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Fixing the pathway to the NFL

For the kids who play the game college football has been broken for a long time. Some recent events may finally force some solutions.

Justin K. Aller

My guess is that when you see an image of Jerry Sandusky you think of a specific set of events that occurred at one university. A bizarre outlier that brought down a legendary coach and a well regarded football program at one of the nation's better educational institutions. I see Jerry Sandusky as a symbol; a living metaphor for big time college athletics, especially college football. Well, you say with some indignation, Sandusky is a child molester. Yes, that is my point.

You'll notice that I don't do much on the mock drafts and speculation about college prospects at this time of the year. There is a good practical reason for that. I work on Saturdays and can't follow the college game all that much. But it is also increasingly true that I have been becoming gradually estranged from this aspect of football. They say that if you like good sausage you would be wise to not observe too closely how its made. I get it. I believe that what the universities, the NCAA and the networks and sponsors have fostered in the form of big time college football (and basketball) amounts to the exploitation of children, not to mention a distortion of the priorities and purposes of college education.

I am very purposeful in my use of the term 'children'. Don't let their size or capabilities distract you. It serves our consciences to believe that the athlete possesses the agency to make mature, informed decisions. Of course, part of growing up is learning to make and deal with the consequences of our decisions. But as children, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, they have no choice but to trust the guidance, counsel and protection of the adults in their lives. The failure in this regard, from parents to coaches to school administrators at both the secondary and collegiate level to the media has been massive.

Billions of dollars change hands in the business of big time college sports. And everyone gets a decent share except the children that actually play the games. One of the leaders of the NCAA, Walter Byers described the organization as running a "plantation system". One of the competing conceptual lines of thought in our culture has been that the ideas laid out in our Declaration of Independence, particularly the part about all men being equal, is fraudulent. That only a relatively small elite are worthy of the full rights and the respect granted by citizenship. The rest exist for the purpose of exploitation with slavery being the extreme expression. The matter of explicit slavery was settled with the Civil War, but the ideas behind it were not extinguished and have found creative forms of expression ever since.

We experience some of this thinking at this time of the year as we head into the heart of the free agency period. Teams may part ways with the likes of our own James Harrison, not because they are no longer capable of performing at an acceptable level. Not because their coaches and fans are disenchanted or disinterested. Not because the teams could not realize a healthy profit if they paid them what they were worth. They do it because they can realize an even greater profit under the current system. The same goes for roster sizes that are too small given the wear and tear of the game, as well as the lobbying for a longer regular season. In other words, greed.

(Actually, how great is it to have an NFL franchise? The networks put up billions for you to put on the games in a facility that was probably publicly financed. You can turn around and charge that same public for parking and seat licenses. You pay little of nothing for player development, the colleges largely handle that. They probably get good deals from equipment companies who want their labels in the public eye. And then non guaranteed contracts in a sport with a 100 percent injury rate. And you still get the feeling that they can mess this up.)

The default position when this subject is brought up is that the players are getting a free education. Well, possibly. It's a little more complicated than that, but I'll get to that soon. But if you ask the average college student or their parent why they are seeking higher education it would be to make money, or more money than they would make without the certification. These players already have skills that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars to someone. Why shouldn't they be included in the bonanza? We want to spare them from the corrupting influence of money? The Olympics separated itself from the sham of its phony amateurism decades ago, and its time that college sports did the same.

Another argument, even less rational, but with a certain amount of currency nonetheless is the notion that the payoff for these athletes come when they go pro. Let that sink in for a moment. My daughter played college basketball. We were always amazed and amused when people, most of whom had never seen her play would approach one of us and ask if she was planning on playing in the WNBA. Don't get me wrong, she was good enough as a player to be invited to the pre-draft camp of the WNBA (she didn't go). But the presumption that the pros are a likely outcome for a scholarship athlete would be like presuming that the average undergrad would be enrolling in Harvard Medical School. For over ninety nine percent it ain't happening.

A lawsuit by Ed O'Bannon that is going forward may well force the issue. With notables such as Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson included among plaintiffs they're going after the NCAA using their images, jersey's, etc. to make a profit without compensating them to do so. Grantland ran a piece on this last week.

A reckoning is coming for big time college football. Not only are the ethical and legal ramifications of the financial exploitation of players about to reach a head, but it will also not be immune from the player safety concerns that are also gathering steam and are likely to have an impact from Pop Warner through the NFL. What would be an ethical resolution of some of these issues? Here are a few suggestions about how our thinking and actions might help football weather the coming storms and survive in the future.

Change the terms of the discussion. Someone once said that the term 'professional sports' is an oxymoron. The point being that once you bring money into the equation it changes the very nature of the activity. When I interviewed former Steeler Randy Grossman for a MSP Steeler Annual article he very deliberately and consistently used terms that we associate with labor/management type of relationships such as "unskilled labor" to describe what we might normally characterize as 'player'. Maintaining the illusion that it is just a game is essential to diverting attention from the exploitation of labor ('players').

