The football program at historically black Grambling State University has seen better days. After all, Grambling was where Eddie Robinson became the winningest coach in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I history. Grambling is also where Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams and more than 100 other former and current National Football League players spent their collegiate years.
Today, however, the Grambling football program is in the midst of a mutiny. Players are fed up with deplorable working (yes, working) conditions, and their complaints, if true, describe an athletic program not only unable to provide basic accommodations, but one that is likely breaking the law. Players describe mold and mildew in the locker rooms, unsafe workout equipment, and uncut grass on the practice field. They also complain of having to buy their own Gatorade and taking bus trips to far-flung away games, one totaling 1,500 miles round-trip. But most damning is a charge that “several players” have contracted staph infections because of poorly cleaned uniforms.
As a result, players have flat-out refused to practice or attend team meetings, and, this past weekend, they refused to play rival Jackson State University. It was the first regular season forfeiture in the history of the Southwestern Athletic Conference — made worse by the fact that it was Jackson’s homecoming. And in the midst of it all, two coaches, including Williams, have been fired in a span of five weeks amid squabbles and power struggles with upper administration.
For years, Grambling, like many other colleges and universities, has poured millions of dollars from its operating budget to support its under-resourced athletic program. This is in the face of other glaring needs, like student aid. The roughly $3 million that Grambling has sunk into its athletic program each year could fund more than 500 full scholarships, a much better use for a university where 82 percent of full-time students qualify for Pell Grants. In addition, Grambling has seen its state funding decline from almost $32 million in 2008 to about $19 million in 2012.
The stunning fall of the once-vaunted Grambling football program is about more than Grambling. Colleges all over the country are sponsoring athletics they simply cannot afford, and many of them are doing so amid shameful cuts in state higher education funding. The urge to do so is particularly strong among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that were once the nation’s football powerhouses.
Prior to integration, the nation’s top black players attended HBCUs. With alumni like Deacon Jones, Walter Peyton and Jerry Rice, HBCUs have been training grounds for the some of the best players in NFL history. These programs also boasted some of college football’s greatest coaches. When Joe Paterno passed Eddie Robinson on the all-time wins list (a distinction later stripped as part of the NCAA’s Sandusky sanction), he acknowledged Robinson and Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither as “two of the greatest people we’ve ever had in college football.”
It is the tireless longing for a return to the glory years that drives the importance that HBCUs place on athletics, especially football. Unlike colleges that see football as merely a means of garnering publicity and attracting students, HBCUs often see football as an essential link to their history and greatness.
There was a time when propping up these programs with operational funds provided a convincing façade of stability. But declining revenue trends and a burgeoning movement of athlete activism have rendered accounting tricks less effective at shielding the harsh realities of athletic profligacy. Grambling is the most shocking example of these realities, but it is not the only HBCU, or college, in general, struggling to keep its athletic program afloat.
Last month, ESPN introduced a highlight feature warning, “This next part of SportsCenter may be unsuitable for some.” The tongue-in-cheek heads-up referenced three of the weekend’s games in which HBCUs got outscored 207-13. Each was playing in a so-called "guarantee game" — one in which it faced a “guaranteed” humiliating defeat in return for an appearance fee. That weekend, Bethune-Cookman University received $450,000 to get manhandled by Florida State University 54-6; Florida A&M University received $900,000 to get walloped by Ohio State 76-0; and Savannah State received $375,000 from the University of Miami to get trounced 77-7.
For many under-resourced colleges, guarantee games have become the preferred means of generating quick revenue. Florida A&M’s most recent athletic budget lists these games as the second largest source of revenue. But these games come with a price, as they feed into perceptions of HBCU inferiority and put players in the role of sacrificial lambs. Guarantee games have become such an embarrassment for all involved that the Big Ten is discouraging them, and there are rumblings that other conferences will follow suit. So there is hope that this perverse gravy train will soon end.
In order to survive, under-resourced colleges must adopt substantive reforms that transcend short-term stopgaps. One of the most significant reforms would be leaving Division I for Division II. Such a drop would be a considered an insult at many institutions, but it could be a particularly attractive and necessary option for HBCUs.
Division I sports, even at the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level at which HBCUs play, are expensive. FCS schools are required to sponsor at least 14 varsity sports. The vast majority of these sports will net no revenue. It should be no surprise that no FCS athletic program, HBCU or not, turns a profit — and the programs that break even do so only after large institutional subsidies as high as 90 percent. In 2010, the median revenue for FCS institutions was $3.3 million against expenses of more than $13 million.
