Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: Bowled Over

Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era is the third Michael Oriard book I've "reviewed" on here, after Brand NFL and The End of Autumn. Whereas The End of Autumn was his autobiography, Brand NFL and Bowled Over represent a sort of history of football since Oriard's playing days at Notre Dame in the late 1960's and the NFL in the early 1970's.

Bowled Over is basically two halves. The first half covers the turmoil of the late 1960's, which included both generational change and the rising number and importance of black players. This comes to a convenient narrative end with the introduction of the one-year renewable scholarship in 1973. A couple issues I had with this section. First, race is a tricky subject, and writing about times when you were young and at the forefront of a supposed social revolution (Oriard himself was fairly politically sensitive and participated in anti-war demonstrations while at ND), so it feels like he's exaggerating just how serious and how important the conflicts were.

Second, he emphasizes the change in power relationships with the introduction of the one-year scholarship. When he doesn't mention, though, is that the late 1960's were a pretty anomalous time in college football history. From 1950-65, college football had extremely limited substitutions, and teams essentially operated with a single platoon. Oriard mentions Bear Bryant's Junction Boys, but doesn't mention that Bryant really didn't need the 75 players he ran off, since the 35 that were left were more than he needed for his team, even taking into account injuries. Players who quit the team didn't necessarily have to give up their scholarship, but that's a problem fairly easily solved-don't actually give them the scholarship until they pass through some sort of initiation process. Plus, in the era, teams weren't subject to the 85-man scholarship limitations, and big schools like Alabama regularly had 150 or more players on scholarship at any given time. Also, before the late 1940's, scholarships tended to be informal in nature, the result of boosters paying students for phantom jobs, jobs they could quickly be axed from if they quit the football team. Really, football coaches have had the power for over 100 of the past 110 years of college football, and Oriard seems to place undue weight on that brief historical interlude where it was otherwise.

The second part of Bowled Over is a fairly conventional history of the last 35 or so years of college football history, focusing on the increasing influence of money. Oriard plumbs Dunnavant's Fifty-Year Seduction well, much more than I did in my brief review, and it provides some of his best material, while much of the rest seems to come from John Sayle Watterson's history of college football, which has long been on my to-read risk. Obviously, Oriard seems to decry the purity of this game, but goes farther than most "football people" in thinking seriously about whether or not college football can be saved. Ultimately, he seems to hope some other, outside force will essentially save college football from itself, since the money interests are so entwined with the game, plus CFB's history (in Oriard's view) has always been primarily about money. There's a way I think about this: Then a miracle occurs, and it feels much too much like wish-casting to me.

Ultimately, I found Bowled Over deeply disappointing. It's a well done, scholarly book, with the sort of footnotes and evidence of research you expect from somebody who's a tenured professor, but I deeply disagree with Oriard's viewpoint and analysis too much to whole-heartedly recommend it.

For more, see this interview with Oriard, this post on student demand for college sports, and, hey, what do you know, the Department of Justice is scrutinizing the one-year scholarship.

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