Football, the old joke goes, combines the worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings. In the past five years, as we’ve learned more about the dangers and prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among football players, it’s become harder to ignore the violent aspects of football. Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger have argued forcefully that the violence done to young brains should, in itself, be enough to spur universities to cease participating in intercollegiate football. After all, any institution dedicated to the development of minds should not, they argue, participate in the destruction of brains. There is enough merit in this argument that, at the very least, most college football fans should feel a deep ambivalence about their game. This is all simple enough. But, the recent stories about the unionization of college athletes has got me thinking about the other half of that joke: the committee meetings. Or, more broadly, the structure of how football is played, taught and organized. If I had to guess, the Northwestern football players will vote not to form the union, and this will have something to do with those damned committee meetings.
As many people have pointed out, football’s structure and gameplay is rife with martial metaphors. It’s a fight for territory with ground and air attacks, there is a strict chain of command (head coach, coordinator, position coach, team captain, position captain, etc), a compartmentalization of roles and capabilities, and a vocabulary that is all about violence, attack, and asserting dominance. This affects how coaches and players interact and probably how they see the world as well. Recently, for example, Bret Bielema spoke at length about all of the wonderful things that football teaches players; a portion of his list was telling: “discipline, teamwork, commitment and obedience.” That last one, ‘obedience,’ struck me as an odd thing for someone to count as a positive trait to have instilled in a young person. The word carries with it more than just a respect for authority (a phrase that you should also be suspicious of) and adherence to the law; in fact, it’s almost always used to indicate an act of personal submission to the will and direction of someone else.
But, that’s what football is, particularly at the college level. This really struck me when listening to Kirby Smart, the University of Alabama’s defensive coordinator talk about how he runs his defense. Like most football defenses, Alabama’s defensive plays come in from the sideline, but unlike many programs Alabama’s players are strictly limited in terms of the adjustments and audibles they make. This is why, for example, if the quarterback begins to audible, you’ll notice all 11 defenders look to the sideline in order to get their adjustment. The players do relatively little dynamic thinking because the coaches have strived to keep the players’ mental algorithms as simple as possible. This is likely why Nick Saban hates speed-up offenses, and why they have terrorized him so over the years; his players aren’t trained well to think, adjust and change for themselves beyond the limited confines of their highly specifics roles and tasks.
The sense of obedience, structure, and submission permeates the way that coaches talk to and discipline players, and this in turn alters how players see themselves. Northwestern’s presumptive starting quarterback, Trevor Siemian, told ESPN that he would vote against unionization because, “I’m treated far better than I deserve here.” “Deserve” is the telling word here; the sense that it is unseemly to press for individual concerns that the coach isn’t in favor of is a sentiment that runs throughout many of the statements given by Wildcat football players. Given this basic psychology, it’s hard to imagine that the union vote will succeed; players would see it as akin to a mutiny (in part because that’s how the NCAA, Northwestern and Coach Fitzgerald himself have talked about it).
My guess it that there will be a union in college sports in the near future, but that it won’t be in football; it will be a basketball team that unionizes. There are three reasons for this. First, the very structure of basketball is one that is more about collective individualism and less about obedience and submission. Football has more distinctly delineated roles, positions, tasks and hierarchies. Basketball also requires teamwork, but an effective team cannot operate like a Kirby Smart defense in which people have a very limited set of queues to read and react to. Most of the time, basketball teams run “sets” not “plays,” the difference being that in a set a player doesn’t run preset routes or perform rote actions; his position, movement, passing, etc. are defined by broader principles that tell a player how to interpret and react to what the defense is doing and what the other four players on offense are doing and can do. In fact, many teams will only run 7-8 sets. In its run to the championship game, Kentucky featured two sets for about 85% of its plays. The Phil Jackson Lakers ran the triangle offense for more than 90% of its sets. Having just a handful of things that a team runs doesn’t make what they do simple and more than not having sheet music makes jazz simple. The options that sets present mean that in many respects an elite college basketball offense has more dynamic complexity and flexibility than a football play. I would argue that the process of teaching players to think, to be creative, to be cognizant of the entire game and to cooperate with everyone on the court are traits that don’t really lend themselves to the sort of pointless (for the player at least) self-sacrifice that the football coaches at Northwestern are asking for. If football’s insistence on sacrifice, obedience and compartmentalized tasks makes it an obvious martial metaphor, then basketball –with its more dynamic teamwork and its striving for balance between individual expression and collective goals- may be best understood as operating more like a union.
The second thing that makes basketball different is the nature of the relationships between players and between the players and the coaches. On a 100-man college football team, a head coach can really only have a personal relationship with a few players, and these usually don’t run all that deep (Urban Meyer’s weird obsession with Tim Tebow notwithstanding). On a 15-man team, though, the head coach has usually recruited every player personally (this doesn’t happen in football), and the head coach knows not just the player, but the player’s family as well. There is a marked difference when you listen to how Coach K, Billy Donovan, John Calipiari or John Beilein talk about their players and interact with them as opposed to how football coaches do. There’s a genuine affection of the kind that is just impossible to create with 100 people. Hell, even genuine basketball hardasses like Bobby Knight had fantastically close relationships with their players. On a human level, it’s just harder to justify taking advantage of someone you know well than it is to construct a worldview in which the multitudes in your charge should sacrifice for the greater glory. Coach Calipiari is no doubt a disingenuous blowhard in many ways, but I have no doubt that he does actually care about the lifelong success and happiness of his kids. That’s why he is pressing for larger stipends, better insurance, more reasonable rules and a more robust voice for athletes in the governance of the NCAA. I can’t imagine one of his players grousing that a teammate is asking for more than he “deserves.” And, if I might speculate, it is also why I would bet that Calipiari wouldn’t oppose his team unionizing if they wanted to (I can’t speak to Kentucky law, which would ultimately be the decider of this question because NLRB can’t recognize unions at state universities without state clearance). Having the coach support a union wouldn’t guarantee its acceptance by the university or the NLRB, but it would make things a bit more awkward in the public relations department for the person charged with player well being to say that a union is the way to go.
Finally, because of the limited numbers of players, the fact that freshmen play more prominent roles, and the large amounts of money that college basketball players generate, basketball players have a clearer sense of their worth and would be more likely to press for this change. Moreover, because some of them can go pro after their freshman seasons, many basketball players might feel a bit more immune to the implied consequences of defying the coach and pressing for a union.
If colleges can find a way to operate in a way that is equitable to all, I do genuinely think that basketball has a valuable place in the pedagogical mission of American higher education. The game more closely mimics the sorts of challenges that life presents than does football, and it does better in providing players with a set of personal traits that can help make them successful in life. On the other hand, whenever I see all 22 players on a football field look to the sideline for a play, and then five seconds later see all 22 players look again to get their audibles and adjustments, I get the sense that football is seeking to create automata and not people capable of dynamic democratic thinking. Some time last season, I went past the 50% mark in the argument that we shouldn’t be playing college football because the game exacted too high of a toll on its participants’ brains. Now, my concern grows because I don’t think that football teaches university students the kinds of values that help a democracy to function. I’m starting to run out of reasons to tolerate, much less enjoy, college football other than “it’s fun to watch.”