What Football Teaches Us

Urban Meyer, the head coach of Ohio State University’s football program, is one of the most successful college coaches in history. He’s coached three national championship teams and has multiple Big Ten titles to his name.

More importantly, he’s the perennial enemy of my alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Earlier this year, Meyer was suspended for not reporting that one of his assistant coaches, Zach Smith, was abusing his wife, among plenty of other things that would get any normal employee fired. Meyer protected Smith by lying through his teeth to university officials about what he knew.

As a result, OSU suspended Meyer for three games at the beginning of the season. Because of this, he forfeited about half a million of his 7.6 million dollar salary.

When I read this, my first thoughts were not about justice; they were not about the terrible abuse Courtney Smith suffered, or what an asshole Zach Smith was; they were not about what Urban Meyer should’ve done, or why he did the unbelievably stupid thing that he did.

I thought, instead: “Maybe this is the year. Maybe this is the year Michigan can snap its losing streak against Ohio State.”


College football teaches.

It’s a weird thing to say, but the teams we watch on Saturday are as much teaching institutions as the colleges and universities of which they’re part. What they teach has an impact that’s hard to understand, and even harder to underestimate.

To understand how college football teaches, we need to examine the two modes of teaching at the college level: the servile and the liberal arts.

The liberal arts come from the idea that there are things that ‘free’ people should learn, in this case, ‘free’ meaning wealthy, possibly landed people with time on their hands. The ‘mechanic’ or ‘servile’ arts – skills with more immediate practical applications, like cooking, masonry, or agriculture – were more fitting of slaves.

Today we can think of these two modes of education as aspirational and practical. That is, the liberal arts were meant to encourage human flowering; servile arts were meant to serve our baser needs.

We’ve always believed that these two kinds of learning are important for free people to know. The Morrill Act of 1862, which created land-grant universities in every state, specifically mentioned both, and that neither should be neglected.

This is a uniquely American proposition. That’s why the best way to understand American college football, and its place in American education, is to see it through this lens.

In terms of the liberal arts, playing sports can educate people in profound ways. The body and mind are not as separate as we try to make them and physical skills is a necessary part of education if your goal is to train someone to flourish.

The young men that play football, however, represent a tiny sliver of the population compared to all those that watch football. The real students of these teams are their fans. And the fans are in a much different classroom than the players are.

Football fandom is absolutely terrible if your goal is preparing people to flourish, in terms of the liberal arts, because football fandom is, at its core, passive.

A player, even though they’re part of a team, has some measure of control over its success. Even someone on the practice squad can contribute to quality practice, which could lead directly to a Saturday victory. A fan, on the other hand, doesn’t have even a tiny measure of control over what happens on a field. You can yell and scream all you like, but there’s little a fan can do to affect their team’s play.

In liberal education, freedom is not so much the freedom from responsibility but a freedom to choose those responsibilitiesA fan, by definition, cannot choose be responsible for anything, because they have no power to do so. They don’t have to carry towels or make sure the players are doing their workouts. By definition, fans must be powerless.

In spite of this powerlessness, fans feel a profound sense of community and responsibility for their team. When their team wins, they feel happy; when their team loses, they feel sad. There is a sense of community without responsibility. This, too, is an absolutely terrible lesson if our goal is a liberal education.

Because fans have no responsibility, and no power to affect change, we can endlessly second guess what happens on the field, but have no mechanisms to actually change anything. They can’t do so in any way that’s meaningful.

Further, the most important questions we ask have no right answers, and present many opportunities for a person to fail in answering such questions. And failure is one thing that college football cannot tolerate. Nobody is going to thank Jim Harbaugh, the head coach for the University of Michigan, for trying something new on the football field if he loses.

Fandom demands victory within a given set of rules. It’s simple, and doesn’t require us to have any questions, other than: “Did we win? Did we lose?” Or most importantly, “Did we beat Ohio State?” It’s simple, which is why it’s so satisfying.

