On Heels of Recession, the Case for an Annual College Football Mercy Bowl

Mike JonesCorrespondent IDecember 30, 2008

Sports writers and commentators have been trying to make the point that 2008 was one of the greatest years in modern sports history.

Whether it was Michael Phelps' record eight gold medals, David Tyree's improbable catch to eventually shatter the Patriots' run for perfection or the marathon Federer-Nadal final at Wimbledon, the sports just seemed to be a little more dramatic, a little more historic and a little more magnificent than years past.

However, this notion doesn't seem to be much comfort to Americans as they are losing their jobs, their homes and their faith in a society built on the idealistic notion that fairness and justice will always overcome greed and derision.

What's beautiful about our sports culture as that it has the unique ability to redeem our faith in what's good about this country. Whether that's the "Miracle on Ice," Jesse Owens' triumph under Hitler's glare, or the simple joy of watching a baseball game as a tattered flag pulled from the wreckage of a fallen set of towers hovers over both home and opponent, always reminding us that while we compete, we are always one.

I thought about this as I was watching my beloved Wisconsin Badgers get their lunch handed to them by a superior Florida State Seminoles team in the Champs Sports Bowl. Watching the debacle on the couch, I figured I'd browse the web or get on this website to vent my frustration.

Instead, I came across this beautiful story by the AP's Ben Walker. It's the long-forgotten story about the 1960 Cal-Poly football team's tragic plane crash which killed 22 people, including 16 players, a manager, and a booster.

The next year, Fresno State and Bowling Green (the team that had just beat Cal-Poly before the crash) played what was called the "Mercy Bowl," a charity game where all proceeds benefited the victims' families. The game, through ticket sales and private donations, raised $278,000. It was a beautiful gesture of sportsmanship and charity...

...one that would only be repeated once in 1971, when three Cal-Fullerton coaches and a pilot met a similar tragedy.

According to Walker, of the 34 bowl games currently in Division I, not one is a 100 percent charity game. Granted, universities, conferences, and the host cities should benefit from the bowl games. Bowl games help fund academic and athletic scholarships, better facilities and aids local businesses and charities with the out-of-town patronage.

But, by and large, non-BCS bowl games are considered more exhibition than competition nowadays, thanks to the growing dichotomy of importance between the BCS games and the rest.

So wouldn't it be excellent to have a bowl game where two teams from places hit by tragedy, whether natural (like a hurricane) or man-made (take your pick) could play for a cause greater than mere rankings or booster pride? Sadly, there's never a shortage of tragedy, even in college football towns.

Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois, and Arizona have all recently felt the pain of campus classroom shootings. LSU, Miami, Tulane, and the other gulf coast schools are still in a region reeling from Katrina and other hurricanes over the years.

Some schools operate in manufacturing towns where unemployment (and subsequently, poverty and crime) continues to rise at a rapid rate. Food pantries, the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries are all reporting a rise in families in need this year.

A permanent Mercy Bowl could be a prime-time event, just before Christmas, where instead of scrolling other scores, they could scroll a phone number or website where viewers can make donations.

The lowest rated bowl game last year was the Texas Bowl, with a .3 Nielsen rating. That's 343,000 households. If one-third of those households donated five bucks, that would be over half a million dollars right there, not including ticket sales and other charity events to be held during the weekly run up to the game.

Maybe a Mercy Bowl would be a temporary salve to a community's woes. Maybe it won't solve every problem confronting them, whether it's physical, economic or mental. But it would exemplify our best selves and what sports can truly offer.

For sports is a reminder to all of us that we are redeemable creatures capable of not only astounding feats of athleticism or strategic skill in the midst of competition, but we also capable of exhibiting an exemplary character that transcends the love of our teams and conferences.