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Time for Colleges to Rein In Football

There is a serious leadership problem in the United States. The evidence is manifold from corporate scandals to the financial crisis to the inability of the government to deal with fiscal deficits and the economy. Unfortunately, the failure of leadership extends to university trustees and college presidents who have lost perspective on the role of athletics in the missions of their institutions and the ethical foundations they are supposed to instill on the leaders of tomorrow.

Sadly, this lesson has now been demonstrated at Penn State, which had done a better job than most in its fidelity to the educator’s mission. Even at Penn State, revenue, profits and protecting the “brand” won out in the end. 

On Thanksgiving Day this year Texas met Texas A&M for the 118th and final time. This rivalry – in which references to the other school are even written into each school’s fight songs – had been one of the great classics. The rivalry and tradition of this game and others has been swept aside by the commercialization of college sports.

Today college football is controlled by a combination of what several academic economist have called the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) cartel and by the affiliated ABC/ESPN networks drive for TV ratings. In its first 13 years, 107 of 114 teams appearing in the select BCS bowls were from the so-called BCS conferences, which also received 87 percent of the revenue from the present bowl system. 

The commercial imperative of being in a BCS conference has resulted in every one of the major conferences existing in 1980 to have either expanded, contracted or have gone out of business – something the economists have called “conference churning.” The Big East, as an example, has been wrenched with departures and now the addition of “eastern” schools such as Boise State and San Diego State. The Athletic Director of one Division I university has even been as bold as to say that ESPN is driving the realignment.

The patent absurdity of the drive to mega-conferences and conference championship games is demonstrated by the situation this year in which LSU could have lost the SEC championship game and, as conference runnerup, played Alabama, the runnerup in just the SEC’s Western Division, for the BCS national title, leaving Big 12 champion Oklahoma State out in the cold.

Since 1985 college tuition has increased nationally by 498 precent compared with 115 percent for prices overall – an unsustainable bubble. Higher education commentators Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have commented that a large portion of this additional college tuition revenue is being funneled into athletics and not towards education. Over the same time the average compensation of public college football coaches has increased 750 percent compared with 32 percent for professors. The two colleges that will play for the BCS championship this season spend $1,320 per every member of the student body ($204,919 per player) to support the football programs.  

In the words of Dr. James J. Duderstadt, the former president of the University of Michigan, athletics “has drifted so far from the educational purpose of the university. They exploit young people and prevent them from getting a legitimate college education. … We are supposed to be developing human potential, not making money on their backs.”  

And the failure of colleges is not just in things such as the whopping 51 percent disparity between the graduation rates of African-American and white players on last year’s BCS champion Auburn Tigers or the combined 34 percent graduation rate for all players on the 2005 champion the Texas Longhorns. Colleges and the education system in general are failing young men who at age 22 graduate at the rate of 100 males for every 187 females.

In a time of crushing state government deficits and student loan debt, it makes absolutely no sense for American universities to operate as free farm systems for the NFL and NBA. At a time when the American competitive position in the world is under more stress than ever, we cannot allow our universities – an area in which American still holds undisputed world leadership – to erode. Rather than have the NFL subsidize college sports, a cure that would be worse than the disease, there are other options.  

Only 310 of approximately 30,000 college football players per year are seriously considered by the NFL. Making an assumption that at least half of these players might still be interested in college educations we are left with perhaps 155 highly talented football players who would be more fairly treated and the colleges under less pressure to pervert their missions if they were allowed to play professionally as is the case in minor league baseball. Serious consideration should be given to having these players go directly into a somewhat expanded Canadian Football League which could then receive some needed financial support from the NFL. The regular season should be capped at 11 games.  

The postseason for all three Divisions should be capped at no more than three games (which in the erstwhile Division I-A would even allow for a playoff within the current framework of the five major bowls). Since most colleges lose money attending bowl games, the number of bowls, which have proliferated since 1980 from 19 to 35, should be pared down.

Ken Kendrick, the managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, contributed $1 million to cover a shortfall for West Virginia University’s 2008 Fiesta Bowl appearance, saying: “It’s a strange system. … The bowls themselves, as a matter of public record, make a ton of money. But at the end of the day, it would appear that it’s at the expense of the schools.”

The low point this year is to be found in the “Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl,” which features two teams whose seasons were so disastrous that they both just fired their head coaches and one team, UCLA, which enters the bowl game with a losing record.

This year it is possible that almost a third of the games (10 out of 35) could end up with a so-called “bowl team” with a losing season. And some collection of attorneys general out there should examine whether the Supreme Court’s prohibition against “horizontal restraint” in the 1984 landmark case NCAA v. The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma is being observed.

David W. Wise, a businessman who lives in Annapolis, Md., is an avid college football fan who has attended over 200 games. He can be reached at wisedw@comcast.net.

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