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Friday Forum: Do games like Florida vs. Towson have to happen?

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On the peculiar arguments in favor of football socialism...

NCAA Football: Tennessee-Martin at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This week, in advance of the Florida Gators inviting the Towson Tigers into The Swamp in hopes of exchanging their money for an easy win over one of the shining lights of the Colonial Athletic Association, Tampa Bay Times writer Matt Baker made a case for these sorts of games.

“Fans don’t want to see Division I-A teams play I-AA teams,” he writes in his second paragraph, but that’s not his point: They do, Baker argues, add value to the sport of college football, by propping it up at lower levels. “You might not know it,” he writes, “but you’d miss them if they were gone.”

No, I wouldn’t. And I strongly suspect college football, at the FBS level — which hasn’t been Division I-A for, uh, 13 years — wouldn’t actually miss being a donor state to FCS football, either, were the latter to go the way of the dodo.

The current state of affairs suggests that FBS football is almost always profitable (with a few scattered exceptions) but that FCS football (and below, at Division II and III) is far more rarely profitable, with FCS teams routinely needing the sorts of cash infusions that playing bigger, deep-pocketed programs can bring to operate. Schools operate football programs as a means of marketing their schools and perhaps of recruiting students who want to play football in college but aren’t good enough at it to merit the psuedo-employment of being an FBS-level athlete — not infrequently the kind of striver whose name might have a III or IV at the end or whose family might be able to make significant contributions to said college — and can justify them as marketing, even if they’re barely profitable, because marketing always justifies itself.

Great, right? High school football players get to keep playing football into their early 20s, and Abilene Christian and Youngstown State get cheap (?) marketing of football programs that they can argue help with brand awareness even if it deeply strains credulity to think that most potential Abilene Christian students head to a school with mandatory daily chapel in a mid-sized city in West Texas because of a football team that hasn’t won seven games since 2012.

Okay, so: What if the FBS schools decided to keep as much money for themselves as possible and counteract the troubling trend of declining in-person attendance by scheduling only other FBS teams, effectively ending a system of football socialism that is held up as high-minded by millionaires who never talk about the benefits of buying wins for themselves? (Baker quotes Jimbo Fisher — a Samford graduate whose Bulldogs played Florida State in 2010, then nearly beat the Seminoles in 2018 — as saying, in 2016, “When you start taking these budgets away, where are all the high school football players going to go?” I dunno, Jimbo: Maybe to college as regular college students, or into the workforce, as would be expected of students who don’t have football skills? No one is wringing his hands about where all the 4-H Club members go.)

Baker notes that Big Ten teams no longer schedule FCS schools, and that other programs — Florida among them — are beefing up their schedules with better opponents and programs with bigger fan bases more inclined to buy tickets. I fully expect that FBS programs, who already schedule with geography in mind, will do so increasingly often in future years, and I have long been an advocate of public schools scheduling within their own university systems, as well — it makes more sense for all involved, frankly, for Florida to be playing Florida A&M regularly, instead of importing Towson or Charleston Southern or UMass.

And it’s not as if the benefits to these FCS or lower schools are trickling down as meaningfully as one would think. Baker reports that Towson was able to charter a plane to Maine for a game two weeks ago instead of busing, thanks to the payday it will receive from Florida, and paraphrases Tennessee-Martin’s coach as saying that without the program’s two guaranteed-payment games, the program would struggle to pay for scholarships.

The trend, clearly, is toward FBS schools doing more to take care of themselves than to prop up lower levels of football. And maybe, just maybe, a business that relies on bigger and ostensibly competitive businesses being charitable isn’t exactly a fundamentally sound proposition for the long term?

If Florida had to play, I dunno, Maryland in place of Towson, or were bringing in Mountain West or AAC teams instead of CAA and OVC stalwarts, I don’t think Florida would suffer much in the long term — and as Florida fans, I think many of us would welcome being able to see more competitive games, and/or being compelled to head to Gainesville for them.

Making the case that it is the big schools’ responsibility to keep the small schools in business, then, is a case for literal socialism — one that flies in the face of what the deeply capitalist industry of college sports purports to support.

And I think those two poles should — and will — either be reconciled or decoupled, no matter how eloquent the case for their diametrically opposite aims is.