College football’s popularity has never been greater than it is today. According to a study by Scarborough Research, 92.6 million, or 39% of adults, watched, attended or listened to a college football game during the 2011/2012 season ranking the sport just behind Major League Baseball as the third most popular sport in America. Yet despite this tremendous rise and growth in popularity, the sport is under attack. A number of books and articles have been written in recent years taking aim at the institution of college football, describing it as a corrupt, scandal-ridden system which takes advantage of unpaid and uneducated athletes, all for the purposes of lining the pockets of a small minority in charge. This article proposes to identify the real issue facing the sport today and offer a relatively simple solution which if implemented will provide the student athletes what they deserve, improve educational standards, and go a long way to repair college football’s damaged reputation.
The subject of inequality and exploitation of college football athletes is a much discussed and serious problem that needs to be addressed. The players receive no financial compensation and yet universities, administrators, coaches, broadcasters, merchandisers, networks, and a whole host of other businesses enjoy extremely large financial benefits and paydays. In November 2012, The USA Today reported that average head coaching salaries at major college football programs topped $1.6 million and according to university financial disclosures, expenditures by the top 50 universities are in excess of $50 million annually, with the largest of schools spending in excess of $100 million each year on their athletic programs.
The common approach written and spoken about to address the exploitation of college football players has been to pay players for their talents, allowing them to share in some of the financial benefits generated by the sport. In fact the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board has recently ruled that Northwestern University football players meet the standards under federal guidelines to form a union. This gives Northwestern football players the legal right to organize and begin negotiating for wages. The pay for play proposition as well as this recent ruling poses a much larger threat to college football than the current status quo and any true fan should oppose it. Paying the players would cause irreversible damage to the sport whose popularity is largely based on its “amateur” status. Additionally, changing the athletes’ status from amateur to professional won’t actually solve the issue of exploitation and may actually do more harm than good.
In recent history we have seen a few attempts to create an alternative professional football league to the National Football League (NFL) all of which have failed. Remember the USFL and the XFL? As a market, we have clearly decided we have room for only one professional football league. College football’s popularity is what it is because it is played by amateur student athletes who choose their schools based on a variety of criteria: school location, family legacy, academic considerations, relationships with coaches, players, rivalries, traditions, etc. If players are paid, money will become the number one, if not the only factor in determining which school they will attend and will undoubtedly trump these other considerations. Ohio State vs. Michigan, Miami vs. Florida State, Alabama vs. Auburn and the traditional rivalries and history of these matchups and many others will be changed completely. The passion which draws over 100,000 Buckeye fans to the games each week won’t be the same. Why? Because those fans won’t be rooting for student athletes who bleed scarlet and gray but rather professional athletes who play for the money. Games will lose meaning, passion, and eventually the fans.
In September 2013, Time magazine ran a cover story titled, “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes” which proposed the pay for play solution and specifically introduced a regulated format in which universities pay players up to some agreed cap ($30,000 was specifically mentioned). Besides the fact that fans will eventually lose interest in this new professional league which will clearly jeopardize the sport’s future, paying players could actually result in harming them further. Currently, even without being paid, many players make the semi-conscious decision to forgo a proper education in order to dedicate more time to football. One can assume this tradeoff will be magnified when a paycheck for football services is on the line which will almost certainly eliminate any hope for academic success for the majority of players.
And just how valuable is $30,000 over four years? Or even $50,000 for that matter? A Sports Illustrated article dated March 23, 2009 highlighted the following statistic: “78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress within 2 years after football.” That is a staggering number. NFL players make hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars each year. If a majority of these professional athletes, most of who also attended college can lose millions and find themselves under financial stress, what chance do 20-year-old college students have of actually using these much lower proposed salaries in a productive manner? Both the SI article as well as ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary, “Broke” shed light on this dark and virtually unknown reality. Even among the very small minority who “make it” as highly paid professional athletes, many still find themselves broke at a relatively young age.
In a January 2014 article CNN’s headline read “Some college athletes play like adults, read like 5th graders”. The article highlights the sad truth that many college football and basketball players enter college lacking necessary academic skills and leave the university without ever attaining an acceptable college-level education. The article referenced research conducted by CNN, which found that between 7% and 18% of revenue-sport athletes were reading at an elementary school level. In the same article Billy Hawkins, an associate professor at the University of Georgia was quoted, “They’re graduating them. University of Georgia is graduating No. 2 in the SEC so they’re able to graduate athletes but have they learned anything? Are they productive citizens now? To get a degree is one thing, to be functional with that degree is totally different.”
It is stories like these which provide critics of college football, who question its place within American Universities, heavy ammunition and credibility. Scholarships are awarded to these student athletes and are defined as “a grant or payment made to support a student’s education, awarded on the basis of academic or other achievement.” Yet it is very well documented that far too many college football players are not provided what they were promised. They are used up on the football field and then cast out of the university with a worthless degree or no degree at all. So why is this happening? Who is to blame? Many will point to coaches and administrators who selfishly demand the players forgo their education in pursuit of football greatness enhancing their own win/loss record and financial rewards. While it is true that coaches are demanding, the reality is that to be competitive today, players and coaches alike must dedicate most if not all of their waking hours to the game. Thus the real reason why college football players are not receiving the education they are promised is very simple….. Time. There isn’t enough of it.
