George Will

WASHINGTON -- In 1957, Queen Elizabeth, attending a Maryland-North Carolina football game, asked Maryland's governor, "Where do you get all those enormous players?" He replied, "Your majesty, that's a very embarrassing question."

Thursday night's championship game between Alabama and Texas, featuring head coaches paid $4 million and $5.1 million, respectively, will be an occasion for more hand-wringing about the "commercialization" of college football. That is a hardy perennial.

The 1920s, which worshiped stars like Red Grange and coaches like Knute Rockne, saw a boom in construction of capacious stadiums. SMU built its stadium 13 years before it built its library. The decade ended with a 1929 Carnegie Foundation report ineffectually deploring the "corruption" of grafting this lucrative entertainment industry onto academia.

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From its founding in 1906, the NCAA opposed universities compensating students for athletic skills. Payments by boosters to players seemed less disreputable. The NCAA's so-called Sanity Code of 1948 said "no athlete shall be deprived of financial aids ... because of failure to participate in intercollegiate athletics."

In 1956, however, the NCAA dealt with the charge of "professionalism" -- many brawny boys were being unofficially paid to play -- by sort of legalizing that sin with athletic scholarships. In 1972 and 1973, the NCAA made freshmen eligible for varsity competition and relaxed requirements for high school academic achievement. And in 1973, the NCAA authorized one-year scholarships, renewable at the discretion of coaches.

This was partly to strengthen coaches in dealing with the new assertiveness of athletes, especially African-Americans. But it also amounted to a forthright embrace of the fact that "football has functioned as a kind of public theater since it was first discovered by the mass-circulation newspapers in New York in the 1880s."

So says Michael Oriard -- former Notre Dame and NFL player, now professor of English at Oregon State -- in "Bowled Over," his history of big-time college football since the 1960s. Universities hoped, he says, that the idea of athletic scholarships would immunize them -- it has -- against legal claims to workers' compensation for injuries.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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