The King of Sports: Football's Impact on Americaby Gregg Easterbrook
Gregg Easterbrook, author of the wildly popular ESPN.com column Tuesday Morning Quarterback takes on football's place in American society.
Gridiron football is the king of sports - it's the biggest game in the strongest and richest country in the world. Of the twenty most-watched television broadcasts ever, both in the United States and internationally/p>/i>… See more details below
Gregg Easterbrook, author of the wildly popular ESPN.com column Tuesday Morning Quarterback takes on football's place in American society.
Gridiron football is the king of sports - it's the biggest game in the strongest and richest country in the world. Of the twenty most-watched television broadcasts ever, both in the United States and internationally, all twenty were Super Bowls. In The King of Sports, Easterbrook tells the full story of how football became so deeply ingrained in American culture. Both good and bad, he examines its impact on American society at all levels of the game.
The King of Sports explores these and many other topics:
• The real harm done by concussions (it's not to NFL players).• The real way in which college football players are exploited (it's not by not being paid).• The way football helps American colleges (it's not bowl revenue) and American cities (it's not Super Bowl wins).• What happens to players who are used up and thrown away (it's not pretty).
• The hidden scandal of the NFL (it's worse than you think).
Using his year-long exclusive insider access to the Virginia Tech football program, where Frank Beamer has compiled the most victories of any active NFL or major-college head coach while also graduating players, Easterbrook shows how one big university "does football right." Then he reports on what's wrong with football at the youth, high school, college and professional levels. Easterbrook holds up examples of coaches and programs who put the athletes first and still win; he presents solutions to these issues and many more, showing a clear path forward for the sport as a whole. Rich with reporting details from interviews with current and former college and pro football players and coaches, The King of Sports promises to be the most provocative and best-read sports book of the year.
Head-slaps and high-fives for the sport that dominates America's popular imagination by Atlantic Monthly contributor and ESPN.com "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" writer Easterbrook (The Leading Indicators, 2012, etc.). The author crafts a football sandwich, the spicy meat of his complaints lying between two soft-bread sections celebrating Virginia Tech, whose successful program and coach (Frank Beamer) he presents as exemplars. In the beginning, Easterbrook describes Beamer's background, temperament and approach; in the end, he chronicles Tech's 2012 Sugar Bowl overtime loss to Michigan. His patent intent is to show that success need not lie upon a foul foundation of cheating and other sorts of corruption, financial and otherwise. The "meat" chapters are the most engaging and include some details, examples and statistics that will alarm even cynics about the sport. Easterbrook probes such issues as the NFL's tax-free status (a not-for-profit!), the failures of many major college programs to help their players graduate (especially black players), the recent research about concussions (at all levels of the game), the role of football on the college campus, the sham of "showcases" for high school athletes, the infinitesimal chance a boy will make it to the NFL, the "cult" of football in school and culture, and the effects of the game on those players who don't make it (the vast majority). Some individual case studies are alarming and profoundly depressing, but--make no mistake--Easterbrook loves the game, and most of the recommendations he discusses (and lists at the end) are quixotic. Financial disclosures? Six-year scholarships for college players? Rankings to include academic records of players? Financial bonuses for coaches whose players do well academically? Not gonna happen. Moreover, the author does not aggressively examine, though he does mention, the proposition that the game's popularity is principally based on violence--would anyone watch the NFL if it were flag football? Trenchant analysis, wrenching case studies, Utopian recommendations.
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The King Of Sports
Football's Impact on America
By Gregg Easterbrook
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Gregg Easterbrook
All rights reserved.
THE VIEW FROM FANCY GAP
Fancy Gap, Virginia, a postage-stamp town up in the cool air of the Blue Ridge escarpment, is only three hundred miles from the Ridley Circle Homes of Newport News, Virginia. Sociologically, they are worlds apart.
Frank Beamer, born 1946, grew up in Fancy Gap, an all-white hamlet where good folk attended church and high school football games, and the Mountain Top Motel was the closest thing to nightlife. The tranquil town represented an idyllic imagining of the American past — represents that still, today. Many people wish they could live in an idyllic version of the American past. Beamer did.
