Why college football is better than the NFL

I watched the Michigan/Notre Dame football game last night at a friend’s house, and I didn’t think it could possibly live up to the hype that preceded it. And boy, was I ever wrong! It was a roller coaster in the fourth quarter, the likes of which I can’t recall ever seeing before. Nothing the NFL has to offer, from today’s opening games until the Super Bowl next year, is going to top that.

Football itself did not originate with the NFL, but with elite colleges like Harvard and Yale. And it’s not hard to see why, either. The idea that a team is made up of students from the same school is where the sport first took root, and it grew and flourished for decades until one of college football’s greatest players, “Red” Grange, bucked tradition and began playing football for a living. So you could say that colleges had a jump of at least four decades or more on the pros, where football is concerned.

I watched last night’s game in Ann Arbor, with its announced crowd of almost 115,000 in the “‘Big House,” and wondered whether the NFL could ever attract a crowd of that size for a single game. I can’t imagine that many fans in one place without parking nightmares, fights breaking out, and all kinds of issues coming up. And I also can’t imagine any team in the NFL shelling out the kind of money it would take to build a stadium so large. It just wouldn’t happen.

So does the size of a crowd determine the relative merits of a sport? Of course not. But it does suggest that the fan base for a college spots team is different from that of a pro sports team. Students, obviously, make up a sizeable chunk of a college team’s fan base, along with the school’s alumi and, in the case of a large state school like Oklahoma or Nebraska, just about anyone who lives in that state, if they choose to identify with that school and its sports teams.

But the NFL is different. For starters, fans are generally those who live in or around the city where the team play its home games, but not always. The Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t really be able to call themselves “America’s Team” if all of their fans were from Dallas. It’s also quite possible that Peyton Manning’s legions of fans don’t all live in or near Indianapolis, but are willing to cheer for whatever team he happens to be the quarterback for.

But the biggest difference, that I can see, is that the players themselves have to know that their chances of playing professionally after college aren’t very good. For every guy like Michigan’s Denard Robinson, there are hundreds of other guys who know that, come next season, their football careers will be over. But they play anyway, risking long-term damage to their bodies, because they love the game and probably can’t remember a time when they didn’t play football.

There’s some talk of paying players in college athletics, so that they can share in the money they bring to their schools. But this won’t happen, since it would drastically change the landscape of sports as we know it. In the NFL, at least, players can’t go pro until four years after they finish high school. (We have none other than Red Grange to thank for that rule.) So where else are they going to go, if they love the sport and/or see it as their ticket out of wherever they came from? They may as well keep on playing the game until they can go pro, if that’s their intention.

There’s only two weeks of college games in the books, and one week of the NFL, but I can tell you that my interest in the college games is already peaking. There may not be another thrilling game like the one in Ann Arbor last night, but I’m willing to keep looking for one, all season long.

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