Reforms Needed in College Sports
The frenzy associated with college football has again invaded the
holiday season. On New Year’s Day alone, there will be six bowl games to
choose from – 12 solid hours of college football.
As someone who
played football in college, I love the game. It combines power and
grace, speed and strength, individual talent and team effort. Football
games also nurture school spirit and alumni pride.
But what began
as a school sport 130 years ago has become a national obsession and
multibillion dollar industry. Like all good things, college football
risks ruin by being overvalued and under-regulated. Once a Saturday
afternoon event, regular season college football games are now played on
Thursdays and Fridays too. Television contracts dictate the schedules.
This fall, for example, Florida State University canceled classes for a
whole day to accommodate a Thursday night game.
Star players and
coaches have become major celebrities, and the salaries of top coaches
are astronomical. As the stakes have risen, the intense pressure to win
becomes all-consuming. Bryce Jordan, president emeritus of Penn State,
admits that at some universities with elite football programs, people
seek to “win at any cost.”
The win-at-all-cost attitude too often
leads to exorbitant spending, confused priorities, academic shortcuts
and recruiting scandals. One university president recently expressed his
frustration at the unending “arms race” among the elite programs. The
greatest “threat hanging over football,” he declared, “is the
multimillion dollar stadium, locker rooms and the $2 million paid for a
football coach. Only a handful of schools in this country can afford
Money issues, however, are by no means the only
problem. Academic concerns abound. Division I-A football players
graduate from college at much lower rates than the regular student body.
The Knight Commission concludes its report on college sports by noting
that “big-time athletics departments seem to operate with little
interest in scholastic matters beyond the narrow issue of individual
eligibility.” Efforts to enroll and keep players in school often result
in academic scandals and recruiting violations.
During the past decade, more than half of all Division I-A schools have received sanctions for violating NCAA regulations.
be sure, several college presidents recognize that things have gotten
out of hand, and they are eager to restore the legitimacy of the term
“student-athlete” and to make intercollegiate football a more positive
experience for all involved – students, coaches and fans. Myles Brand,
the former president of Indiana University who is the incoming president
of the NCAA, has recently called for an “Academics First” movement, led
by college presidents, to address the negative effects of college
athletics on academic life. “While we don’t want to turn off the game,”
Brand stresses, “we can lower the volume.”
Cries for reform are
not new to college athletics. Alarmed by the rising violence of college
football, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 called upon university
leaders to protect the amateur status of players (some boosters were
paying athletes) and promote safer play. Furman responded by eliminating
football for 11 years! The National College Athletics Association,
founded in March 1906, grew out of this reform effort.
the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching called for
sweeping athletic reforms, noting that college sports had become a
“highly organized commercial enterprise” with a “demoralizing and
corrupt” recruiting process. The report added: “The paid coach, the gate
receipts ... extensive journeys in special Pullman (railroad) cars, the
demoralizing publicity showered on the players, the devotion of an
undue proportion of time to training, the devices for putting a
desirable athlete, but a weak scholar, across the hurdles of [classroom
requirements] -- these ought to stop. The compromises that have to be
made to keep such students in the college and to pass them through to a
degree give an air of insincerity to the whole university-college
That the problems cited in 1929 are virtually the same
as those facing college football today suggests how unsuccessful such
reform efforts have been. Campaigns to restore the integrity and
appropriate role of college football must confront very powerful forces
working against any change. Money plays the dominant role. Not far
behind is the single-minded devotion of well-intentioned alumni and fans
who love their teams and game-day rituals so much they willingly
tolerate the excesses and abuses of big-time sports. Dick Schultz, the
former executive director of the NCAA, acknowledges that “You’ll never
convince the real die-hard fans that reforms are needed.”
President Brand luck in his efforts to reform big-time college football,
but it will not be easy. Money has corrupted college football just as
it has corrupted political campaigns, and neither arena seems eager to
reverse course. The college teams participating in this year’s Bowl
Championship Series will each take home more than $12 million.
a payday is not likely to put them at the front of the line among those
promoting the restoration of sanity to college football.
just as football games produce upsets, perhaps the latest effort to
reform the sport will have surprising success. I hope so.