ONLY GAME MISSING IS THE HONESTY BOWL

One elephant, OK. Two elephants, maybe. But when the room is so full of elephants all you see are tusks, you have to speak up.

I’m talking about college bowl games. They are absurd. They are overhyped and now overabundant. They are Emerald, Orange, Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Sun. They are owned by and named for, among others, Allstate, Brut, Sheraton, Bell Helicopter, FedEx and Tostitos.

They are about pageantry, vacations, Mickey Mouse. And they are – save one – totally meaningless. Their supporters insist they are critical. That’s a lie. But they are hypocritical.

After all, the reason major college football does not have a playoff system like every other major sport in America, we are told by the universities, is that it would mean cutting into study time for final exams during December.

Yet bowls now begin as early as mid-December (or did you miss the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on the 19th?) and go as late as Jan. 8. Teams prepare hard, as they would for any playoff game. They practice, lift, watch film and travel through the sacred month of December.

Meanwhile, these schools that fret over separating players from their history finals think nothing of taking the players from their families on Christmas and New Year’s.

So let’s drop the “we’re concerned about our student athletes” phoniness and call this what it is: a money grab.

With funny-looking jackets.

Roses and greenbacks

At last count, there were 32 bowls, meaning 64 teams participating. This is a long way from the first bowl, which was established in 1902 as a way of – what a shock – making money.

It was in Pasadena, Calif., where the Tournament of Roses was struggling to build an audience. Instead of saying, “Hey, maybe a tournament based on flowers isn’t a great business model,” someone got the bright idea to throw a college football game into the mix. Two teams were brought in, Michigan and Stanford, and the game drew 8,000 people.

More importantly, it made a fat profit for the tournament. And each of the teams went home with $3,500. So, right from the start, it was a paid performance. Nothing more.

Today, 104 years later, not much has changed, except the number of zeroes. Payouts from bowls now range from a few hundred thousand to close to $20 million. Schools make big money. Conferences make big money.

And the bowls themselves? Well. Let’s just say that men don’t wear sherbet-colored sports coats unless somebody is paying pretty well.

This financial hypocrisy is matched by the logistical absurdity of playing a lone football game weeks – if not months – after your regular season ends. What other sport comes close to doing that? In baseball, basketball, hockey, the season ends, the playoffs begin.

But in major college football, the universities actually drag these kids as much as 50 days beyond the regular-season finale to play in a bowl. They can’t break from working out, practicing or worrying about another game.

How can that be good for their health? Hail and farewell

Now I know folks around here are eager for Monday’s Rose Bowl. And I am going to cover it. Michigan playing Southern Cal may indeed be an entertaining, memorable game.

But our interest can’t mask the fact that it means nothing. The winner does not go on. The winner does not get a crown – except to be called the Rose Bowl champ, which is nice but doesn’t empirically mean any more than being declared the Meineke Car Care Bowl champ.

What these bowls do is bring big money through TV ads, stir up the economy of the host city and make a lot of longtime supporters raise a cocktail and slap each others’ backs.

But sports-wise, they are as superfluous as cotton candy. And college-wise, they are a lesson in hypocrisy: Say one thing, do another.

Here’s the funny twist. After 1902, the Tournament of Roses people decided football was fine, but they might make more money with something else. So they dumped the bowl and brought in a chariot race.

And I promise you, if today’s bowls could make more money running horses in a circle, they would. Maybe then college football would have to listen to all the elephants squawking in its room and agree on a postseason that is about sports, not Mickey Mouse.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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