Michael Vick, born 1980, grew up in Ridley Circle Homes, a nearly all-black housing project where no one would wish to live. Ranks of town houses were squeezed between an eight-lane freeway and Langley Air Force Base. Military jets passing overhead regularly made windows in the Ridley Circle Homes shake. Garbage blew across the brown dirt spaces between the structures — there were no lawns, no shrubs. Benzene fumes from a nearby petroleum tank farm could make the air sting the nostrils.
The general area was known to residents not as Newport News but as Bad News. In the Ridley Circle Homes, gunshots were common. Sometimes when there was a gunfight, mugging or rape, no one called the police, knowing gangs would retaliate after the officers departed. The crime-ridden Cabrini-Green project in Chicago had long been cited as the most inhumane public housing in the United States. Ridley Circle Homes was every bit as bad — it just didn't get as much press.
In 1997, Beamer drove across southern Virginia to meet Vick. Beamer was crossing a physical landscape of exit ramps and truck stops, but also the landscapes of American culture, sports and money.
When Beamer was born, the Army was not yet integrated; Jim Crow laws remained on the books, the Civil Rights Act not yet having passed; blacks in many states were effectively disenfranchised, the Voting Rights Act not yet having passed; no black person since Reconstruction had been a governor; no African-American had been on the Supreme Court or been secretary of state, to say nothing of in the Oval Office; no African-American had been admitted to Virginia Tech. Now a socially conservative white football coach raised in old-time Southern circumstances was on his way to meet a black teen raised in contemporary hip-hop pandemonium, and it was the white adult who would supplicate before the black teen.
* * *
Football was changing from segregated to largely African-American, a development both good (career opportunities and recognition for a minority group) and disquieting (what University of Georgia professor Billy Hawkins calls the "new plantation" of blacks harvesting not cotton but sports income for the nearly all-white NFL and NCAA power structures). Nowhere was the change more keenly felt than at quarterback, both the most important position in football and most visible. Quarterbacks are leaders, decision-makers and symbols. Old-timers accepted African-Americans playing the line or running back. But there was resistance to blacks taking the snap.
By the 1970s there were a few prominent African-American quarterbacks, including the University of Oklahoma's Julius Caesar Watts, later to represent the state's Fourth District in Congress. Black quarterbacks of the time tended to execute wishbone or option attacks built around simplistic tactics that made the quarterback a glorified running back. Then in 1988, the Washington Redskins, led by Doug Williams, became the first NFL team to win the Super Bowl with a black starting quarterback. Williams was a classic "pocket passer" who stood tall, scanning the field; that is, he played the position in the white style.
Not long after, Andre Ware of the University of Houston become the first African-American quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy. Ware too played as a pocket passer in a complex system. Just after Ware's success, Syracuse University recruited Donovan McNabb, a high school star from a rough neighborhood in Chicago. He had an offer from Nebraska to be a glorified running back in the school's simplified offense, and an offer from Syracuse to be a pro-style passer in a sophisticated offense. McNabb, later the third player selected in the NFL draft, chose Syracuse. From McNabb on, African-Americans could compete evenly with whites to be not just runners but decision-makers who lead teams.
Sports in the early postwar era were, to Americans, a pleasant diversion; by late in the twentieth century, as Beamer made his trip, sports were a national obsession. In the 1960s, one NFL game per week was nationally televised, along with one or two college games. Those numbers would rise to six NFL and forty or more college football games shown nationally each week. In the early 1950s, when sports first were shown on television, annual network fees to all of college football totaled about $8 million, in today's dollars. By 2012, the twelve universities of the Pac-12 Conference would divide $250 million annually in television sports income from football, plus apparel and licensing income — more than twice as much per school, annually, as all colleges combined realized in the 1950s. In 2012, ESPN signed a contract to telecast the three games of the major-college football playoff bracket that is expected to commence in 2015. The deal will pay an average of about $155 million per contest — twenty times as much, for individual college football games, as all colleges combined received from football TV rights in an entire year, when Beamer was a boy.
NFL revenue was headed off the charts. From 1998 to 2013 alone, NFL television revenue doubled, from about $2 billion to about $4 billion. Forbes estimated the Dallas Cowboys to be worth $1.8 billion, the New England Patriots worth $1.4 billion. The great US sports spectacle of the early-twentieth century, the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, had cost $40 million. By 2012, annual NFL total revenue of around $10 billion was 250 times the number for the 1932 Olympics. Licensing income was growing exponentially too. In 2011, Gatorade signed a ten-year, $2.3 billion contract with the NFL to ensure that it would be a bucket of Gatorade, not some other drink, poured over the victorious coach's head as the scoreboard clock reached all-naughts. That is an awful lot of money to get announcers to say the words "Gatorade shower." But football had become the gold standard of promotion. And who plays quarterback is essential to the promotion of a college football team.
