Major College Football: A Case of the Tail Wagging the Dog


ORLANDO, FL (Oct. 20, 2020) – If you want to start an argument – a honest-to-goodness, all-out, ‘Are you freaking crazy?’ brouhaha -- in Tuscaloosa, AL, home of the University of Alabama, suggest that Nick Saban is a better football coach than the Crimson Tide’s legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant. Both have won six national championships while at ‘Bama.

There is no shortage of supporters for either -- the “Saint Bryant” crowd on one side and the “Saban Walks On Water” group on the other. Just make the suggestion, stand back and watch the sparks fly.

As you might imagine, Alabama fans take their football quite seriously. The Tide’s 17 national football championships are second all time, one behind Yale -- which hasn’t won a title since 1927.

In a normal year – “normal” being any that doesn’t involve dealing with a global novel coronavirus pandemic – Tuscaloosa is overrun on home-game Saturdays with fans attired in crimson and white, and wearing Bryant’s trademark black-and-white checkered houndstooth fedora. Some 100,000 faithful flock to Bryant-Denny Stadium to cheer on their team. Meanwhile, a number of fans not fortunate enough to secure tickets to the game – the waiting list for season tickets reportedly tops 30,000 names – are content to park their RVs close to the stadium, tailgate and watch the contest on their satellite TVs.

After the games, fans swamp Tuscaloosa’s bars and restaurants, mostly in celebration (entering this season, Alabama is 157-23 under Saban). Roll, Tide, Roll.

Tuscaloosa is not alone in its devotion. All across America, College Football Saturday is a way of life for millions. Similar scenes play out each fall in college towns throughout the country… in State College, PA; Clemson, SC; Athens, GA; Gainesville, FL; Knoxville, TN; South Bend, IN; Ann Arbor, MI; Madison, WI; Columbus, OH; Lincoln, NE; Norman, OK; Austin, TX; Baton Rouge, LA; Eugene, OR, and others.

Clearly, the sport has become big business. An espn.com article by Mark Schlabach and Paula Lavigne estimates that the 2020 football season will generate more than $4 billion for the 65 teams in the Power Five Conferences alone. In addition, it is responsible for billions more in revenue for other conferences, TV networks and advertisers, and for local businesses in college towns across the nation.

College football has survived world wars, depressions, student protests, and social unrest. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic – the country’s greatest health crisis since the Spanish Flu of 1918 -- colleges and universities across the nation are forging ahead with the risky decision to play football this fall.

At a time when cases of this highly contagious, airborne virus are trending upward nationwide and outbreaks on campuses across the country have caused universities to send students home to study online because attending classes, eating in dining halls, staying in dorms, frat houses and sororities, studying in libraries, and engaging in the social activities that college students revel in were deemed unsafe, schools have kept football players on campus so they can play a major, revenue-generating sport.

It begs some obvious questions: How can a university have live football when it cannot offer live classes? If it’s not safe for students to be on campus, then why is it safe for student-athletes? With a virus that spreads through casual contact, why are colleges playing a sport like football that is based heavily on contact?

The answers: College football is in the business of making money. It also is in the business of hypocrisy. The NCAA talks about one thing (protecting its athletes) and then does another completely opposite (encouraging a contact sport during this pandemic).

Consider this statement in early May by NCAA president Mark Emmert: “All of the commissioners and every president that I’ve talked to is in clear agreement: If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus.” Or, a statement by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby: “Our players are students. If we’re not in college, we’re not having contests.”

Well, students across the country continue to have to study at home; yet if you read your newspaper’s sports section you’ll see that colleges are indeed playing football.

Why do the NCAA and colleges and universities allow this hypocrisy? Because football is the primary source of many athletic departments’ revenue. Major college football is the tail wagging the dog.

Priorities Out of Sync

Back in August, when North Carolina was shuttering its Chapel Hill campus for the fall semester and sending students home to take classes online, football coach Mack Brown was asked about the empty campus. He replied it helps his team build a “better seal and a better bubble around our program” and increases the chances of the Tar Heels being able to play.

And when ESPN asked Saban about playing football during a pandemic, he replied that players aren’t going to catch the virus on the playing field. “They’re going to catch it on campus. The argument then should probably be, “We shouldn’t be having school.”

Well, if they’re not having on-campus classes, colleges shouldn’t be playing football.

What the colleges’ over-paid and self-absorbed coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners have forgotten – or fail to realize – is that college is not about the 85 football players on full-ride scholarships. It’s about the thousands of students who pay tuition, room and board, out-of-state fees, student fees, etc., for an opportunity to earn a degree. Students who over the last 10 years have seen the tuition at their public four-year college increase approximately 37 percent, to a little under $22,000 a year, and their average student debt grow to about $30,000 by the time they graduate.

College is about preparing students for the future and for the job marketplace; it is not about turning out football players. Football has little to do with a university’s supposed mission of educating and developing people.

