Sam LeRoy is a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying Marketing and Management as a Chancellor’s Scholar. He serves on the Illini Pride Student Athletic Board as a Block I Chair where he designs the football student section’s famous card stunts for the 2016 season.
I’m an athlete to the extent that I can run a respectable 5K and can occasionally shoot a basketball accurately. I played competitive high school basketball, but lacked the ability and passion to develop into anything more than a bench player on a sub-par squad. Despite my meager athletics career, however, I became quite good at cheering on sports teams. Growing up in Champaign, it was only a matter of time until Fighting Illini fandom took hold during the magical Rose Bowl run in 2007. I may not have the skill to play on a football field, but I do know how to yell for three hours in Memorial Stadium and have some voice leftover for the volleyball match that night.
Though my fandom remains fervent as ever, as I matured I became exposed to the often nasty underbelly of collegiate athletics: player abuse, academic fudging, recruiting violations, heart-wrenching firings, and under-compensated workers (cleverly termed ‘student-athletes’). There are the political pressures from donors and administrators mixed with ideological battles within universities over whether pumping millions of dollars into an auxiliary service is the best use of limited resources. In just my previous year as a student at the University of Illinois, the athletic department faced three different player mistreatment scandals—football, women’s basketball, and women’s soccer—before cleaning house and hiring a new athletic director and football coach at record (and somewhat controversial) salaries.
John Bacon’s book Fourth and Long: A Fight for the Soul of College Football sheds insight into the contemporary soul-searching questions of collegiate athletics from inside four Big Ten programs: Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Penn State. Embedding himself into the programs and learning from the players, coaches, and administrators, Bacon provides institutional knowledge and first-hand accounts of each program’s major storylines at a tipping point in their history.
For Michigan, he chronicles the attempted rebuild from the disastrous Rich Rodriguez regime and the experimental tenure of a corporate world, bottom-line driven athletic director at a school where tradition often demands the more expensive option. At Northwestern, he covers to Wildcats’ remarkable rise under coach Pat Fitzgerald and their efforts to maintain relevancy while adhering to the highest academic standards in the conference. In Columbus, he follows Urban Meyer’s takeover of an Ohio State program reeling from a scandal where players received improper benefits for autographs and personal tokens. The Penn State sections describe the impossible task of returning not only success but ethics and morality to the Nittany Lion program in the wake of Jerry Sandusky. Perhaps the most interesting and relevant storyline, however, is the apparent correlation between a winning football program and academic success, local economic prosperity, and quality of student life.
Financial investment in these programs is a unifying theme, as is the relationship between gridiron success and academic excellence. The benefits a university and its home community enjoy as a result of strong athletics programs is evident throughout, especially in the case of Penn State. Many football fans are unaware that Penn State sought Big Ten membership primarily because of academic ambitions. Penn State was already an established national football power even as an independent, but the Big Ten’s powerful athletic brand offered even more national exposure and revenue. Big Ten membership also included access to the league’s academic counterpart, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (now the Big Ten Academic Alliance), which facilitates research and teaching collaboration.
Without an elite football program Penn State would likely never have attracted a Big Ten invitation, and to their credit university leadership reinvested the financial rewards into a drastically raised academic profile. Bacon shares that over the ten-year period leading to Fourth and Long’s publication Penn State’s liberal arts faculty grew from 240 to 360, a 50% increase. Since joining the conference, they have enjoyed a tripling in federal research grants to nearly $800 million. In 2012, the Academic Ranking of World Universities ranked Penn State forty-ninth, marking their first top-fifty appearance.
The other schools recognize the economic impact of quality athletics as well. A recurring thread in the Ohio State sections is the Buckeye’s surge in academic profile over several decades, a by-product of academic investment by university stakeholders jubilant from conference and national championships. In Ann Arbor, a single football weekend can generate up to $10 million in revenue for the local community. Even Northwestern is increasing athletic investment, citing the benefits to the student-athletes, quality of campus life and stronger school spirit for all students, and improved town-gown relations galvanized by touchdowns and bowl appearances.
Athletic prowess certainly doesn’t guarantee academic excellence—with due respect few would consider reigning champion University of Alabama an academic peer to the University of Illinois, while the University of Chicago dumped Division I athletics all together and remains one of the elite universities of the world. Nevertheless, Fourth and Long does successfully illustrate the academic and local economic benefits a winning football program can provide in a fascinating discussion on the modern issues of cut-throat Division I athletics. Bacon’s book is an honest assessment of college athletics at its best and its worst, and is a worthwhile read for sports fanatics and skeptics alike.