Friday, August 29, 2014

Abolish College Football: A Rant by Old Fart Prof

It’s time we all admit it: football should not be a college-level sport. Institutions of higher education should not be profiting from the brain and body damage inflicted on unpaid “student-athletes” for the entertainment of the public. If universities want to allow their names to be used by professionals, fine. Otherwise, let’s stop enriching coaches, sneaker companies, TV networks, athletic administrators and a (very) few big-time universities while exploiting thousands of players.

Recent developments have not been good to Big College Football, except to the extent that the 52 largest football schools have been able to proclaim their quasi-independence from those pesky NCAA restrictions of how little to reimburse players. If players are allowed to form unions, can collect royalties on their images used in videogames, and are given the right to leave the program they signed up to join a different college’s team without penalty, what’s next? The right to sue for damages if training staff misdiagnose an injury, or if coaches force playing time and compound the injury? The right to keep a scholarship even after a career-ending injury? The NCAA’s legal loophole of “student-athlete” will not stand forever, nor will the legal releases/waivers of rights players are forced to sign.

Research on the devastating results of multiple concussions forced the NFL to settle the lawsuit of former players for $765 million. Experts say $765 million will be not nearly enough money, and some of the plaintiffs are demanding far more from the NFL. So what is the potential liability of all the NCAA schools?

When even Notre Dame’s football team has to suffer the ignominy of an academic fraud scandal, and football is at the heart of scandals at moneymaking powerhouses like North Carolina, Miami, and Penn State, maybe it is finally time to admit that football corrupts the educational mission? The faculty-based Drake Group has been banging the academic integrity drum since 1999, and has provided a haven for some embattled whistle-blowers. But the economic forces behind keeping well over 100 football players academically eligible and the quasi-religious fervor of each school’s fan base make it too likely that football-friendly faculty provide “help.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning civil-rights historian Taylor Branch summed it best in his must-read 2011 Atlantic article, “The Shame of College Sports.” The numerous parallels to slavery Branch raises cannot be easily ignored. Tellingly, Branch’s money quote cites the memoir of Walter Byers, the founder of the NCAA:
The college player cannot sell his own feet (the coach does that) nor can he sell his own name (the college will do that). This is the plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today’s campus executives. 
The recent death from heatstroke at practice of Morgan State’s Marquese Meadow is just one more sad data point. How many more cases of paralysis like Rutgers’ Eric LeGrand do we need before we call a halt? Collegiate boxing was once a big NCAA sport until Wisconsin’s Charlie Mohr died of a brain hemorrhage after a bout in 1960. Will it take a death live on TV at the College Football Playoff Championship?

It’s time to say “No mas!” to college football.

-- Old Fart Prof


  1. HEAR HEAR! ::applause::
    College sports *might* be slightly less pernicious, if the NCAA wasn't a corrupt, money-grubbing, racist, exploitative institution with way too much power.

  2. "Will it take a death live on TV at the College Football Playoff Championship?"

    Probably several.

    1. That didn't stop football a century ago.

    2. no but they did change the rules. and the deaths were not live. but I suspect even that would not work today. If having a nutjob slaughter a classroom of 6 year olds couldn't budge our love of guns, I doubt even regular deaths on the field would change our love of football.

  3. Agreed. It's worth noting, however, that, as far as I know, no university is actually being enriched by college sports.* However much they bring in, they somehow manage to spend more -- and much of that is coming out of exorbitant student fees, which some students (those with the least time to attend sports games) will be paying off with the rest of their loans for decades. That part, like the exploitation of the athletes, strikes me as especially disgusting.

    *Somebody will argue, no doubt, that the real profit comes in alumni donations. But how many of those donations go back to sports, or at least come with all sorts of strings, naming demands, etc., etc.? I could be wrong, but somehow I don't think alumni who donate because of attachment created by sports (and who would stop if the sports were significantly scaled back or eliminated) are donating to the scholarship fund, the library, or endowed professorships in the liberals arts or basic sciences/social sciences.

    1. Hell, at my institution the board asked the president, "why do we need a new science building anyway?" in spite of the fact that our facilities were inadequate when they were built, and 50 years hasn't made them any better.

      Meanwhile, they took up a collection among themselves to put artificial turf down in the football stadium.

  4. Each football game is a three hour commercial for the school. Besides the Ivies, service academies and a few famous liberal arts schools, nobody would hear about any school outside of their own state.

    1. OK, add MIT and Cal Tech to that list. Schools in the top 25 football rankings aren't bad schools but they lack any other way of making a name for themselves.

    2. That's a very good point, which raises the question about whether there's a better way to advertise a school than to risk the brains and bodies and academic careers of several dozen "student-atheletes" per year.

      When I was selecting colleges, I didn't apply to any that were known for their football; in fact I seem to recall actively avoiding such schools. To my then-teenaged brain, "big football school" = "pervasive jock mentality", and I'd had quite enough of that bullshit in high school. It also was likely to correlate to a reputation as a party school. My thinking has been somewhat validated by people I've known who went through such schools: they got serious maybe in their fourth year, but till then there were brushes with the law and other niceties that left me wondering how they hadn't drowned in their own vomit (or someone else's)*.

      So, beyond merely putting the school's name "out there" where it garners recognition and maybe attracts some students who'd not have heard of it otherwise (have they no guidance counsellors, no internet?), a "big football" program broadcasts something about a school, in particular the priorites of both the school and its students.

      (*) Disclaimer: I've known several who went through "big football" schools and were quite focused on academics, and some my best friends are faculty at these schools. I'm sure the good people here recognize that we can't paint a whole school of individuals with the same brush, but we surely can talk trends and statistics.

    3. There's the debate about whether we should allow violent sports in our society and whether schools should invest in a major sports program. The two are related (college programs feed players to the pros) but there really is no debate that football is here to stay.

      Do schools need to invest in major sports programs? I suppose there's another way to raise a school's reputation but what is it? I don't think anybody has an alternative model that works.

      The name recognition is important. If students are willing to go out of state, which big state school do they attend? Many seem the same. Except Florida State. They won the national championship last year. Well, the kid thinks, that sounds like a fun place to go.

      We are trying to attract students' attention to attend our school. Most schools are state funded so politicians will help decide how the money is spent. Neither catering to teenagers or the involvement of state politicians bodes well for careful long-term planning that is in the best interest of education. College sports might be the best of many bad investments.

  5. We have no football team, but I could certainly apply this to every other sport we have in our "Athletics" department. This is so on point that it's too logical to make a dent in any administrator's thinking.