Complex questions, though, are cornerstones of a liberal education. If you’re not trying things, not trying to stretch your ideas to the breaking point, and not trying to mold your mind for human flourishing, you’re not educating in the liberal mould. Such questions cannot take place in a bounded ball-field.

In the servile arts, though, there is less need to question. If your goal is, instead, success in the working world, college football fandom is actually really useful.

In a large, complex business, there are a few things that are going to make you successful: understanding what the bottom line is, and concentrating on it; re-mixing good possibilities, with which people are already comfortable; being competitive; being attuned to hierarchy, and making sure you’re rising up the ladder; and being able to work towards a goal you don’t really understand. College football, especially big time college football, gives us an incredibly useful model if we’re trying to compete in that world.

To say these things is not, on its own, a knock against a corporation; most of us work for these kinds of organizations. We can argue about whether or not this is a good thing, and I can certainly argue that it isn’t. But for our purposes, football teaches us a lot of different things that make success in these large companies more likely.

First, football gives us a lone, satisfying goal to work towards. We seek out these goals and the certainty of them. It’s simply not a goal of a company to help us question, or to help us find ourselves, or to ask messy questions with no good answers. A company doesn’t particularly care if you enjoy working, or if your work is fulfilling, or if you’ve flowered as a person. The goal of a company is profit, full-stop. Maybe ethical profit, but still profit. It’s about the bottom line, the score itself.

Now, you might think that profit is a much more concrete score than a football game, but there are lots of ways we measure companies that have little to do with their performance. Stock  price can be a glaring example of this. Tesla, after all, was valued in stock price as higher than Ford Motor Company, not because Tesla could build more cars or its profits were higher; people were just excited about the company, so they bought in.

You might think that Telsa is a trailblazer, and that’s the reason that people are so excited about it as a company. In some sense, this is true; a high end electric car company isn’t something we’ve seen before. But Tesla only became ‘successful’ after a massive government intervention, both with half a billion dollars in loans from the Department of Energy (famously paying it off a decade early) and huge 1.3 billion dollar tax-incentives package from the State of Nevada.

Banks, which are the normal source of funding for a large manufacturing outfit, really didn’t want to take the risk on electric automobiles. The market only started rewarding that gamble after they were a proven money-maker.

With football, there’s really only so much a person can innovate. You need to get the ball down the field, within a certain set of rules. You can throw it, you can run it, you can even do something cool like a flea-flicker, or a triple reverse. You can’t, however, make a lineman into a running back, or play soccer. There’s only so much innovation you can do there.

You see this story played out over and over again. The vast majority of corporate successes are not radical changes in thinking, because radical changes, even positive ones, make people uncomfortable. Rather, they are built on things that come before, making them slightly better, and doesn’t challenges our basic views of the world and how it should operate.

An iPhone, likely, wouldn’t have been successful if the cell phone and the iPod were not already in circulation. Put the two together with a touch screen, and boom, you’ve got a flagship product you can hang your trillion-dollar hat on. Make that product a few years too soon when people aren’t comfortable with it, and you’ve got a flop on your hands.

Apple’s stock price made it valued as the biggest company in the world, shortly followed by Amazon into the trillion-dollar range of valuation. That price gives us an easy way to understand hierarchy in business. Companies that are valued more are simply higher up on the totem pole than the ones below. We can separate them out into neat little graphs, and give everyone a clean, numbered idea of how companies relate to each other in terms of their power, even in different industries.

Football does the exact same thing. In the current era of the Bowl Championship Series, rankings are chosen by sportswriter and coaches polls; the champions in each division (The SEC, Big Ten, PAC 12) then battle it out for a national championship in the same way the Champions League works in Europe or March Madness works in America. In the same way I can tell you that Amazon is worth more than General Motors, I can tell you right now that Ohio State (#2) is a higher rank than Michigan (#6), and both are lower ranked than Alabama (#1).

The hierarchy here is simple to understand. In corporate land, you need to be able to understand hierarchy in order to succeed, because success often is an understanding of how hierarchy works, who has power, and who is trying to get power. A person needs to understand this because corporate-land is a competitive environment and oftentimes zero-sum.

