Free Sport

Johnny Football, The Flutie Effect, and the Myth of College Athletics Amateurism

If you haven't yet read it, check out the outstanding Sports On Earth article "Johnny Football vs. The NCAA," which just about perfectly addresses the complexity, hypocrisy, and utter buffoonery of big time (business) college sports and its "non-professional" status, as well as the current controversy regarding reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny "Football" Manziel, star quarterback for Texas A & M University, who allegedly sold his autographs for money ("The horror!"), which, as Patrick Hruby notes, is just the latest "example of the ridiculous nature of amateurism."

Manziel, like all top name athletes at all big-time university programs, is technically just a student-athlete playing football. But, due to his high-profile success, he effectively "works for the school," writes Hruby, "performing marketing, campus entertainment and alumni outreach duties."

This is largely due to the infamous "Flutie Effect," whereby the success of a university's athletic team (usually football, or men's basketball), especially one featuring a media-grabbing story (see "Situationist Philosopher Guy Debord and the Unbelievable True Story of Manti Te'o's Fake Dead Girlfriend," Free Sport, 1/18/13) charismatic individual (such as Natick, Mass-born and bred Doug Flutie, the legendary Boston College quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy in 1984, led his team to a victory in the Cotton Bowl - back when the Cotton Bowl was one of only four major bowls - all of them played on New Year's Day, and completed possibly the most famous ("Hail Mary") pass in the history of college football, forever since known as the "Miracle in Miami") leads to greater interest and thus revenue for the university.

(Current UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon was at BC during the Flutie Era, and has referenced their football success in regards to the UMass program making the jump to the upper Football Bowl Subdivision - formerly known as Division 1-A football, and the correlating financial commitments.)

"Here's how it works," Hruby explains.

"In 1984, Boston College defeated Miami on a last-second, game-winning touchdown pass thrown by Eagles quarterback Doug Flutie. Over the next two years, applications to the former school went up by 30 percent. Academics and marketers alike call this "the Flutie Effect" -- that is, the admissions uptick that accompanies high-profile athletic success, like Georgetown's applications increasing by 45 percent between 1983 and 1986, the same period in which Patrick Ewing led the school's basketball team to an NCAA title and national prominence. Numerous academic papers have found that winning big-time football and basketball teams spur increased donor and alumni giving, too, the same way a slick Apple marketing campaign spurs sales of the latest iPhone. When the St. Mary's (Calif.) men's basketball team reached the Sweet 16 of the 2010 NCAA tournament, a study found that the total publicity value to the school was roughly $9.3 million. Last year, Texas A&M estimated that quarterback Johnny Manziel's Heisman Trophy win earned the school $37 million in media exposure."

Now $37 mil in advertising sounds like a pretty good return on a couple years of college tuition* (big-time stars rarely play through their four years of eligibiltiy before heading to the NFL) to me.

Hruby breaks down that figure by quoting from ESPN's Rick Reilly:

"A study by Joyce Julius & Associates found that, last season alone, Manziel was worth $37 million in "media exposure" (free advertising) for the Aggies. By December, the school bookstore sold out all 2,500 replica jerseys it had. There's a guy on eBay who says he's sold 625 "Johnny Football" T-shirts at $20 each. The Collegiate Licensing Company figures that winning a Heisman increases your sales and royalties by 27.5 percent over five years."

Texas A & M is currently spending $450 million to renovate its home stadium, Kyle Field (aka "The Home of the Twelth Man"). But it will likely never be known as The House That Johnny Football Built, because Manziel may have sold a few autographs for a few bucks, thus violated the sacred amateur nature of non-professional, big business college football.

* Conditional, of course, as Hruby dutifully notes.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate