Book Review: College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy
I have commented before, perhaps even on here, that there is truly very little new under the sun in college football. The tenuous relationship between the hallowed halls of academe and big-time spectator sports is in the news these days, but it’s been in the news for a century. As I like to point out, the Marx Brothers, not exactly modern entertainers, made a movie about it.
John Sayle Watterson’s College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy details the story of this relationship and its affect upon the sport, from its earliest days through the close of the twentieth century (the book was first published in 2000). Like the fabulous America’s Game on the NFL, Watterson’s tome is much more of a sociological history than one of the game on the field. Rules changes are discussed to the extent they were part of the relationship between the game on the field and the effect of college football. That means we get extensive discussion of the crucial rules changes of the early twentieth century, including not just the introduction of the forward pass but the subsequent rules changes after those in 1905 failed to quite the expected effect on fatalities (itself a more complicated story than I thought it was), but little to none of many others. Those looking for descriptions of feats of derring-do on the gridiron will find their desires unsatisfied. The result is at times a less-than-thrilling read, even relative to America’s Game, but Watterson clearly knows his subject and did his research, both a necessary and a refreshing thing to see for the book.
The inevitable effect of any attempt to write a comprehensive and not incredibly long history is that some areas will be better covered than others, and I would rate roughly the post-1970 period as the weakest part of Watterson’s book. For a more comprehensive perspective on the modern game, I recommend supplementing it, particularly with Keith Dunnavant’s The Fifty-Year Seduction, and possibly also Michael Oriard’s Bowled Over, a book I found disappointing at the time but one that stands out more in hindsight. That limitation notwithstanding, I recommend College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy to all college football fans with a strong interest in the history of the game.