Kobritz: Collegiate competition, where the steaks are stacked high
BEYOND THE LINES
Mention college sports and people think of scholarships, intense recruiting, and professional opportunities. That’s certainly the norm for sports like football and basketball.
Unknown to most Americans, a number of colleges also sponsor meat judging teams who compete to determine the best evaluators. Teams judge entire carcasses along with your typical cuts of beef, pork and lamb for overall quality and traits that may affect taste. Students gauge such things as marbling – the amount and location of fat - which impacts flavor, and evaluate cuts based on a checklist developed by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Although students don’t consume the object of their affections and labors, that doesn’t mean the meat goes to waste. Some schools, Texas Tech among them, have created side businesses where the leftover teaching products are packaged and sold to the public. The Red Raiders established their business in 1982 and it has mushroomed into a $2.2 million per year enterprise that includes catering. Proceeds are deposited into the program’s endowment fund that currently has approximately $10 million and provides scholarships to team members.
Meat grading is a unique sport in a number of respects, including the fact competition and practice - lots of practice – take place inside a cooler. Teams are co-ed with many meat judges getting their start as nine year-olds in 4H programs. Others come from FFA - Future Farmers of America - programs available in middle and high schools. A number of high schools in meat producing states – e.g., Texas, Kansas and Nebraska – have judging programs that turn out college prospects. Recruiting among colleges, especially prominent programs like Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas A & M and Texas Tech, is intense. Coaches regularly peruse the website JudgeCard.com that tracks results from every high school and college meat judging competition in the country.
Although little known among sports fans, according to the American Meat Science Association, the Intercollegiate Meat Judging Program began in 1926. Contests have been held yearly since then, except for the World War II years of 1942-1945. Recently, Texas Tech has been the Alabama of meat judging programs, or perhaps it’s the other way around, capturing seven of the last 11 national championships and 12 overall. In a three-year stretch beginning in 2015, the school won 19 of the 21 major contests held, and in 2017 became the first school to go undefeated since the major competition schedule was expanded to seven events in 1981.
Like their contemporaries in football and basketball, meat judges also have professional opportunities, in the private sector with food giants such as Cargill Foods, Hormel Foods and Tyson Foods, and in the public sector with regulatory agencies like the USDA.
Some people may not view meat judging as a sport, although don’t tell that to the competitors. The long hours of practice – up to 12 hours a day – and competitions that begin at 7 a.m. and run to mid-afternoon, can be grueling. If eSports and bass fishing can be considered collegiate sports, why not meat judging?
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com . The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.