On the Division II level, the median expenses for football colleges and universities are about $5 million — less than half the FCS median. Colleges are only required to sponsor 10 sports. The downside of Division II sports, however, is on the revenue side, with the median being only $624,000. But low revenue is not destiny. HBCUs would bring to Division II uncommonly strong fan bases.
There are 10 HBCUs at the FCS level with average attendance that would place them in the top 5 among Division II football programs; others, including Grambling, would be in the top 10. The roots of strong HBCU fan support already exist at the Division II level. Six of the top 10 Division II teams in average attendance are HBCUs, and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which is made up of HBCUs, is by far the top conference in attendance.
Given their cloistered conference alignments, Division I HBCUs tend to play each other, a routine that has fostered strong rivalries. And if they joined their Division II counterparts, historic rivalries could be rekindled. Florida A&M and Division II Tuskegee University enjoyed a passionate rivalry dating back to 1941, but have not played since 1996 because of restrictions on out-of-division games. The same divisional politics ended the yearly tilt between archrivals North Carolina A&T and Winston-Salem State University (WSSU).
In 2009, WSSU became the first school in NCAA history to return to Division II after beginning the transition up to Division I. Citing "no rational way" of funding the transition, university officials aborted the plan after four years. Three years later, WSSU played in the Division II national championship game and was able to balance its athletics budget, even though it is contending with state disinvestment and still paying down deficits from its Division I foray. WSSU is ranked 16th in attendance, so while the move back down to Division II may have disappointed some, its fans have not abandoned the program.
With the likelihood of above-average game attendance, HBCUs would likely generate above average revenue at the Division II level. But even if HBCUs only experience typical Division II outcomes, there would still be less red ink to clear than if they remained at the FCS level. It is for these reasons that HBCUs must, en masse, abandon Division I profligacy for Division II sustainability.
Aaron N. Taylor is a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheEdLawProf.
The endless conversation about big-time football appears to be reaching a point of decision and change. While some would like to see big-time football disappear from the collegiate enterprise, this is not likely or desirable. We like our football, our constituents like our football, the nation tunes into our football, and for many universities, nothing is more visible or engaging about their operations than their football.
So we will have football. Success in the big-time has created a variety of conflicts between ideal models for amateur competition and real behavior that the current system finds increasingly difficult to manage. Much of the difficulty stems from the problem of money: too much of it. The money is not going away because we like our football, but we need a better model to manage the money and the game.
Part of the difficulty comes from trying to reconcile the notion of a college-based student activity with the exceptionally high profile and revenue of a previously unimaginably popular and commercial viable enterprise. Football at the top level of American’s institutions, exemplified by the five major athletic conferences, is a big business that depends for its success on the recruitment, retention, and development of superb athletes who must also function as students.
Among the many issues and controversies (academic, ethical, financial, and operation) that complicate our current operating arrangements, refined over many years, is the mismatch in the eyes of our constituents between the revenue scale of the football enterprise and the compensation provided football players (especially the celebrity players of the most successful teams). The current model limits compensation to direct payments for tuition and other college expenses and the indirect compensation by providing players with a high-cost platform for the development of their potential professional value and their possible future value from a professional contract.
Boxed in by our definition of amateur student-athlete, we have found it difficult to construct imaginative ways of reflecting market circumstances that affect the players. We sometimes think that without the strict amateur definition, the college football enterprise would collapse into an uninteresting minor league activity divorced from its academic sponsorship. This may well underestimate the potential creativity of the university, which has, in other contexts, developed mechanisms that could provide a useful model for the football dilemma.
Any model would need to (1) address the market issue of the value of football players within the five major conferences, (2) redefine the organic connection between college education and the student-athletes in the football enterprise, and (3) retain the connection between football and the rest of the college intercollegiate athletic enterprise.
Fortunately, universities have mechanisms for dealing with similar issues that might be adapted to meet the needs of the football enterprise. Think, for a minute, about the university medical center hospital. In many cases this is a separate not-for-profit enterprise, affiliated with the university. Its relationship with the parent university is contractual, and transactions that involve university and hospital are done not through university internal governance mechanisms but by contract that specifies how the hospital economy and the university economy will interact.
The agreements also specify how the academic activities of the university in medical education and research will engage the hospital and how the hospital activities related to patient care and other services will engage the university.
But the two enterprises are financially, legally and operationally separate organizations. They may well have interlocking boards of directors/trustees, but the labor and financial structure of the hospital is not the same nor is it constrained by the circumstances of the university, and the university’s labor and financial structure is not the same nor is it constrained by the circumstances of the hospital.
