Football and Money

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Nov 22, 2011 12:01 AM

In the great scheme of things -- greater things than worldlings imagine on a trip to the mall -- it doesn't matter a bit that Texas A & M and the University of Texas are winding up their celebrated Thanksgiving Day, football rivalry.

What matters -- maybe more than a little bit -- is the reason for the rivalry's end: filthy lucre, as the Apostle Paul called it, along with a greasy admixture of human vainglory. The Longhorns and the Aggies, aim to get richer than the good Lord and local circumstance ever made them. They want to swim in money, like Scrooge McDuck, as they entertain millions who never set foot on either of their spacious campuses but love the teams that live there.

Joe Paterno's just-extinguished reign at Penn State, when football was synonymous with the university's identity, was -- is -- another instance of mere money's grip on any culture that locks eyes on the small things, rather than the big ones.

I say "mere money," not to depreciate money in the fashion of gentry like the Wall Street occupiers. Problems with money generally arise (Bernard Madoff, MF Global, etc.) when the drive to acquire it pushes aside competing and even complementary considerations.

But we were talking of football.

Back in the day, as people for some obscure reason have taken to saying, college football, large as it was on large campuses, didn't occupy the center of the academic universe. In the semi-quiet backwater of the Southwest Conference, A & M, Texas, SMU, TCU, Baylor, Rice, Texas Tech and Arkansas entertained alumni and students with skill and panache.

A Southwest Conference Championship, with a subsequent date at the Cotton Bowl, was a big deal, if hardly on the level of a stock market killing. The athletes were mainly, though not exclusively, from "around here" -- the Southwest that is. Any team was capable, theoretically, of beating any other team. Alums and students knew each other, joshed each other, and yelled for and against each other. Those were the days.

It was money -- TV money -- that broke up the small universe of the Southwest Conference. First, Arkansas defected; Texas and A & M swiftly followed, in quest of El Dorado, leaving SMU, TCU, and Rice -- smaller private universities -- adrift. The Texas and Texas A & M rivalry endured for a space, within the Big 12. Then the Longhorns, seeking more money still, set up their own TV network. Embittered, A&M bolted for the Southeastern Conference.

Well, all right. The end of the world it ain't. I attended my first A&M-Texas game in 1953. There was great fun then in "hating" the Aggies and experiencing payback hatred. It was more fun, still, in prefacing the ritual spite party with prayer and fellowship over the Thanksgiving dinner. Thus, it remained that way for a long time.

We'll certainly survive the rivalry's end, but with some sadness, knowing the guilt of the "powers that be" to lie in their breaking the egg shell of relationship for no loftier good than...filthy lucre. Football fame attracted students and jacked up revenues. Bigger revenues meant bigger salaries for coaches and staff. Athletes' connections to school, region or university culture became less important than the university's TV and franchising rights.

Texas likes to point out that the football program makes profits the school then pours into other sports and programs. That is nice. Money does help -- so long as it doesn't drive the whole enterprise, distorting important values, as at...

Ah, yes. Penn State. Football at Texas and A & M may not have achieved the centrality it apparently enjoys in Happy Valley, but odors that float down to Texas from that direction have an unfortunate familiarity -- football as cause, football as money, football as a machine best left to run itself, without too much inquiry from outside.

At one time, it was not like this in Texas, at least not to this degree. There were other things in sport besides money and hotshot players, not to mention hotshot, hugely remunerated coaches. It's all over and done with now. But it was better.