Speaking of zero-sum, they also seem to teach us something underrated.

There are large companies that have morality baked into their culture, but lots of companies don’t particularly care whether or not they bend ethical rules to succeed. Big time college sports operate the same way.

In any organization that’s big enough, far enough separated from the results of its actions, there is going to be ethical lapses. That’s why you have watchdogs and moral standards, as well as rules to make people tow a moral line with legal consequences.

But in football, nobody particularly cares about the ethical lapses that they see. Watchdogs can inspire furor over big scandals, like horrifying decades of sexual abuse like Penn State, but the day to day lapses are taken as a matter of course.

There might be a squawking about how we have teams full of criminalspeople graduating college without the ability to writethe destruction of young minds and bodies to serve fans, and the astonishing economic burden students take on because of these programs. There might be alarms about academics, the supposed purpose of these programs: while OSU was charged and found guilty by the NCAA for academic fraud, they were, by no means, alone. In fact, from 2006 to 2016 quarter of D1 colleges and more than half of the Power Five conferences were as well, including the University of Michigan.

But these voices are muted because there is another lesson that these sports teach us: if you’re good enough, and bright enough of a star, you can get away with anything. No scandal taught that better than the OSU scandal that came before Meyer: Jim Tressel.

The NCAA discovered that Tressel knew some of his student athletes had exchanged tattoos for signed merchandise in violation of NCAA rules. Tressel was said to have known that his players were doing this, and lied about it to both the NCAA and the national media.

A curious thing happened when the president of OSU, Gordon Gee, was asked about Tressel and whether he was going to fire him. Gee responded with a chuckle:

“I hope he doesn’t fire me.”

Tressel was the highest paid public employee in the state of Ohio, a title that Meyer holds now. And certainly, he was successful. But as the big scandals have shown in the last few years, there is a culture of impunity around football coaches.

This teaches us not only that the powerful can get away with murder, but that the goal of a person should be to gain as much power as possible to act with impunity. So long as you keep winning, power will remain yours.

Eventually, if you get enough wins, you can become a ‘great’ man, and this is the kind of person we should aspire to be.

So long as you win, you are the focus. So long as you win, you are celebrated. So long as you win, you can get away with anything you want.

In the corporate world, there are countless examples of golden parachutes where a CEO has driven a company into the ground, but got paid handsomely for the pleasure. In the 2008 financial crisis, only one executive was ever charged. And he wasn’t at the top. We lionize executives like Steve Jobs, who was great at thinking about design, but on most accounts terrible as a human being.

Sure, there are plenty of good-hearted corporate executives. Bruce Halle, the founder of Discount Tire Company, sounds like a good guy. So does the guy that founded Costco. But can you name a CEO famous for a good heart, and treating their employees well? For humility, temperance, and modesty? Did you know either of those guys? Likely, no, you can’t.

The Waltons and the Kochs and the Bezoses of the world, those hard driving guys, we know their names. Just like we know Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and everybody’s favorite khaki wearing uncle, Jim Harbaugh

This point is a knock against corporate structure. But, if we’re being honest, this is how these organizations work in the real world. If that’s where we want students to succeed in these environments, this is a useful lesson.


When the whole situation came out about Urban Meyer, the suspension he received was for 3 games against Oregon State, Rutgers and TCU. TCU was the only competitive game, but the Buckeyes won all these games handily.

Now, whether or not he should have been suspended, what he knew or didn’t know, that’s not what I thought. I didn’t think about justice, or morality. I thought about football, because, let’s be clear, I love football.

I have a lot of good memories of UM football. I watched for years, I went to tailgates, had a great time. That’s why this essay is so hard to write. When I watch a football game, I fall immediately in line. I want UM to win, I want our opponents to lose, I want success in which I have no real part. I want to be a successful spectator.

Eventually, we have to ask ourselves: what are these games teaching us? What sort of message are they sending?

And, most importantly, is this what we want our kids to learn when they go to college?

The answer might, unfortunately, be yes.

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