Adapting this notion to football, imagine that we spin off the football enterprise out of our university and athletic department into a private not-for-profit corporation affiliated with the university, let’s call it the University Football Corp, or UFC (and we could substitute the name of the University for each institution’s football not-for-profit). We license our name and trademarks to our UFC, we lease our football-related sports facilities to the UFC, we contract for various management services that the university may provide the UFC. The coach and other athletic personnel who operate the football activity will be employees of the not-for-profit UFC, and will not be constrained or managed by the university. The financial structure of the football enterprise will require that it be self-supporting. This should not be a problem for the football programs in the five major conferences since almost all of them do indeed make a profit, even if their universities’ intercollegiate sports programs over all lose money.
Students who perform as football players will be employed by the UFC not-for-profit to perform football duties, but requirements for a football player employee will include an age limit between 18 and 24, eligibility limits, enrollment in the university, maintenance of academic good standing, and progress toward a degree. This is not unusual for other student employees of the university.
The football employee will receive a two-part compensation. The first part will be equivalent to the full cost of attendance at the university, to match the requirement that the football player be a student. This amount will be paid by the UFC not-for-profit to the university that will award the financial aid as it would for any student. The second part will be variable and will depend on the market value of the football player to the UFC not-for-profit. This second amount can vary by season and the market for college-age football players, and might well follow norms and procedures established in the National Football League.
This model bears a close resemblance to what we do for medical students, for faculty physicians, and for other university people who have duties and obligations associated with an independent hospital affiliated with the university.
Where is the NCAA in this model? Like hospitals, the UFC not-for-profit will be regulated by an external agency, in this case the NCAA, that will establish the game rules as it does now, and specify the academic eligibility requirements for football players to be considered students, but the NCAA will not regulate payments to players. These will be managed by each institution’s UFC, but probably in accord with rules established by the five major conferences. The NCAA may well require these organizations to have transparent and independently audited financial records so that the public is clear about the way in which the athlete who is also a student is being paid and managed and clear about the financial arrangements between each UFC and its parent university.
Football players must be students in good standing and making appropriate progress toward a degree and can only have four years of eligibility, but they can test their value in the commercial sports marketplace at any time and choose to leave for professional work.
Once hired for professional play, of course, they will no longer be eligible to participate in the university-related not-for-profit UFC.
Athletes within the UFC can also contract for commercial endorsements and other sports-related (but not sports competition) activities and earn stipends or fees, but they must do so through the UFC not-for-profit so that the organization can identify conflicts of interest or commitment. Similarly, employees of the UFC (coaches, athletic directors, and others) can earn outside income related to sports but must report this income and receive approval for outside commitments from their institution’s UFC (again to prevent conflicts of interest and commitment). Alumni and other fans can contribute to the football enterprise, either to support players or to subsidize athletic facilities, but again, always through the institutional UFC to ensure transparency.
The UFC not-for-profit will create various funds and arrangements for player health and safety and compensation for injuries or other insurance-related functions. Whether it decides that it is better to hire the football players as employees or deal with their football participation as independent contractors will be an issue to be resolved as the market for football players indicates. Either solution would work, although of course the players are likely to emulate the professional marketplace and create a union to represent their interests. In some universities this would mirror the union representation of other student employees. Players can have agents, lawyers or other advisers to help them negotiate the contracts that govern their college-related football participation, although not the academic requirements that define them as students. The five major conferences may well establish salary caps and other financial constraints proved useful in the professional marketplace.
Because each UFC football enterprise is affiliated and ultimately controlled by its parent university, if indirectly through its board appointments, and because it is required to manage its enterprise through contracts with the university that are publicly available, the university can reap the benefits of big-time football without the constraints of trying to fit the football juggernaut into the university’s normal academic infrastructure. However, the university can require that the football UFC provide a significant payment to the university for the use of its name and other marks, a payment that will serve to subsidize the university athletic program for other sports as happens currently.
Finally, because this arrangement puts the academic scholarships for football players who must be students inside the university (but paid by the UFC not-for-profit), the current commitment to women’s sports driven by Title IX requirements to keep scholarships reasonably equivalent will remain.
Any university can create this model and participate, although they will need conference support, television revenue, and other characteristics of big-time programs to succeed. Such an opportunity may well help institutions decide that they want good football but not big-time football.
While endless details will need to be worked out, as were required to create the arrangements that govern independent not-for-profit hospitals affiliated with major research universities, the model offers an approach to the growing difficulty of managing big-time football within the current university context.
John Lombardi is president emeritus of the University of Florida and served most recently as president of the Louisiana State University System. He is the author of the forthcoming How Universities Work (Johns Hopkins University Press).
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