Ambivalent Angst Over College Football’s De Jure Inequality

Like many, I am profoundly excited for tomorrow—the first Saturday of college football season. I’m excited to watch my favorite team and daydream about the possibility of a BCS bowl game, to trash-talk with other fans, to order stadium food when I make it out to games, and to order pizza when I watch from home. I’m excited to be entertained by the playful senility of Lee Corso as he picks winners and dons mascot headgear. I’m excited to hear the percussion sections of the marching bands. With a hand at my heart and dewy eyes, I echo the sentiment that this is America’s great blood sport, our answer to the Roman gladiators, glorious in a primal and tribal way.

Of course, college football suffers from inequality at its very foundation. Teams are expected to compete on the same field despite rules that formally make it easier for some of them to win championships. Apologists of the system say that it favors the Chosen Teams because of their merit. But the apologists fail to recognize that this merit is a product of systemic favoritism rather than inherent qualities. The Chosen Teams from the so-called “BCS conferences” certainly are better, on average, than those that are not—they attract better athletes, and have more resources with which to develop the latent abilities of those athletes, including better coaches, training staffs, and facilities. But these teams were not born with this tendency for superiority—it came from somewhere. And that “somewhere” is rule inequality. By making it easier for the favored schools to win championships, the rules encourage the best high school athletes to attend those schools. With better athletes, championships are even more likely. And with championships comes the resources with which to continue to attract all of the best athletes, coaches, and staff. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle founded on unequal treatment.

I hold an ambivalent angst toward this system. The system is unfair and seems to warrant an asterisk in attributions of greatness to any of the Chosen Teams. But it is also part of what makes college football so exciting. Without de jure inequality, games like Boise State versus Oklahoma, Utah versus Alabama, and—dare I say—TCU versus Wisconsin wouldn’t have been so entertaining and even cathartic. Bereft of the little guys that occasionally beat the odds, an athletic world with perfect rule and resource equality may even be a little boring. So I will look forward to tomorrow with excitement and ambivalent angst—excitement for my team, and ambivalent angst about a system of formal inequality that is both unfair and, precisely because of its unfairness, thoroughly enjoyable when the little guys win.

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