Changes in society, sports and money all were factors in Beamer's hope to recruit Michael Vick. So was a change in the way football was being played. The drop-back pocket passer then favored by the NFL almost always throws, while the option quarterback then favored by many colleges usually runs. At Warwick High School in Newport News, a third type of quarterback was drawing notice — one who could throw or run, unpredictably. Michael Vick would take the snap, sprint left or right, double back, spin, then suddenly run or, just as suddenly, stop and throw. The young man from Newport News was demonstrating a new style of playing the quarterback position.
Eventually, the way Vick played would mutate into the "spread option" offense used by Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer at the University of Florida to win a college national title in 2009; then into the "zone read option" used by Cam Newton to win a college national title at Auburn University in 2011, and by the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins in the 2013 NFL playoffs. Thousands of hours of game-planning by many college and pro coaches would be required for Vick's manic runaround quarterbacking style to evolve into the highly disciplined zone-read offense. But anyone watching Vick perform in high school could see that he was onto something.
Vick was torn between Virginia Tech and Syracuse, which wanted him to surrender his street-ball style and perform as a conventional pocket passer. After all, this had just worked with McNabb. The conventional pocket-passer role was seen as higher status, as being a "real" quarterback. When Tebow reached the NFL, sports touts would complain that he was not a real quarterback because he refused to stand in the pocket. Syracuse was telling Vick: come to our school, be a real quarterback. Beamer knew he could win this prized recruit only by promising to let Vick be Vick.
At that point, Beamer was already an accomplished coach in the nation's favorite sport. But Virginia Tech football was followed mainly by its alums, while Virginia Tech, the institution, longed to break out from regional status to achieve a national profile. Perhaps recruiting a gifted, unorthodox figure such as Vick might place both coach and college into the limelight. Football could only get bigger.
* * *
All personal stories begin in youth, though not all have a defining moment. Beamer's does. At the age of seven, parents not present, Beamer and his eleven-year-old brother played with fire. There is a reason children are told not to play with fire. The burns left part of Beamer's face disfigured, despite three years in a hospital and some thirty skin grafts endured by a child under conditions of 1950s medicine. The burns would not prevent Beamer from becoming a public figure, nor from wedding a college beauty and having a long, successful marriage. The challenge of surviving the burns and the childhood years of hospitalization brought out something in his personality. Beamer seemed born determined.
His father was a highway engineer, his mother a schoolteacher. Both taught old-fashioned values. "My family environment growing up stressed that that if you followed the rules and worked hard, success would come," Beamer says. "I am not gullible, I know that is not always true. But it's what I was raised to believe, and it is how I chose to lead my life."
Beamer was a three-sport letterman in high school, a feat almost impossible today, as youth and prep football have become year-round pursuits. Graduating, he enrolled at Virginia Tech, which was expanding and hoped to grow from a regional engineering school into a national research-center university. The University of Virginia, the state's prestige campus, emphasized the humanities. Virginia Tech's leaders correctly guessed that research would be the wave of the future for large public universities, and moved the school in that direction. They likewise correctly guessed that hosting major football games would cause millions of people to hear the words Virginia Tech. Winning major football games would cause millions of people to associate the words Virginia Tech with success.
For a century, college presidents and trustees have seen football as a way to promote their institutional brands, while giving alumni a reason to keep paying attention to the school, and mailing donations, long after they have flung their graduation caps into the air. The first game in which the gridiron version of the sport diverged from rugby was played between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. Stanford and Cal, the elite universities of California, have played each other at football since 1892; until roughly World War II, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Cornell University and the University of Chicago were among the country's football powers. For more than a century, victory at football has associated the name of a college with success. Virginia Tech sought the same association.
