What to Do About Football?

The U. of North Carolina academic scandal is only the latest evidence of the need to distance big-time college football from the academic enterprise it corrupts, Robert Atwell argues.

October 24, 2014

Football is both the national sport and the national religion (or addiction if you prefer), measured by spectators or viewers, and to a much lesser extent by participants. 

It has achieved these lofty positions for several reasons, not the least because it is played and watched by millions both at the scholastic level (grade school and beyond) and at the professional level where it is a multibillion-dollar business enriching owners, players, sponsors and the television industry. 

The religious analogy requires simple examination. First there is the passionate devotion of fans to their favorite college or professional team, measured by the wearing of team apparel, attendance at games including the purchase of expensive boxes, the proliferation of televised games, donations to booster clubs in the case of college games, and the American attraction to violence. 

And the game is TV-friendly; despite excessive commercials, frequent time-out for injuries and replays, it is a fast-moving sport with plenty of scoring and violence. 

Two caveats apply to the college level. First, most collegiate football programs are not big-time and are an integral part of the institution, rather than standing apart in terms of admission and satisfactory academic progress or in the compensation of coaches. These institutions are not the focus of this writing. 

There are not more than 100 big-time programs (out of 1200 schools conferences, and affiliated organizations in the National Collegiate Athletic Association). Sixty-five of them are in the five major football conferences, and many of the 100 require institutional subsidies in addition to ticket sales, booster contributions and television revenue, which is concentrated in the elite institutions. 

A second caveat is that there are a number of colleges that aspire to be in the elite group but are struggling financially because they do not have the facilities, television revenue or other funding sources of the elite. Rather, they rely increasingly on student tuition dollars or mandatory student activity fees, the uses of which students have little or no say in.

Given the success of the elite college programs and the professional arrangements of the National Football League (NFL), what are the downsides? There are many.

1.  Most recently, there has been renewed attention  to the short- and long-term injuries inherent in this violent sport. The focus has been on concussions, but the long-term effects of injuries go well beyond concussions.

2. Because many players come from economically deprived circumstances they may have had poor academic preparation for college and are prone to the mythology that the best career option for them is football, despite the fact that very few of them will ever play professionally and most of those who do will not get rich and will play only two or three years beyond college.

3. The pressure to keep players eligible to play too often leads toward easy or nonexistent courses (read the latest from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) that do not lead to promising careers outside of football. The message to them is that academics are secondary, only a means to the end. Graduation rates suffer as a result, and many of the athletes have little to show for their playing days.

4. The arms race at the elite college level often requires diverting institutional financial, physical and other resources toward football (or basketball) while shortchanging the academic enterprise.

5. The personal conduct of some participants is nothing short of shocking. There are many cases where domestic violence or sexual assaults by athletes have been perpetrated or alleged and where these behaviors have been overlooked by institutional administrators, with no consequences. The overall effect of these behaviors is not only a blot on the individuals’ reputation but also a serious erosion of academic values or the integrity of institutions  -- sometimes to the point where the status of an institution is more defined by the success of its football program rather than the integrity or the quality of its leadership and its supposed academic heart. When the continued participation of athletes trumps standards of moral conduct, we are all diminished.

6.  The NFL teams have the benefit of college football as a farm league they do not have to subsidize. They are freed from antitrust laws and many franchises have received hefty taxpayer subsidies for facilities and in the form of tax breaks. The NFL offices are granted nonprofit status – meaning they pay no federal taxes – despite the fact that they pay their CEO many millions of dollars.

The above and other problems have been the subject of  reform effort for over a century.  One early effort during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who was particularly concerned with a growing injury problem, led ultimately to the establishment of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) as a regulatory body. Like a number of other efforts to regulate industries, the regulated took over the regulatory body and hoped-for reforms did not materialize, a problem which continues to this day.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, I was heavily involved through the American Council on Education in efforts to address some of the aforementioned problems by tightening initial eligibility and satisfactory progress standards for college athletes in all sports. (The views expressed herein do not reflect the position of ACE).