Football grabs the headlines, but it is government funds, and the checks written by the general student population and their parents that keep public universities in business. Those funds collectively dwarf the billions in TV revenue or the millions in ticket sales and merchandising that sports generates. If TV revenue and ticket sales were a ripple upon the water, then the money that universities receive from the government and student tuitions would be a tsunami.

There are those who argue that football provides some sense of normalcy in a stressful time, and that it helps generate much-needed revenue for local businesses, which this year in particular are struggling to stay afloat because of months of virus-induced restrictions. In addition, many people tend to see a university through the prism of its football team. A successful football program usually draws more and better-qualified student applicants, plus increased contributions from donors

The problem, though, is when football takes priority over a school’s fundamental responsibility to educate its students.

Are players safer without 30,000 or 40,000 other students on campus? Of course; any group of 85 to 100 students would be, especially if they’re in a bubble and have access to frequent testing. But, that’s not the question. It is which group does the school serve, the students or the athletic department?

Increasingly, the answer seems to be the latter.

“This is a multibillion-dollar sports entertainment industry embedded in our higher education system,” former NCAA investigator Tim Nevins told Sally Jenkins in a Washington Post article in early August.

One that, basically, has been built by free labor. The NCAA clings to this quaint, outdated and hypocritical notion that its players are student-athletes – students who just happen to be very talented athletes in a particular sport and play for the love of the game – yet treats them like undercompensated workers who receive little for their talents (besides scholarships, athletes receive small stipends that range from $2,000 to $5,000 a year) as the whole college football machine rakes in billions of dollars.

It’s classic risk-reward, with a twist: the athletes are taking all the health risks of playing while receiving none of the financial rewards from their talents and work. Instead of student-athlete, perhaps the term should be athlete-student.

Players at Risk

“If you were to design a place to make sure that everyone gets the virus, it would look like a nursing home or a campus,” Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, which has 130,000 students online, told The Atlantic in an April 24 article.

And in the midst of this incubator for a contagious virus, you have athletes engaged in a close-contact sport like football, where blood, spit, sweat and droplets from screaming and yelling are unintentionally passed between players. There is no way for players to practice social distancing while playing – unless, of course, you want an NBA or NHL all-star type game where defenders never come within six feet of an opponent.

Yet, as virus cases top 8 million nationwide with more than 210,000 deaths, the Power Five Conferences (the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) and other leagues are continuing with fall football.

NCAA Division II and Division III schools have canceled their fall sports, but not the Football Subdivision Schools (formerly known as Division I). Does that mean that playing for an FBS program is inherently less dangerous? Hardly. It’s the same game, same rules and same risks.

When the ACC’s athletic directors were re-considering plans to shelve the autumn football season, Sports Business Daily reported, Dr. Cameron Wolfe, a infectious disease expert with Duke University, told them that it is impossible to make the game without peril, and that some risk tolerance is required.

“You can’t tell me that running onto a football field is supposed to be a zero-risk environment,” he said. “Look at all of the regular sporting injuries that we accept as a certain level of risk as part and parcel of football. Now the reality is that we have to accept a little bit of COVID risk to be part of it.”

Yes, but at what price? Football players understand that playing carries the potential for suffering shoulder, knee and leg injuries, and even concussions. But, what we don’t – and cannot – know are the potential long-term consequences to a player’s health by playing a violent, contact sport during a pandemic of a highly contagious virus. Even when people recover, does the virus inflict damage to the brain, heart, lungs or other organs years down the road?

Some studies have shown that contracting the coronavirus may lead to an increased risk of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that if left untreated can damage the heart and cause sudden – even fatal – cardiac arrest. In fact, according to the New York Times, one study by a cardiologist at Ohio State University found a high rate of myocarditis among athletes who’d recovered from the virus.

As one doctor said, “we’re playing with fire.”

To understand just how easily the virus can spread, look at the NFL, which has the strictest health and safety protocols, and most sophisticated testing. Yet, through Oct. 12 – five weeks into the season – the league has had to reschedule 12 games because of players testing positive for the coronavirus.

College teams aren’t faring all that well, either. In the first six weeks or so, more than 30 games have had to be canceled or rescheduled because of positive COVID tests among the players. More schedule adjustments are likely.

Essentially, playing football during the pandemic is gambling with the athletes’ safety and well-being. And, unlike professional athletes who have some say in how and where they play and have a union to help offer protection, the student-athlete’s only option is to opt-out of playing this season.

Conferences Do a Pivot

The Big 10 opens its condensed, eight-game football season this weekend, joining the other Power Five Conferences already playing. (The Pac-12 is scheduled to open its abbreviated, eight-game schedule on Nov. 6)

In early August, both the Big 10 and the Pac-12 had voted to postpone their football seasons until the spring. “The clear advice from our medical professionals made the choice obvious to us that we couldn’t hold a football season,” said Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner. “We have a responsibility to protect our players, and given what we still don’t know about the spread of the virus, we simply couldn’t play football and look parents in the eye and say, ‘We’ve got your kids’ best interests in mind.’”