Many college football players come from low-income families and have less college preparation then average students. These players are then expected to spend the majority of their working hours practicing or studying football. According to a 2008 article by Brad Wolverton who writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education, an NCAA study found that college football players spend on average 44.8 hours per week on their sport. This includes film study, training room time, and “voluntary” workouts. How is a student athlete playing football supposed to pursue a meaningful education when he already spends more time on football than most people do on their full-time jobs? Beyond training, the amount of study a player must do in today’s football schemes is enormous. A relatively simple Google search will pull up Alabama’s 1989 Run Offensive playbook which is 198 pages long. This doesn’t include the passing offense which is at least as complex, if not more so. Additionally, each week a scouting report on the opposing team is developed which can easily encompass another 50-100 pages. Since there are twelve regular season games and as many scouting reports, a player can expect to study over 1,000 pages of material each season and that doesn’t include film study. Some of the most feared classes in all of higher education like Organic Chemistry don’t have textbooks even half that size. How can we possibly expect these players to be able to perform their duties on the field while getting a proper education in the classroom at the same time? We shouldn’t! Any rational person would agree that it is unreasonable to expect any student to be able to spend more than 8 hours per day and studying over 1,000 pages of football material each season while at the same time pursuing a real and useful college education.
So what needs to be done? Understanding the tremendous time demands on football players, the NCAA should allow and universities should gladly offer its football players an additional 2 years of full scholarship (tuition, room, board, fees, healthcare, tutoring, etc.) to be used exclusively for academic study. By doing this the NCAA and the universities accomplish several things. Firstly, the argument that players are exploited is diminished greatly as the athlete now has every opportunity to secure a meaningful college degree which will serve that student athlete for his entire life. Secondly, this will go a long way to silence those who propose paying players which provides only a limited, short-term financial benefit and threatens the “amateurism” of the sport which is central to its popularity. Thirdly, it answers critics who point to low academic achievement among college football players and therefore question football’s place in institutions of higher learning. The reality is universities crave and need diversity on their campuses including diversity in race, religion, socioeconomic backgrounds, and talents. College football players tend to bring quite a bit of diversity to these universities, improving the academic and social setting for everyone who attends. So long as these players are now given a real opportunity to succeed academically, as well as athletically, the question of whether college football belongs at universities should be answered with a resounding “Yes”. Lastly, with enough time to secure a meaningful education, regulation on academic achievement and graduation rates will mean something and can be better measured and enforced.
In offering these additional scholarship years, the market should begin to correct itself as conversations with potential player-recruits and their parents will now place greater emphasis on academics than what typically occurs today. With an additional two years of academic study, players and their parents will naturally want to know what they will receive from an academic perspective once their football playing days are over. No longer will tongue in cheek sales pitches about the prospects for an NFL career be the only thing recruits and their parents will focus on as there truly will be a dual reason for attending the school; that is playing football andsecuring a useful degree. Coaches and universities will have to answer academic questions and those universities who offer their student athletes better prospects for academic success off the field will begin to win recruits. All programs will need to improve and showcase their academic credentials if they want to compete for the very best talent. And they will. Rest assured as soon as Alabama loses a prized recruit or two to Vanderbilt, Texas, or Duke because of academic reasons, you will quickly hear ground breaking on a new academic wing exclusively for players.
Many universities and supporters of the status quo will point to the fact that most college athletic programs don’t make money and finance their losses with alumni and other charitable gifts. The fact is football programs and big time revenue sports add tremendous value to their universities and are profitable, but that shouldn’t matter. These universities claim to be institutions of higher learning and therefore must commit to educating their student athletes. Given the demands to compete in football today, the players must be given more time to achieve a real education and the universities owe it to them if the quid pro quo of an education for athletic service is to be taken seriously. The truth is that not every player will need or want an additional two years of academic study and therefore the costs shouldn’t be overly burdensome on university budgets. While universities should bear most of the costs associated with these additional scholarship years, funding from alumni, coaches, and former players should also be attainable for such a just cause.
It is hard not to be a fan of college football. The rivalries and traditions that exist in so many games played around the country make for fantastic competitions and are a source of extreme delight for everyone involved, from players, to fans, to even the casual television viewer. The quality of college football games is tremendous thanks to extremely hard working and dedicated players, coaches, and administrators. The players however do not share in the financial benefits produced by the sport as do the coaches and the administrators. Players are however promised an education in exchange for their time and effort and it is time the universities, the NCAA, and we as a nation acknowledge the injustice of the current system and ensure that these players are provided what they have fairly earned, a useful college education. The players simply need more time to achieve it. Give it to them and solve college football’s real problem. The players deserve it!