Review: College Football - History - Spectacle - Controversy

The legend of early college football goes as follows: In 1905, there were many injuries and several deaths heavily related to the use of the flying wedge. Teddy Roosevelt stepped in and told the football powers that be to clean up the game and change it to eliminate the violence or it would be discontinued. Thus began the NCAA as a vehicle with which to tame the sport.

It's a legend that wraps the early game into a nice, neat easy to sell package. However, the facts are much more elaborate (as are the facts behind any legend) and they are heavily covered in the book "College Football: History - Spectacle - Controversy" by John Sayle Watterson. The book is published by John Hopkins press, and written in an academic style.

"College Football: History - Spectacle - Controversy" does not focus on games, teams, or coaches, but on the history of the game itself. The book starts with the origins of football, covering the years 1876 to 1894, and then covers early controversies - the violence of the game - which was a public concern as early as 1893.

There have been many stories about the Old West, the rough, tough days of taming Western America. This book is comparable - a sport has taken hold of the public, but there are few rules to govern it. As the Old West was tamed, so was college football. In the early days, complete lawlessness. As time went on, the law showed it's hand and started to take control. Such is the story of college football as portrayed by Watterson.

Controversies and scandals are covered throughout the years. The early years exposed the sport for what it was - extremely violent and uncontrolled. What I found most interesting about the book was the ongoing expose' of 'subsidies', the idea that athletes were brought into schools without any regard to the idea that they were 'student-athletes'. There were no requirements for the players in the early years - some schools outright paid grown men to play football for them and required little else.

The influence of television is heavily covered and very interesting. If you're one of those people who think the NCAA is the bogeyman in control of everything, you will find this area of interest. Coverage of the SMU "Death Penalty" is second to none.

The book has been updated since it's original release in 2002, so if you're buying a used book, you might miss the excellent critique Watterson provides of the new NCAA facilities in Indianapolis. He is very cranky about the fact that they continue to use the "legend" as noted above as their reference for the origins of the NCAA, and rightfully so. I won't spoil his argument, if you have interest, buy the book.

The book isn't for the casual college football fan, i.e. those who want romantic stories of the olden days. It's for those who have a heavy interest in both history and college football. It is a heavy read. You won't finish it for a while, mostly because you cannot digest that much information so quickly. But if you're a diehard college football fan and you love history (like I do), this book is it.

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