a Game


Washington. -- Big-time football, for which the brittle human body is unsuited, flourishes on campuses, where it is inappropriate. This season began, as all seasons seem to, with several schools' football "programs" -- the preferred noun; a synonym for "fiefdoms" -- penalized for infractions of rules regulating the recruitment and compensation of players.

Coaches frequently blame "boosters" for bad behavior, not always plausibly, as a recent New York Times editorial implied: "At the University of Washington, Don James resigned as head coach after failing to notice that his quarterback owned three cars."

Now the college football industry claims that the end of civilization as we have known it is nigh. Why? Because shrinking budgets, which often expand reasonableness, and laws requiring equity for women's athletics, have produced a rule restricting the number of football scholarships to 88, and next year to 85.

Until 30 years ago scholarships were unlimited and some schools gave more than 130. Eighty-five might seem sufficient for teams that field only eleven students at a time, but Ray Goff, head coach at Georgia, says fewer scholarships mean less talent, more fumbles, more broken plays, more penalties, fewer fans and -- coming to the point -- fewer dollars. "We are fighting against the pros for the limited entertainment dollar. We want to keep putting 80,000 people in our stadium on Saturdays."

Joe Dean, athletic director at Louisiana State University, frets about competition from the NFL's New Orleans Saints, "only one hour away, interstate all the way." The Saints "are putting on a show down there and we have to compete with that." "Have to?" Says who?

When college football first flourished it was unlike today's contests between vast throngs of players, some with narrow specialties (third-down-and-short-yardage blockers, etc.). The evolution of football into its current elephantine squads (some teams have 150 players, counting non-scholarship "walk-ons"), with minute divisions of labor, is explained in a new book, "Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle," by Michael Oriard, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, currently of Oregon State University's English Department.

As American football developed from rugby, blending elegance and violence into contact ballet, the seminal change was abandonment of rugby's "offside" rule that prevented any teammate from preceding the ball carrier down field. This change guaranteed a satisfying quantity of mayhem -- blocking and tackling -- and the need for pauses after each play while the teams regrouped. Because of the constant pauses, coaches can exercise close control.

At first, coaching during a game -- even walking up and down the sidelines -- was forbidden as unsportsmanlike. When in 1921 Coach Bob Zuppke of Illinois invented the offensive huddle, referees joined huddles when substitutes entered the game, to prevent sneaky coaching. But football developed "coach- centrism," the celebration of coaches as master manipulators meshing players like cogs in a clock.

Walter Camp, the Yale player and coach and a businessman (head of the New Haven Clock Company), dominated football's formative years. He wanted brains to matter more than mere muscle -- the brains of coaches. Coaches would mold the raw material of players into teams modeled on that supposed paradigm of efficiency, the modern corporation. Football would train America's corporate elite.

Here are the New York Herald's headlines about the 1892 defeat of coach Arthur Cumnock's Harvard team by Camp's Yalies:


It Was a Contest Between Coaches


Walter Camp and His Colleagues

Worsted Arthur Cumnock in the

Style of Play They Had Hammered

into Their Apt

and Willing Pupils

Today's coaches, wired to talk to lieutenants high in the stands, stalk the sidelines like Napoleon at Austerlitz, and with about as many troops and as much modesty, being "scientific" and the center of attention. As usual, attempted improvements have made matters worse. Football improvers legislated a two-stage (in 1964 and 1975) transition to unlimited substitutions. This has meant unlimited opportunities for coaches to fuss and fiddle with each play.

We conservatives are constantly lectured about the impossibility "turning back the clock." Such lectures come from people whose interests are threatened by the idea of a superior and recoverable past. Such people run today's big-time football "programs."

Suppose colleges returned to severe limits on substitution, with many players playing both offense and defense. Colleges could cut scholarship costs, coaches might stop their General Patton imitations and recede into the background, and if some LSU fans were unreconciled to this, there would still be the NFL alternative, "only one hour away, interstate all the way."

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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