- Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era
Does college football in America contribute to both the institutions of higher education and to the participating athletes? In six chapters, ending with one on reform ideas, Michael Oriard condemns much of the change that has taken place since he played on the Notre Dame team and was allowed to pursue a fine education at the same time. Notwithstanding the historical evidence that football since the 1890s has caught the imagination of the American public and has caused thoughtful people to want to bring football and other sports under greater academic scrutiny, Oriard argues that changes, especially in the 1970s, were crucial for widening the gap between athletes and their educational opportunities. For Oriard, a professor of literature at Oregon State University, a critical change occurred in 1973, when the one-year athletic scholarship replaced the four-year award. The one-year grant, Oriard argues, “gave coaches more control of their players’ lives than they had ever had. . . [and] transformed ‘student-athletes’ into ‘athlete-students’ without anyone paying much attention” (pp. 125, 130). This action closely followed the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) passage of freshman eligibility and was combined with [End Page 154] doing away with eligibility standards when the 1.600 Grade Point Rule was abandoned. Whether or not the one-year rule drastically changed college football can be debated, for there is no evidence shown that coaches used the rule to get rid of troublemakers or athletic deadwood to any great extent. There is no question, however, that the one-year athletic scholarship stripped freedom from athletes and gave coaches greater authoritarian capabilities if they desired to use it.
After an opening chapter on questioning the general belief that athletes were political reactionaries and not part of the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Oriard follows with an outstanding chapter on the desegregation (he uses the term integration) of football in the same time period, specifically the desegregation of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the most important big-time Southern conference. His picture of blacks breaking down racial barriers in Tennessee, Alabama, and especially Mississippi is one of African Americans as non-threatening, black figures who took verbal and physical racist abuse. Here, Oriard is at his best combining intense research and rich prose. The highlight may be the story of the University of Mississippi’s first black football player who arrived on campus a decade after James Meredith did so under military security. Ben Williams was eventually elected captain and became an all-American, and, possibly more important for Mississippi, Williams was chosen Colonel Rebel and paired up in a photo with a charming-looking white female, Miss Ole Miss.
The SEC saga is followed by a fine chapter on “College Football in Black and White.” Oriard looks carefully at the racial conflicts of the late 1960s and early 1970s at various universities including Syracuse, Iowa, Wyoming, and his own Oregon State. At the time of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, the protesting Northern black athletes generally lost their battles with their authoritarian coaches over such issues as facial hair and wearing arm bands, but their efforts eventually won the war over greater racial equality. As Oriard sagely remarks relative to the fourteen Wyoming African Americans who were dismissed from the team for desiring to wear armbands to protest Brigham Young University and the racist policies of the Mormon Church that barred Negroes from becoming priests: “Fourteen young black football players at the University of Wyoming helped change Mormon Theology” (p. 199). The Mormon priesthood was opened within the decade to African Americans.
In a chapter titled “Revenue and Reform,” Oriard discusses the athletic scandals of the 1980s following the NCAA action of voting out academic standards for freshman eligibility. He notes the dilemma of universities who faced the reality that “responding to the demands of the marketplace continuously undermines efforts at academic reform...