Getting "College" Out of College Football
Colleges and universities should leave the business of college football behind
And now for something completely unrelated to Sebastopol...
The 2023-24 college football season came to a close last Monday night with two public universities facing off in the National Championship game in Houston with 25 million viewers watching on ESPN.
Now that the celebration is over, it’s worth considering whether the business of football is consistent with the mission of an educational institution. College football has become big business and one that is subsidized by its educational institutions. It is indistinguishable from professional football, except that its owners are non-profit colleges and universities and its players are not paid employees.
Even the traditions and rivalries of college football that have defined the sport have begun to unravel:
The Pac-12 Conference is no longer. In search of more revenue, two of its member schools (UCLA and USC) chose to leave for another conference. It’s remaining members had to scramble to join other leagues. The irony of the National Championship game was that the University of Washington played in its last game as a member of the Pac-10 and next season it will join the Big-10, the same conference of its opponent Michigan.
College bowl games have lost their luster, once a staple fare for New Year’s Day. Star players are opting out of playing in bowl games because the risk of an injury could affect their future NFL draft status. Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN color analyst, called for the elimination of bowl games, saying that “nobody wants to play in them.”
The transfer portal now allows players to transfer easily between colleges, which is a good thing for players but not so good for the sport. While players are not paid, they can have Name, Image and Likeness deals that allows them to be paid for their use in marketing products or services.
Next year, the college football playoffs will expand to 12 teams.
Traditions aside, the most compelling moral reason for questioning whether football belongs in colleges and university is the increased awareness of the actual risk of injury to football players. “An estimated 1.2 million football-related injuries are sustained annually” in the US, according to a PubMed article. An NIH report on football injuries says that hits to the head in tackle football are linked to the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE): “CTE can lead to dementia and death”. A study conducted by the Boston University CTE center of 152 high school and college athletes who died before age 30 showed that “more than 40% of youth… were exposed to repetitive head impacts from contact sports.” (ESPN). The most common cause of death of those studied was from suicide.
No longer is it just professional athletes who are found to have brain injuries. The Washington Post “Football-related brain injury claims another life, this time a high school player” (paywall) reported on a linebacker who died after a brain injury that happend on the field during a high school game. It added: “The head injuries commonly sustained in brutal contact sports such as football have become a point of concern at every level of the game ranging from high school to the NFL, sparking debates over safety and whether young children should be allowed to participate.”
No person should have to weigh the risk of injury, physical or mental, to get a college education.
Is the risk of injury worth playing football for a scholarship to college? No person should have to weigh the risk of injury, physical or mental, to get a college education. Quite simply, if it weren’t for its entrenchment and 100-year-plus history, one can’t imagine how anyone would propose that students engage in a high-risk activity like tackle football at any college or university.
The second moral question is whether the infrastructure and support of colleges and universities for the business of college football is consistent with the mission of publicly funded educational institutions. In 1939, Robert Hutchins as President of the University of Chicago decided that his university would no longer participate in intercollegiate football. In 1954, he re-iterated his argument in a prescient article in Sports Illustrated that made the point that football and higher education don’t mix. “Football has no place in the kind of institution Chicago aspires to be,” he wrote. “Since there is no visible connection between big-time football and higher education, the tremendous importance attached to it by colleges and universities can only confuse the public about what these institutions are.”
How is that in California the two highest paid State employees are the college football coaches of UCLA and Cal Berkeley who were paid $5.7 million and 4.7 million in 2022? Both ran mediocre programs. According to the LA Times, the UCLA athletic department has compiled a record debt of $62.5 million in 2021 and $28 million in 2022. Its move to the Big Ten was made in hopes of boosting TV rights revenues in football. Cal Berkeley took on $445 million in debt to renovate its football stadium and did not raise the money from donors that officials said it would.
Why not just drop the football programs and stop subsidizing college football? As Hutchins predicted in 1939, the cost of staying competitive in football will become an “infernal nuisance.” More and more, the decisions will be driven by revenue projections, not the college or university’s best interests.
One other change in professional sports is the growing influence of gambling on the sport. Betting always been around sports and cause of scandals in the past. Now it is being normalized and woven into the media coverage of the sport, endorsed by its hosts and celebrities. The audience watching college football is not just entertained but they are potentially losing money as well.
In a rational world, college football would be banned. It may not be possible given its popularity but there is another possible option. That is, to sell the team by spinning it out. This what schools do when there’s a market for something that the school has created or invented but cannot itself run as a business. A sale would legally separate the college or university from their football programs, and it would no longer be responsible for its coaches, players and administration. As an independent entity, the new team would be managed by its owners just like other professional sports and it would continue to have its fans — if it produces a winning program. The owners might be the kind of people who give money to the booster club. They’re the kind that want to win at all costs. Let them bid at auction to own the team.
Public colleges and universities should be the first to do this and get taxpayers out of funding college football. The new team, such as the Cal Bears, can pay for a license to use the college or university name while they remain separate from the University, just as Stanford Medical Center is separate from Stanford University. They might also charge fees for use of college facilities so that the football games continue to be played on campus. Players can be paid based on their value as professionals, not as pseudo-amateurs. The college or university will no longer have to subsidize the sport.
Let our college and universities serve true amateur athletes and club sports. Let them use the money they aren’t spending on football to give academic scholarships to deserving students without subjecting them to injury. Replace tackle football with flag football, which will be an Olympic sport in 2028. It can be played by women and girls as well. Even the NFL is promoting flag football.
Ultimately, getting colleges and universities out of the business of college football is good for these schools and it might bring a renewed focus on them fulfilling their educational mission. As University of Chicago’s Hutchins wrote: “The colleges and universities will be set free to be as good as they know how to be.”