While some progress was achieved, this movement then attempted, given some initial success, to put the college presidents in charge of the NCAA.  But presidents of the elite football institutions have, for the most part, not been successful in curbing academic abuses, behavioral or compensation excesses of coaches or other issues. 

The current NCAA president and his predecessor were university presidents with good intentions in the direction of reform, but both were hobbled by the fact that, despite the structure, college football at the elite level is dominated by alumni and other boosters. 

There have been other efforts at reforms designed to reinforce the student part of what the NCAA refers to as the “student-athlete” model. The most important of these efforts have been the several iterations over many years of the Knight Commission, each version of which has had the participation of distinguished and respected citizens including the presidents of institutions at the elite level of college football. 

Reports have included recommendations that, if adhered to at the institutional level, would have done much to ameliorate the abuses of the system. But the reality is that in as many as 100 institutions, the leaders ( presidents and governing boards) are not in charge in the case of football and men’s basketball; the alumni and boosters run the show and any individual president who tries to assert control is placing his or her job at risk. So most simply back off or become part of the fan base, averting their eyes from seeing (let alone doing anything) to promote or defend what should be the primacy of academic values or personal behavioral standards.

Unilateral disarmament at the institutional level is politically impossible and multilateral disarmament has the same political issues and could easily raise antitrust litigation.

Absent leadership at the institutional level, the leadership for reform has shifted to the journalists and scholars. Joe Nocera of The New York Times is an admirable example of the former, though I believe he places too much of the blame for unaddressed problems on the NCAA rather than its member institutions. 

Gregg Easterbrook has done a fine job in his book The King of Sports in detailing the problems; the same goes for Charles Clotfelter in his book Big-Time sports in American Universities. These and other writers have done invaluable work but they are not the policy makers; that group consists mostly of the adherents and beneficiaries of the system with all of its assets and liabilities

So what to do? Over the past 30 or 40 years, reform efforts have focused on strengthening the role of institutional leaders. It is time to acknowledge that, with exceptions, this has not worked for the reasons noted above. I suggest that we should acknowledge that big-time college football is here to stay -- and the same for football at the professional level, though that is not the main focus of this article. So we should now concentrate on distancing the big-time programs from the academic enterprise, the values of which have been seriously eroded by the visibility and abuses of the football culture. For me, that would take several forms indicated below:

First, let us drop the mythology inherent in the term “student-athlete” and acknowledge that for less than 100 college football programs, it is nearly impossible to be a serious student and a football player, given the extraordinary time and energy demands of the sport. We should not require the athletes in the big-time programs to be students and we should pay them market wages as contracted employees. 

If they wish to be students, there would be no other special academic or financial arrangements. The NCAA has now moved in this direction (using different terminology) with the 65 institutions in the major 5 conferences  gaining autonomy within Division I, which will enable them to set their own rules in important ways.

This will increase costs, meaning that for many of these institutions, there may be fewer funds available for the non-revenue (including women’s sports) programs.  And it will be even more difficult for the “wannabes” to continue to compete at the highest level.

There should be a concerted effort at all levels of collegiate and professional sports to impose personal conduct rules on players and coaches that reflect what should be the case: namely, that participation or employment is a privilege and not a right, and it can be withdrawn in the  case of abusive behavior through the means of personal conduct rules 

Allegations of such behavior should not be judged by the athletic department but by appointees of the college administration. (In the case of the National Football League, the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Major League Basketball, and other professional associations, allegations of misbehavior should not be adjudicated by management or owners but by qualified experts appointed by the associations.)

Such adjudication should be separate from and not dependent on the criminal justice system, in keeping with the above differentiation of rights dependent on the criminal justice system and privileges granted by the owners. I would hope that standards of personal conduct would apply to coaches (and all other employees). Such applicability might begin to address the bad examples set by coaches who rant at officials or athletes, behavior which would not be tolerated by any other employees of the university or team.

These suggestions are unlikely to be adopted in the near term because of the pressures of the commercial model and the fanaticism of the fan base. But even serious consideration and debate would be better than more futile efforts at the collegiate level to get serious about the student-athlete model.


Robert H. Atwell is president emeritus of the American Council on Education.


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