Now, less than a month later, in a reversal of course that would have done the late, great Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers proud, both conferences have decided to play in the fall.

Conveniently, the Pac-12 and Big 10 joined their Power Five brethren with schedules that conclude just in time for their champions to be considered for the lucrative College Football Playoffs. Not a trivial matter, considering that regardless of which four teams are selected for the national semifinals, each of the Power Five Conferences receives a $66 million payout.

So, what changed? What caused the Pac-12 and Big 10 to do an abrupt about face? What changed, league officials said, is the availability of reliable, daily COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, plus the relaxation of various state and local health and social distancing protocols that restricted gatherings to fewer than 50 people. The evidence, they said, showed it was better to start the season in the fall than in winter.

The skeptic, though, would wonder if outside pressure factored into that change of heart. And, plenty of pressure was brought to bear on the two leagues. President Trump tweeted – as he does on nearly every topic – about the need to play. State governors and lawmakers weighed in. Local business leaders warned of economic catastrophy and athletic departments talked of dire financial consequences if there was no season. Athletes started petitions seeking a reversal, and a say in matters. Coaches voiced strong opinions. Lawsuits were filed.

Some schools even considered defying the leagues and playing anyway. Consider the comments by Nebraska football coach Scott Frost back in August, before the Big 10 reversed its decision. “We want to play a Big 10 schedule. [But] I think our university is committed to playing football anyway we possibly can, regardless of what anybody else does.

Our university is committed to playing no matter what. No matter what that looks like. We want to play no matter who it is or where it is... We certainly hope it's in the Big Ten, but if it isn't we're prepared to look for other options."

That “we’re-gonna-play-football-this-fall-no-matter-what” attitude is hard to reconcile with a university’s purpose to safely educate future teachers, accountants, doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, and other professionals.

The conferences have vowed that if there is a serious outbreak in-season, they are ready and willing to shut down play. But, once a snowball starts rolling downhill, it can be difficult to get it stopped – especially when it generates as much revenue as football.

A System Run Amok

Love may make the world go round, but in college football it’s money – lots and lots of dollars.

According to a USA Today report, 15 university football programs made more than $150 million, led by the University of Texas, at a staggering $223 million (Texas A&M and Ohio State were the two other schools to top $200 million, at $212 and $210 million, respectively).

Coaches like to think of themselves as teachers – of football. That’s all very noble, until one looks at the discrepancy in pay. According to indeed.com, the average salary for a college professor is $67,000. USA Today reported that the average salary of a head football coach at a FBS school (the highest division) was $2.67 million in 2019.

Alabama’s Saban is scheduled to make $8,857,000 this season, second only to the $9,315,000 that Clemson’s Dabo Sweeney is supposed to haul in. With the money Alabama is scheduled to pay Saban, it could hire 132 professors; on Sweeney’s salary Clemson could get 139 (that’s several departments worth of professors on either salary).

Saban’s and Sweeney’s salaries also are 10 times that of their bosses, the presidents of their universities. Which makes one wonder: who yields the real power, the coaches or the university presidents?

Coaches may like to think of themselves as teachers, but they more closely resemble a CEO of a small company, overseeing a staff of 10 assistant coaches; an army of “football analysts” that run everything from academic assistance, to nutrition programs, to recruitment coordination, to videos; and a roster that can include 100 players, including those not on scholarship.

It’s a system run amok. While revenue for NCAA schools ballooned from $3 billion in 2004 to $14 billion in 2018, many athletic departments struggle to be profitable, thanks in part to runaway spending on expenses ranging from burgeoning department staffs to recruitment to upgraded facilities.

There is an arms race among athletic departments across the country to improve stadiums and athletic facilities. Upgrades range from state-of-the-art playing surfaces, to top-of-the-line two-story workout areas, to plush NFL-style locker rooms, to elaborate player lounges that can include features such as bowling alleys, movie theaters, and miniature golf.

Even mid-tier programs such as Old Dominion University, Fresno State, University of Delaware, Alabama-Birmingham, and West Texas A&M (a Division II school) are getting into the act by renovating or building stadiums that cost $50 million or more.

A primary reason for the spending frenzy: the battle over recruits. The quality of a school’s athletic facilities often play a big role in a recruit’s decision to attend a particular college, along with amount of playing time, preparation for a possible NFL career, national TV exposure, and playing for a national title or in a major bowl game. A school’s degree programs generally rank much further down the list.

Which seems oddly apropos in the current environment. The mission of colleges and universities is to serve its students and prepare them for the future. Yet, particularly during this pandemic, it seems that the mission has become more about generating revenue through football.

Colleges and universities award degrees for hundreds of studies and specialties, from A (Agriculture) to Z (Zoology). Perhaps, they should add one for college football: a doctorate in hypocrisy.

###


Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and senior special sections writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.

Photo credit: Brayden George/Unsplash.com

3 views