Yes, the coaches are overpaid and the athletes are exploited--but college football offers campuses something real.
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  • Yes, the coaches are overpaid and the athletes are exploited—but college football offers campuses something real.

Universities get no love. Perhaps they earn none. To outsiders they’re a fen of infantilized students who can’t wait to leave and intriguing faculty too insecure to, places where everyone is less concerned with spreading knowledge and maturity than with writing rules to make sure no one’s feelings ever get hurt. (See trigger warnings; see commencement speakers disinvited.)

The other day a friend who works at a large state university told me about her latest adventure. She’d had what she thought was a good idea: to launch a new alumni magazine celebrating research in the sciences. She liked what she came up with, and wouldn’t have minded a little praise when her first issue came out. What she got instead was a conflagration: two professors immediately stormed into her boss’s office and demanded that the entire edition be rounded up and destroyed.

Her sin, it seemed, was to presume to describe one of her subjects physically and emotionally (slender, diffident), in violation of a strain of feminism my friend thought had run its course some 20 years earlier. To make matters worse, a third professor, someone at odds for ages with the chair of my friend’s department, decided to seize the moment. He recruited the former dean of another department to send out a letter denouncing the sexism that supposedly pervaded the chair’s domain; and though this charge was compromised by the small detail that the slender, diffident subject of the profile had not only enjoyed the article about her but had approved it ahead of time, the well was poisoned and my friend washed her hands of the magazine.

This outcome didn’t particularly surprise her. She’d been around. It was one more academic turf fight, waged by means foul and fair, with a legitimate issue—sexism—marching shoulder to shoulder with opportunism into battle against common sense. My friend impressed me by bringing Star Trek into our discussion. She compared the pleasantries of academic life to a 1993 episode, “Battle Lines,” which takes place on a moon in the Gamma Quadrant that a delegation from Deep Space 9 had come across via the Bajoran wormhole. The occupants of this moon were at eternal war with each other. But though they died like flies in combat, microbes unique to the moon resurrected them (a tenure metaphor?) to fight and die again. On and on the mayhem continued, though no one gained anything from it and no one could recall what the fighting was originally about. The visitors from Deep Space 9 attempted to bring peace—which is to say, common sense—to the people of this moon, but they accomplished nothing.

That’s when it hit me: everyone is wrong about football.

The case against football on campus hardly needs restating. The coaches make far more money than the college president, far more than the governor, possibly far more than God. The players are exploited. Academic values are abandoned in pursuit of glory. Something or everything about football is rotten.

But the truth is that football soothes these gray seas of ceaseless seething known as our universities. Football time is not shapeless, rancorous, and eternal. One season is not indistinguishable from the next—each passes and is recorded on a separate page. Some big games are lost, others won. Football is real, its passions are urgent, and its values are fundamental, even when honored mainly in the breach. Student bodies and faculties alike descend gratefully on the stadium on Saturdays (or Thursdays) to set aside their own tediously indignant squabbles and embrace conflict with heft.

Football teams are oases of clarity, and colleges need them more than football teams need colleges.