For a century, the sport has also been viewed as detrimental to, or at best a distraction from, a university's core educational mission. In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt called college presidents to the White House to discuss public anger about the effect of football on higher education: whether this meeting led to meaningful reform or merely to agreement to outlaw the dangerous flying-wedge formation is a question historians debate to this day. By 1929, a Carnegie Foundation report would slam college football for distorting campus values, to say nothing of wasting educational funds on "costly varsity sweaters and extensive journeys in special Pullman cars." The 1932 Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers would present college football as corrupt to the point of rigged. In 1939, the University of Chicago would drop football while the University of Pittsburgh, a power, joined other colleges in deemphasizing the sport.
Then as now, the fundamental objection was to college football as a business. But fundamentally, colleges are businesses. Faculty members certainly do not protest the charging of tuition. Twenty-year-olds receive nothing of clear monetary value while adults at the college live well — this does not describe NCAA athletics, this describes the situation for all students enrolled in universities. Professors of medieval poetry expect students to pay through the nose to attend their classes, with no assurance this will lead to enlightenment, much less a job. Colleges are businesses that must sustain themselves. That football is used as an enticement for students to enroll in colleges, and for alumni to make donations, should not in itself trouble any lover of higher education.
Attending Virginia Tech, Beamer started at cornerback, appearing in the 1966 and 1968 Liberty Bowl games. He was known as a tenacious player whose work ethic and hard hitting compensated for average stature and speed. When Beamer played NCAA football, concussions were laughed off as "getting your bell rung," torn knee ligaments were career-ending disasters, many coaches refused to allow players to drink water during hot-weather practice, and poor-quality helmets caused a palpable risk of death by skull fracture. During the four years that Beamer was a college athlete, ninety-one football players died as a direct result of skull fractures sustained during games or practices, according to the American Football Coaches Association, which since 1931 has kept statistics on harm caused by the game. The arrival in the 1970s of the polycarbonate helmet would nearly eliminate skull-fracture risk; today, risk of death from college football is about the same as risk of death from college hazing.
After flinging his own graduation cap into the air, Beamer had no illusions about the NFL. College players may dream of "the league," and college coaches may inveigle them with a fantasy that they can concentrate on football, skipping the classroom, because a million-dollar NFL bonus awaits. But even many star college players never take a snap at the professional level, and for those who do make the NFL, a career is a few seasons.
Knowing the NFL to be a long shot, Beamer enrolled in master's program at Radford University, located in the same corner of Virginia as Fancy Gap, thinking he might study to become a guidance counselor. Beamer passed his free time coaching high school football in the town of Radford, and found he enjoyed coaching. Soon he was a graduate assistant — a coaching intern — at the big-deal program of the University of Maryland, then a football powerhouse. Beamer moved on to salaried coaching positions at The Citadel in South Carolina and at Murray State in Kentucky, neither important galaxies in the football universe. In 1986, the Virginia Tech job came open. He applied.
* * *
A mural photograph in the football coaches' office complex at Virginia Tech — as at all Top 25 programs, the coaches enjoy offices and conference-room facilities many Fortune 500 firms would envy — depicts a game from 1926. Thousands of spectators crowd Miles Stadium. The referee wears dress slacks and a collared white shirt, as if he stopped by on his way to church. Hundreds of Model Ts are parked in ranks in the distance. Considering the year, a significant fraction of the population of downstate Virginia had come to attend the game.
Before there was television entertainment and before professional sports were ubiquitous, large numbers undertook relatively arduous journeys for the excitement of a college football contest. Traversing the 225 miles from Richmond to Blacksburg on old two-lane blacktops in a Model T with a top speed of thirty-five miles per hour, and crude suspension, was no joyride. In 1935, some ninety-four thousand spectators attended the Cal-Stanford football clash. Not only did this dwarf the thirty-three thousand present for the Bears-Giants professional football title game of 1933, compared to California's population of the time, ninety-four thousand spectators was as if a million people attended a Cal-Stanford game today.
In 1965, Miles Stadium would be razed and replaced by Lane Stadium, offering 66,233 seats — quite substantial for an isolated college hard to reach whether by automobile, train or commercial airline. In 1982, Virginia Tech would play football on national television for the first time. Even in 1982, nationally televised college football games were rare. That would change when, in 1984, a Supreme Court decision essentially deregulated the broadcasting of college football, leading to its nearly round-the-clock presence on today's television in autumn.
Excerpted from The King Of Sports by Gregg Easterbrook. Copyright © 2013 Gregg Easterbrook. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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