Using Football as Bait

Colleges that create teams to swell their male enrollments often do a disservice to the players, Gordon Marino argues.


September 14, 2006

There are approximately 250,000 high school seniors playing football every year. As films such as "Friday Night Lights" and "Varsity Blues" attest, high school football can be a very heady experience in which some young men get their first jolt of positive attention. Then the final buzzer of the final high school game goes off and that is it. 

Maybe Johnny is too small or too slow or had a coach that did not push him enough, so he does not earn one of the thousands of college football scholarships offered nationwide each year.In addition to the sheer love of the game and its matchless camaraderie, an important source of a sense of well being and competency seems about to vanish. Naturally, some graduating high school seniors are desperate to get another chance to strap on a helmet. Enter the small college football program.

It is well known that many major universities use football as a marketing tool and as a stimulant to alumni giving. With a bit of a twist, small schools have started doing the same. As documented in a recent article in The New York Times, colleges that have traditionally had a difficult time attracting males are turning to football to bulk up their enrollments and to sculpt more diverse student bodies.

The Times reports that during the last decade, approximately 40 football programs have been instituted or reinstituted in the non-scholarship ranks. Administrators agree that football seems to act as a magnet for students in related activities such as band, athletic training, and cheerleading.

In 2001, Utica College inaugurated a non-scholarship football program. Mike Kemp, the Utica coach, told the Times that right from the start, football drew about 70 student athletes a year. Kemp suggested that a hefty portion of his players would not be enrolled in college were it not for the prospect of continuing to play football. He said, “We kind of trick them into seeing that getting an education is a real benefit.”

But be it football or philosophy, you know you have a motivation problem when you have to be fooled into taking up a practice. Kemp reports that of 78 recruits from Utica’s first football season only six were playing as seniors and less than one-half graduated within five years. It is no wonder. Motivation is a key factor in turning the ignition of a person’s ability. And a football coach would never accept a player who had to be conned into playing the game. Why should it be any different with learning calculus?

Even from the athletic vantage point, going to a small college just to play football is a dangerous roll of the dice. Minor league college football can be highly competitive. During my last season as an assistant coach at St. Olaf College, which competes without scholarships in a competitive Midwestern league, virtually every one of our starters had been all-conference and/or all-state in high school. One of our opponents, the Division III powerhouse St. John’s University, came to pre-season with more than 200 aspiring college football players.

The competition is increased by the fact that more than a few small colleges hold “slots” and lower the bar of the admission process for prize athletes. And although Division III football is officially non-scholarship, there is strong anecdotal evidence that football standouts earn a disproportionate number of so-called “Leadership” and “Presidential” scholarships. Division III football is not necessarily the amateur fields of Eton that some would like to imagine.

While coach supervised off season workouts are much more limited in number than at marquee programs, many teams have a fair share of not so “voluntary” conditioning regimes. Coaches are often cognizant of players’ attendance -- or more importantly, lack thereof -- at these sweat sessions. In other words, small college football can be both very time and energy consuming.

Athletes who come to college solely for the sports are often so obsessed with their travails on the field and questions like whether not they are going to be in the lineup that they find it hard to concentrate on Plato. Kemp is in fact right that there are some athletes who begin college indifferent to books and yet find more curiosity in themselves than they ever would have imagined. Nevertheless, as the statistics from his own team make plain, there is significant percentage of football devotees who end up failing on the field and floundering in the classroom.

In the realm of scholarship offering institutions, there are academic support systems in play for athletes, but in small colleges, the football player who does not cut it will often end up going into a funk, and not showing up to class. These forlorn athletes fall between the cracks of faculty attention and a portion of them will end up leaving college with a bad taste in their mouths about education. They would have been much better off mourning the passing of their high school glory days and waiting to enter college.

Football might be good for small colleges; after all, it has a track record for helping to correct both racial and gender imbalances. But it is not always kind to the young men who go to institutions of higher education at a time when they have no desire for an education. If this sport is going to be set as admissions bait, then admissions officers ought to refrain from pursuing athletes who are both weak students and devoid of a desire to study anything but the playbook.


A former assistant football coach at Yale and St. Olaf, Gordon Marino is a professor in the College of Health and Human Performance at the University of Florida. He teaches sports ethics.


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