Jon: This article is inspired by tonight's debate about banning college football that's being sponsored by Intelligence Squared. The debate features Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger versus Tim Green and Jason Whitlock. Let's just say I wouldn't have chosen Bissinger or Whitlock and be expected to be taken seriously, although I'm sure they'll both provide plenty of colorful commentary.
I've tried to break this down into what are basically talking points similar to what each side has proposed for the debate.
Before the debate starts, let me point out that there is nothing new here. Pundits and fans alike bemoan the loss of "student" in "student athlete" but one can look back as far as the 1929 Carnegie report for evidence that corruption and issues with academics were prevalent in college football. And college football history fans are well aware than in 1905 several footballers were killed due to the violence in the game, and had it not been for Teddy Roosvelt's intervention to make the game safter, it might have been outlawed at that time.
With regards to the point that college football detracts from the educational mission at most universities, I'll point to the University of Chicago, which dropped football in 1939 to focus on education. Ivy League schools sponsor football teams but do not provide athletic scholarships (which is somewhat of an embellishment - if you are going to play a sport there, they'll provide some tuition relief for you). All have faired well with regards to academics, but your average Joe's kids aren't going to get into any of these schools. It may well be that grade point average isn't a problem, but the cost would eliminate the rest of us riff raff.
For many schools outside the BCS conferences, they do lose money on football. And that's not something that's easily mitigated. Coaching salaries are going up based on the law of supply and demand, because when football does become successful, it brings in big money. Scholarships are difficult to limit because the sport of football requires so many players. The only way the NFL manages to survive with a 45 man roster is because of free-agency. If someone gets injured, they go out and bring in somebody else who isn't playing. That model can never work for college sports; players can't just enroll in college at mid-semester, and most are out of college eligibility anyway.
That being said, the highest profile program at any University or college is typically their football team, if they are successful. Nothing galvanizes a student body or alumni base like football. Say all you want about the important research being done in electrical engineering or cancer research, but in terms of public awareness, it pales in comparison to the attention football generates.
Football can serve a complimentary role in a University, if managed properly.
It's been pointed out that few athletic departments make money, and because of that they are subsidized by universities and student fees. As a Nebraska alum, I am proud of the fact that our athletic department is self-sustaining and has at times given back to the university. Unfortunately, that's not the way it is at the majority of schools.
College football has a problem with the arms race that's being conducted in the form of runaway coaches salaries and rampant facility building. This is an enormous problem because the current rate of spending is unsustainable. Honestly, I'm not sure how an arms race ends without one side or another going bankrupt. Perhaps that's what we're headed for. That or just recognizing that the SEC will win every championship for the next 20 years because they don't give a damn about academics as much as everyone else and are perfectly willing to keep spending millions on football coaches.
An aside - I don't see how you can complain that too much money is flowing into college football while at the same time complain about the players not being compensated. Seems to me that they're the ones benefiting from iPads in their locker rooms and facilities resembling Taj Mahal. These two issues seem at odds with each other.
College football players are being exploited.
This topic can be a debate all by itself and has been in the past. One key item to remember - a difference between the words "paid" and "compensated". "Paid" means exactly that - paid in money. "Compensated" means something given or received as payment or reparation for a service or a loss. Nitpicking? Absolutely not.
In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Buzz Bissinger stated, with regards to college football:
The players themselves don't benefit, exploited by a system in which they don't receive a dime of compensation.
The statement is incorrect. Taken from the 2010 NCAA edition of revenues and expenses, we find that the median expense per student athlete was $76,000. USA Today conducted an analysis last year that showed that basketball players are compensated at $120,000 per year. Note that the linked article makes the case that the formula used to reach that figure is wrong.
Over 50% of college graduates under age 25 are unemployed, and chances are, many are burdened with debts it'll take years to pay off. Who's being exploited here? (That's probably a different debate. Perhaps Gladwell and Bissinger would care to participate in that one?
Ask any parent who's trying to fund their kids' college education and you can see that athletes get something of value. If you want to discuss whether it's enough, whether it's fair compensation - that's one debate that we can have. But they are getting something for their involvement.
College football detracts from the core university educational mission.
In the Bissinger column, he states that college football serves as a distraction. It's worthwhile to examine the issue. In doing so, you will find that across the board, college football players are graduating at less a rate than their full-time male student counterparts. Two reasons are given for this. First, that FBS football players are more likely to be "special admissions", meaning that they be only marginally prepared for college with regards to academics before entering. Second, that football players have a full-time commitment to their sport when they should be fully committed to their academics.
Again, I am proud that my university puts a focus on academics as part of athletics.
The NCAA only recently implemented the APR, which penalizes schools that follow below a minimum standard in graduation rates.
It is incumbent upon institutions and parents of athletes to emphasize to their football players that few of them will make the NFL and that they need their education to better their lives. If they're smart enough to understand today's football playbooks, they're certainly smart enough to graduate with a degree.
