Going into the last week of the regular college football season, both the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech had identical records of 5-6 heading into their annual rivalry game Friday. The Cavaliers, who fell to the Hokies 24-20, are ending their season with a losing record. But Virginia Tech, with a record of six wins and six losses, will be welcomed into the nirvana of college football: bowl eligibility. As a reward, Tech will get to play in one of 39 post-season bowl games, allowing its boosters and fans bragging rights and trips to (usually) mild-weathered sites during the holidays.
In college football, becoming bowl eligible is synonymous with success. In the real world, there’s another word for six wins and six losses: mediocre.
In the old days, there were good, simple names for these bowls: Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton to name a few. Recent tradition has allowed companies and corporations, for a price, to attach their names to the bowls, to the point that some of them are difficult to say in a single breath. In spite of the possible loss of income, it might be helpful to rename some of these bowls that match up 6-6 teams. The Average Bowl. The Middling Bowl. And, assuming you can get it all on a T-shirt to be sold to boosters and fans for $50 a pop to prove they were there and to commemorate the event, the We Only Beat the Weaker Teams on Our Schedule But We Think We Should Be Rewarded for That Bowl.
Now that collegiate athletics, featuring our public role models in higher education, have set such lofty standards, it’s easy to see how the Department of Education should declare No Child Left Behind and issue a mandate, since revisited, that all students pass all standardized tests by 2014. As an educator, my first thought is that we’re a long way from 6-6 here. These same people also have instituted a system in which each school is evaluated in multiple categories in order to achieve annual yearly progress. Failure in any one category, even by a point or two, means the school fails its progress test. Where’s the bowl game for that?
If you think there’s pressure on college coaches to achieve success — again, often defined by whether your team becomes bowl eligible — this is nothing compared to how a classroom teacher feels. With No Child Left Behind, it’s expected that every student, regardless of previous preparation, lack thereof, or attitude, must pass. A 90 percent pass rate, while usually not looked down on, isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration. In some cases it may be perceived as the bare minimum to keep your job.
Many observers will be quick to point out that sports and education aren’t the same. One is far more important than the other and they shouldn’t be judged by the same standards — and I absolutely agree. That, of course, would explain why an untried, first-year coach or an unproven rookie professional athlete can earn only a minimal salary that many of his friends would laugh at, while 20- and 30-year veteran and proven teachers are being given multimillion-dollar contracts, not to mention the ridiculous signing bonuses they throw at teachers before they set foot into a class.
Oh, I’m sorry. Did I get that last part reversed? Many teachers in the Richmond area’s public schools have taught for more than 30 years without ever making as much as $60,000 a year, while coaches in the state’s public universities are paid well more than $1 million annually just to take the job. Any way we can hook up a bowl game for that one? Something with an attention-grabbing name like the You’ve Got to Be #%$?!ing Kidding Bowl. It looks better on a T-shirt than in newsprint.
Not that coaches, players and fans are striving for mediocrity, but that seems to be the reward point in many cases. Heading into the last week of the college football season with one game remaining, nine of 14 Atlantic Coast Conference schools were bowl-eligible. Virginia Tech joins the ranks. One other team, Pittsburgh, also made it with a win Saturday, giving the conference 11 bowl teams out of 14 in the league. Nationally, there were 128 teams vying for 76 bowl spots. You do the math. Although I’m primarily a college sports fan, I’ve heard rumors that there are professional sports leagues in which more than 50 percent of the teams make the playoffs every year. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this would have to involve at least some losing teams.
What our society learns through sports is that mediocrity can be rewarded if there’s money to go around. What it learns from the state of education is that there’s no money to go around, but teachers need to be perfect, or at least within a hair’s breadth of it, anyway. And, even though they’re ridiculously underpaid, they should be happy while they’re doing it. Any takers for the Be a Good Sport Bowl? S
Wade Reynolds is a retired Chesterfield County English teacher.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
Editor's Note: In the print version of this story, we misidentified the number of national college football bowl slots as 78. The actual number is 76. Style regrets the error.