College Football: Pay to Play?

Well, I managed to stay awake late enough Saturday night to see some of the Ohio State-Miami football game on ESPN. Kind of a ho-hum game, especially now that OSU has at least for now dropped out of the top tier of professional college teams. But also kind of ironic that the two universities that currently share top Hall of Shame honors for unethical and most likely illegal conduct involving their football programs still get their time in the national media spotlight.

So it goes. And I know. I could have watched the Weather Channel. But shucks.

I also recognize that nothing really is going to change when it comes to big time and big ticket college sporting events. Way too much money, student marketing opportunities and alumni giving involved.

Still, there is an extremely interesting and informative article in The Atlantic that really examines the hypocrisy that many college administrators, faculty and staff and boosters display toward college sports by advancing the notion of “student amateur athletes.” The only amateurs are the athletes; everyone else is extremely well paid. Time to change that?

Here’s from the article by Taylor Branch, “The Shame of College Sports“:

The United States is the only country in the world that hosts big-time sports at institutions of higher learning. This should not, in and of itself, be controversial. College athletics are rooted in the classical ideal of Mens sana in corpore sano—a sound mind in a sound body—and who would argue with that? College sports are deeply inscribed in the culture of our nation. Half a million young men and women play competitive intercollegiate sports each year. Millions of spectators flock into football stadiums each Saturday in the fall, and tens of millions more watch on television. The March Madness basketball tournament each spring has become a major national event, with upwards of 80 million watching it on television and talking about the games around the office water cooler. ESPN has spawned ESPNU, a channel dedicated to college sports, and Fox Sports and other cable outlets are developing channels exclusively to cover sports from specific regions or divisions.

With so many people paying for tickets and watching on television, college sports has become Very Big Business. According to various reports, the football teams at Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and Penn State—to name just a few big-revenue football schools—each earn between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year, even after paying coaches multimillion-dollar salaries. When you combine so much money with such high, almost tribal, stakes—football boosters are famously rabid in their zeal to have their alma mater win—corruption is likely to follow.

Scandal after scandal has rocked college sports. In 2010, the NCAA sanctioned the University of Southern California after determining that star running back Reggie Bush and his family had received “improper benefits” while he played for the Trojans. (Among other charges, Bush and members of his family were alleged to have received free airfare and limousine rides, a car, and a rent-free home in San Diego, from sports agents who wanted Bush as a client.) The Bowl Championship Series stripped USC of its 2004 national title, and Bush returned the Heisman Trophy he had won in 2005. Last fall, as Auburn University football stormed its way to an undefeated season and a national championship, the team’s star quarterback, Cam Newton, was dogged by allegations that his father had used a recruiter to solicit up to $180,000 from Mississippi State in exchange for his son’s matriculation there after junior college in 2010. Jim Tressel, the highly successful head football coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, resigned last spring after the NCAA alleged he had feigned ignorance of rules violations by players on his team. At least 28 players over the course of the previous nine seasons, according to Sports Illustrated, had traded autographs, jerseys, and other team memorabilia in exchange for tattoos or cash at a tattoo parlor in Columbus, in violation of NCAA rules. Late this summer, Yahoo Sports reported that the NCAA was investigating allegations that a University of Miami booster had given millions of dollars in illicit cash and services to more than 70 Hurricanes football players over eight years.

The list of scandals goes on. With each revelation, there is much wringing of hands. Critics scold schools for breaking faith with their educational mission, and for failing to enforce the sanctity of “amateurism.” Sportswriters denounce the NCAA for both tyranny and impotence in its quest to “clean up” college sports. Observers on all sides express jumbled emotions about youth and innocence, venting against professional mores or greedy amateurs.

For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.

Pay to play? Won’t happen. But it’s an interesting idea to kick around while watching the football factories compete against each other.

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2 responses to “College Football: Pay to Play?

  1. Not sure if you have heard about Pitt (and Syracuse) leaving the Big East for the ACC. The article I read yesterday in the local dead tree edition made the case that it would help Pitt become one of the great research universities in the country. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the Big East TV contract of 32 mil. being split between 16 teams ( 2 mil per school) and the ACC contract of 155 mil being split between 12 (soon to be 14) teams. I’m pretty sure that extra 9 mil a year will be plowed back into the research facilities and not be used to offset the deficit’s the athletic dept. has been running for the last five years or so….

    • I did see that story about Pitt and Syracuse. And it appears to be part of an overall shifting of the professional college teams to get into conferences with more revenue, TV exposure and so on. No doubt as part of the move Pitt will aggressively recruit top-tier research faculty and students to make its dream of becoming a great research university become reality. Nah. On second thought probably easier to recruit linebackers and running backs.

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