College football players suffer debilitating injuries that may shorten their lives.
That's not college football; that's football, period. We are learning just how violent the game truly is, and how devastating it can be on the people who play the game. And there is no choice in the matter; the game must become safer. There are two ways that can be accomplished: the first is by technology and research. Better protective gear to reduce the impacts of violent collisions between players and the field. We are still learning what the true impact of concussions on the brain. While it's too early to draw any final conclusions, what we do know is that it's a problem that cannot be ignored.
If science cannot find a way to make the game safer, we'll be subject to the Ed Cunningham-ization of the game. (Remember Eric Martin and Courtney Osborne?) The game will have to become less physical; perhaps becoming more like touch football. Just like what the NFL's Pro Bowl became before the league finally killed it.
In the past, Gladwell has compared football to dog fighting. One important difference - the dogs didn't choose whether or not they got to fight, unlike college football players who are free to choose whether they're involved in the sport.
They not only choose to be involve, they also are aware of all the risks. Former Husker center Dominic Raiola knows he's going to pay for all the abuse his body has taken, but feels it's more than worth it.
"It's worth it. It's totally worth it," Raiola said. "This is the best job in the world. I'd never trade it for anything, so I don't know if I could justify suing the league when I'm done, because it's given me up to this point, 11 years. Even though we've lost for 10, it's given me 11 years of fun. I have fun every time I step on the field, and I think that's what it's all about.
"When I'm at home in my rocking chair at 40, I don't think I'm going to be thinking about suing the NFL. I'm going to be thinking about those guys I played with in the locker room and, hopefully, these good years coming up."
That doesn't mean that we shouldn't find ways to make the game safer, but as long as players know what they are getting into, there's no reason to go to the drastic step of discontinuing the sport.
It was just two years ago that Owen Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania committed suicide, leading to an autopsy of his brain that revealed extensive damage despite him not having a history of concussions. This past week, Junior Seau committed suicide and there is talk of him also having problems due to playing professional football for over 20 years.
This is of obvious concern and something obviously must be done to improve the safety of the sport. The good news is that it hasn't taken too long to recognize that there might be a problem. High school students across the U.S. are participating in ImPACT (Immediate Post concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing). Many schools require that student athletes are tested before being allowed to participate in their sport. It extends beyond just football to include sports such as soccer and hockey.
College football has changed before, such as after 1905 when mass formation plays such as the "Flying Wedge" were made illegal to remove some of the brutality from the game. It may be that reforms are due, such as removing kickoffs or the three-point stance for linemen. Perhaps better helmet design will occur or better testing for players who have been dinged so that they can be given a chance to recover before playing again.
Don't Go Down The Rabbit Hole
If you're going to be watching or paying attention to this debate, watch for topics that are irrelevant. Scandals, for example, are irrelevant. For every scandal about college football, you can find just as many about universities that don't relate to college football. Oh, look, here's one - an admissions scandal at the University of illinois. UCLA was caught up in a scandal involving a consulting firm's accounting practices. Wow. I'll bet that's rare, huh?
Then there's this from Harvard, where a psychology professor was allowed to continue to teach after University investigators said he was responsible for scientific misconduct. And guess what!? His colleagues stood up for him. Hard to believe such a thing could happen at a place with no big-time college football program to corrupt it.
Why do college football scandals come up in this environment? High profiles and big names. It's titillating, that's why.
Another tangent is money. There seems to be an attitude that because a lot of money is being spent on college football that less is available for the institution. You could argue that universities who are subsidizing their athletic departments need to get their house in order, but that argument would be negated when the real problem is confronted, that being that when state governments are faced with deficits, higher education is an easy target. (That's a great simplification of the problem, I admit.)
Millions of dollars (billions?) are being poured into collegiate athletics. College football and basketball are the chief money makers and are being used by athletic departments to fund their non-revenue sports, which by law they must maintain. Killing college football would serve to eliminate most of those sports as they currently exist, and it would eliminate the possibility for many students to attend school.
I fail to see how eliminating most of the athletics from universities will make them better unless it's a desire by academic elitists to cut out the riff raff. By eliminating "marginal" students, test scores would go up and universities would look better, at least on paper. Perhaps that's the end goal, then?
You'll notice that neither Bissinger nor Gladwell has ever mentioned oversigning. I mention that as evidence that neither care as much about the student athletes as they would have you to believe.
Let's say that Bissinger and Gladwell got their way. Tomorrow we wake up in a world where college football has been banned, and the NFL has created it's own farm teams. Young football players are paid to play.
Unfortunately, the NFL is more of a meat market than college. Education other than football has no value. Thousands of young men are herded like cattle into environments where they must perform physically or be shown the door. The vast majority of these young men don't make the big leagues and their careers in the minors last only three or four years. They are then released into the workforce with no education, no skills, and no future.
Does anyone truly believe that this is a better solution than the one that currently exists with college football?