BOWLED OVER: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era. By Michael Oriard. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2009.
Michael Oriard’s most recent book on college football traces key transformations in college football from the 1960s to the present. Oriard sees two key changes that have ultimately led to the tremendous commercialization of today. The first was born of the 1960s’ “revolt of the black athlete.” The second began in 1973 with the advent of the one-year scholarship that gave coaches increased control over their players. In essence, a player could be “fired” at the end of an academic year rather than guaranteed a full college education. Commercialization intensified after 1984 when the Supreme Court opened college football to market forces with broadcast deregulation. The driving force behind the transformation of college football for Oriard is a contradiction between college football as a commercial spectacle and an extra-curricular activity. The result of this contradiction has been repeated attempts at reform even as college football grew increasingly commercialized and exploitive.
The book is structured in two parts. The first part describes football’s changing race relations – Oriard draws effectively on his experience playing at Notre Dame. The second part describes the increased commercialization since 1973. Oriard links the two parts of the book by arguing that the advent of the one-year scholarship was a response to the revolt of black athletes. Colleges integrated their football teams in an era when institutions of authority were declining, and as a result black (and white) athletes became more assertive and individualistic. The unquestioned authority of coaches then came into question by athletes who wanted more control over their own bodies. The policy of one-year scholarships shifted power clearly back to coaches who penetrated much deeper into the lives of their players. Oriard admits that the connection between players’ protests and the one-year scholarships is “circumstantial” (139). Although it connects two disparate parts of this history, I was not persuaded that the connection is as strong as Oriard claims. While racism is always a force in U.S.society, Oriard’s history demonstrates that economics trump racial anxieties in college football, and the advent of one-year scholarships was definitely a policy of labor control. Oriard also argues that the advent of one-year scholarships was the key transformation marking the turn towards hyper-commercialism (5). Perhaps, but the argument understates the significance of the 1984 decision to deregulate broadcasting that directly intensified the commercialization of college football.
It is difficult to read Bowled Over without growing angry at how the NCAA has maintained its fundamental contradiction for over a hundred years. Oriard responds persuasively that the leading higher educational institutions developed as football institutions and that made big time football a structural component of higher education. Further, the membership of the NCAA is so expansive and diverse that no single policy of reform could serve the competing, vested interests of all the participating institutions. Bowled Over is an impressive and realist assessment of college football’s recent history. Although it does not offer startling new insights, Oriard is always a thorough researcher, an insightful scholar, and a powerful writer.
Jeffrey Montez de Oca, University of Colorado,Colorado Springs