I know bowls don’t make any sense. 35 of them, absurd! They proliferate like fruit flies. No longer real creations growing from communities, like the Rose Bowl still remains, but media concoctions generated by local sports commissions and voracious media conglomerates stuffed with corporate logos and sponsors who might not exist next year. Half filled stadiums that camera’s pan away from.
6 – 6 qualifies for bowls games. The Big 10 has 8 teams bowl qualified and the ACC is not far behind. The bowls contract with the sixth place team from the IAUD conference to play the fourth place team from the MUIT conference at the Dungeness Crab bowl in Tukwila. I know the problems and the absurdities of it. Each year more cities confect bowls and besiege the NCAA for a meaningless certification.
The process grows sillier when you realize that most teams that travel to bowls lose money on them! Beyond the big guarantee BCS bowls, most bowls barely cover expenses and require invited teams to buy a mandated block of tickets. NCAA certification amounts to little more than verification that bowls can actually meet guarantees which some have failed to do. Cities see them as loss leaders and expect not to make money but don’t want to hemorrhage money. Most bowl travelling teams subsidize the trips. The schools see them as marketing opportunities, rewards for alumni and a chance to get some extra practice time in and create one more pitch for recruits.
I know all this. BUT.
I think bowls can and do matter to the kids, sorry I mean college players. Football season grinds on for along time. Football generates a brutal bruising hard season full of injury, pain, work and exhaustion. No one sees the hours in the conditioning and trainers and doctor’s offices. No other college sport exacts such a cost or imposes such danger. The players manifest a physical, mental and emotional courage on a daily basis to go out and play a sport they often love and hate in equal measure. At the end of a long demanding hurting season, a good trip somewhere to celebrate and play makes a lot of sense.
Most bowls do not have high stakes. This makes them more attractive to the student athletes at the end. Sure they would like to play for the national championship, but the bowls actually represent a more pure amateur ideal. The conference or bowl championships are not on the line. All the big money is passed out and all the big games slotted. Now the teams play, literally, just to play.
I have watched our Washington program for a number of years. We have not done well in football burning through four coaches and suffering a 0-12 season just 20 months ago. The endless losses grated on the team and wore down the morale and joy of the players. This year I was surprised listing to the players talk about how exciting going to a bowl would be. The team struggled with a 4-6 and at present a 5-6; the idea of making it to a bowl energized what could be a desultory end to another mediocre season.
The idea of actually have a reward at the end of season attracts them. It infuses meaning into what could be another meaningless 5-6 or 5-7 season. Suddenly game 12 in a struggling season matters. This happens all over the country. Teams on the cusp have a meaning and purpose for the last third of the season.
Bowls do for college football what the endless expansion of playoffs in pro ball does; they create incentives to make what could be joyless meaningless games worth something. College athletes are generally not jaded pros, and they respond to this. All over the country, bowls affect meaning and purpose for teams. This is a good thing for players and teams and coaches.
Bowls can be fun, the players get to go somewhere nice (hopefully) and stay at a great hotel, eat lots of meat eater dinners (are there any vegan college football players?) and have a prepackaged but nice time at the end of the season. I like the idea of this reward at the end of the long harsh seasons. My wife points out to me this whole approach rewards mediocrity—I mean a bowl for 6-6! And certainly is not something other students have access to. Agreed, but if I have to find value in the bowls, it lies providing a reward and time to play for the sake of playing to college athletes.
Finally part of me revels in bowls defiance of the obsessive focus of media pundits upon “there can only be one” demand for a national championship. Student welfare issues be damned, let’s extend the season to NFL length, let the injuries proliferate, but at least we’ll have a Highlander like ascension at the end. I guess it makes sense to a pundit who confuses the NFL with the NCAA, but bowls remind us that sport is played ultimately for student athletes to enjoy the sport, not satisfy the cravings of pundits. Let a thousand flowers bloom for the student athletes.