As long as the rhetoric is that these are students who happen to play a game that they are talented at and passionate about in their spare time then things don't seem so crazy. Scratch a little beneath the surface. A glorified physical education teacher is being paid the salary of a Fortune 500 CEO. If he graduates 100 percent of his players but loses 80 percent of the games he is likely to lose that job and go back to a gym teacher's salary. If he graduates 40 percent of his players and wins 80 percent of the games he is likely to keep his job among promises to do better on the academic side. All decisions cascade from there. To me a college education means obtaining a degree. So what is the payoff for this hypothetical 60 percent who don't graduate? They all go pro?

The thinking can get pretty irrational. People who you would hope to be more sober minded can disappoint. One of my favorite stories from coaching youth football is the parent who held his son back two grades in school in order for him to physically mature to play football. The kid was a kicker. My college team would practice the spontaneous celebrations we would have after we scored a touchdown. Again, let that sink in. People who go bonkers over affirmative action because it has people taking slots from the 'more deserving' have absolutely nothing to say about the 'slots' that go to individuals who are often marginally prepared to be students in some cases, and have no interest in college beyond it being a hoop to jump through in order to get to something else. (I would include cheerleaders in this group as well, they receive scholarships too).

Big time college football is a business/entertainment enterprise with sport being a tertiary concern at best. There are benefits to the institutions that are both direct (financial) and indirect (public relations/marketing) that can not be easily dismissed. Consider two groups of academic institutions. Group one: Duke, Stanford, Vanderbilt. Group two: Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago, MIT. Both groups consist of strong academic schools, but group one is definitely better known to the public. Guess why. One year applicants to Virginia Tech found themselves being placed on wait lists with qualifications that would have resulted in definite admission the previous year. The difference? Michael Vick led the football team to the Sugar Bowl. Applications to Tech increased dramatically. One of the factors effecting college rankings is selectivity; the percentage of students admitted compared to the number applying. alumni involvement and giving is impacted as well. Money and reputation.

Replace the one year renewable scholarship. Believe that athletes are offered four year scholarships to college? Actually the scholarships are one year renewable which is the college equivalent of the non guaranteed contract. A player (worker) can be fired for reasons that other students may be subject to such as under the line academic results or behavioral problems. But there is also the matter of athletic performance, or frankly, any reason the football program chooses. Too much power in the hands of the gym teacher.

The first step is to take the academic fate of the student athlete out of the hands of the athletic department. It took me a while to figure out that part of the problem that I had as a walk on was that I couldn't be controlled by the coaches. They could kick me off the team but they couldn't kick me out of school. Big difference. When an athlete commits to a college he should have the availability of two options; to be enrolled as a student and become an employee of the athletic department or just become an employee of the athletic department. This addresses two truths. First, these individuals have been recruited to do a job. And it is a job with a significant work load, the equivalent of full time employment when consideration is given to practice, training, meetings, travel and other obligations including being available during the summer, holidays and other times when students and other college employees are not required to be present. Second, the NFL, unlike baseball and to a certain degree the NBA, have gotten away with not providing a viable player development structure outside of the colleges. Consequently, a valid, non hypocritical option should be provided for those who have the talent and the desire to pursue football, but have no real interest in a college education.

Because the athlete is working full time the length of the academic scholarship must be more flexible. No one would suggest under ordinary circumstances that a person who is working full time must get a degree in four or even five years. Obviously, there must be established a mutually agreed upon standard of what constitutes reasonable progress. The important thing is to free the football program from a task that does not play to their skills or priorities. It is the rare football coach that I would want involved in decision making concerning my academic progress.

The offer of a scholarship should constitute a commitment to provide every opportunity for a child to make a good faith, competent effort to receive an education (a degree) from an institution, not a provisional relationship of bait and switch predicated upon job performance and/or sucking up to the boss. Even if the student is not poor, if he is attending a school which is often in another state, sometimes a half a continent away or more the removal of the scholarship probably guarantees the termination of his education regardless of what level of success or satisfaction he is enjoying outside the realm of football.

Even if the student is doing well on the field and in the classroom, it is often understandably difficult to get it all done in the time allotted for fulfilling the scholarship obligations. The conversations I had with Grossman that laid the foundation for the interviews occurred when he was returning to Temple to complete his degree. A couple of things worked in his favor; he went to college close to home (he hailed from one of Philadelphia's most affluent suburbs) and he had a job (with the Steelers) that allowed him the resources of money and time to pursue completion. By contrast, at that time I had completed my undergraduate degree on time (I left the football program in my sophomore year), was working an administrative job within the university and was in graduate school.

Pay them. Even a student on financial aid is eligible for work study. The notion that paying these athletes would herald the end of Western Civilization and the onset of the Anti-Christ goes so far beyond hypocrisy into something more disgusting and contemptible. Are there potential problems giving money to a bunch of eighteen year olds? Yes, but how much worse could it be than giving a lot more money to a bunch of twenty two year olds when they reach the NFL? And I suspect that a lot of the corruption and scandals that plague college ball would go away if you provide these guys with the means to buy their own cars, tattoos and trips home. And with the rights of employees to get benefits, (including tuition remission if those who originally showed no interest in education eventually change their minds) collectively organize and file grievances there will be less potential for the exploitation and child abuse that is almost inevitable when the power relationships in college sports is so skewed.