Commentary: The Only Way to Fix College Football
by Jonathan Hodges

You have likely heard of the Yahoo! Sports report detailing a number (72, to be exact) of University of Miami (FL) athletes alleged to have received benefits in violation of NCAA rules from a Miami booster (who now happens to be in prison thanks to his dealings in a $900M+ Ponzi scheme). And this was in addition to high profile rules violations earlier this year from the likes of Ohio State and North Carolina, plus new allegations out of Oregon. All of this has, of course, led to rampant speculation and opinion on how the NCAA should or should not try to address the continued downward trend of morality in college football at large. The fact is that there is no way to marry the vision of what amateur collegiate football should be with reality; we'll explore the reasons behind this as well as the only logical way to "fix" college football.

The Vision of Amateurism

The vision springs from the fact that collegiate athletics truly did begin as extra-curricular activities; football in particular began in the late 19th century at various prestigious institutions around the country, and until the turn of the century typically featured student managers and bouts versus just about any local organization (including high schools and professional schools). Both of the key collegiate revenue sports (football and men's basketball) grew in popularity primarily in the college realm and only later would the respective professional leagues experience a boom in popularity (more on that later).

Although the exact rules have varied over time (and have resulted in a current NCAA rulebook that all agree is unsustainably large), the basic premise has been that collegiate athletes are still primarily students and cannot receive any benefits beyond a scholarship to attend the school. Over time, schools began to differentiate themselves over the quantity and even the decision to offer such scholarships, leading to multiple divisions of the NCAA and segments such as the Ivy League and all of Division III that do not offer athletic scholarships. Even back in the first half of the 20th century while these decisions were being made (e.g. the University of Chicago's decision to drop out of the Big Ten and not offer athletic scholarships in the 1940s), amateurism was being questioned and the staunchly academic schools were opting out of the troublesome system. Needless to say, things have become far worse.

Over the last half century or so, the business of college football has boomed: stadiums have expanded to hold over 100,000, teams are pulling in revenue via all kinds of mechanisms (memorabilia licensing, websites, booster clubs), and monstrous television rights deals have been born (leading to tens of millions of dollars funneling into the bigtime programs every year). The postseason bowl system has expanded from a handful of games to 35 (with the accompanying huge increase in revenue). And the media has lapped up everything that the college game has dished out: from the advent of the national polls in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, games on TV in the 50s and 60s, magazines and newsletters in the 70s and 80s to online recruiting sites, message boards, cable networks, and highly trafficked websites in the 90s and today. College football is bigger, more prominent, and brings in more revenue than ever.

Fans have obviously loved the changes (hence the boom in revenue) including the ability to watch and consume college football in many different ways (radio, TV, web, print) and for 24 hours a day and 365.25 days a year. The quality of play is certainly up. Universities receive a ton of publicity and use the revenue received to fund scholarships and numerous other sports programs. Many young people get to experience a free education thanks to the scholarship system: many who may not have been able to attend and/or pay for college otherwise (and that includes women as well, thanks to Title IX scholarship equity requirements). In the majority of cases, college football provides a positive experience and teaches many lessons on and off the field that can be used later in life. Between the athletes, fans, and universities, there is a large upside to the booming business of college football. Unfortunately, that aforementioned dark side has also grown.

The Downside

Competitiveness is inherent in human nature, and anything a person and/or organization can do to get ahead is always considered, whether ethical or not. Since almost the very beginning of football, this has come into play: in the early 1900s football was almost banned nationally due to the increasingly violent nature of the game; only an increased set of rules and the advent of the forward pass saved the game. And off the field, things have most certainly gone out of control.

Part of that is due to the structure of the NCAA: a group formed and controlled by its membership, the universities, represented by the presidents and chancellors of those institutions. It is not a government entity and does not have any kind of overarching power except those specifically granted by its members. It has relatively little power, and making many decisions and/or changes to the structure required one to essentially move mountains by getting hundreds of member institutions to agree on the changes. And the staff of the organization charged with overseeing hundreds of schools is just way too small to effectively enforce; in fact, compliance is up to the schools themselves with the NCAA only coming into play once a school self-reports or if something is reported through other entities with corroborating evidence. This is the organization that must fight against human nature itself.

In order to get ahead, some individuals and groups have done all kinds of things to support their beloved schools, with a lot of violations coming in the area of recruiting: to get the best athletes to attend their school. And once at the school, that means following through with improper gifts and benefits, which we can't even begin to number (although see the Miami article linked above for some examples). The fact is that fans (and, sometimes, university-affiliated parties) desperately want their teams to win and an effective way of working towards that is to flirt with, and sometimes go way beyond, the amateurism rules.

This has turned the college game into what many consider a cesspool, a constant barrage of violations coming from virtually everywhere (the vast majority of schools have had major violations and the number of secondary violations numbers in the hundreds each season). The majority of schools still try to do things the "right way" and abide by the rules as best they can, but the violators certainly spoil things for everyone involved, whether they are caught or not. Overall, college athletics benefits a lot of people and helps bring together school communities across the nation, but the black marks have accumulated to the current state of dominating the national scene.

The fact is that the current path seems unsustainable: the money for the schools and coaches keeps spiraling upwards, the violations keep piling up, and, meanwhile, the student-athletes are seemingly left behind with many being left out in the cold due to injuries, broken promises, and a system that is stacked against them. Virtually everyone agrees something must be done, including the NCAA itself which stated that it wanted to completely revamp the rulebook; but, it seems that something even more drastic must be done to address the root of the problem.

The Solution

The only reasonable solution is to force the NFL to form its own minor league system and remove the artificial requirement that players be three years out of high school before entering professional football.

The fact is that the NFL has used the NCAA as a de facto minor league ever since it was formed and essentially cemented that with its current rules on age of its players. The NCAA has certainly benefited from this arrangement, helping to put some truly great athletes on the field over the years which has increased the caliber of play, especially in the highest level of competition (e.g. BCS automatic qualifying conferences). This has essentially led to the NCAA cooperating with the NFL on many levels to synchronize their systems with each other even if they don't have overt (and likely illegal on an anti-trust basis) arrangements.

The NCAA itself or another group (like the Playoff PAC or other groups currently trying to take down the BCS) and the media could certainly work towards this goal, and if the school presidents ever fully awake, they could certainly turn the NCAA on these matters. If they work towards breaking these artificial rules, it could ultimately bring about this type of seismic change.

Now, what would this mean for college football? Certainly the caliber of play would suffer to some degree with the top athletes obviously forgoing college to go to the NFL minor leagues. But some star players would remain (see the baseball system) and I believe that ratings and attention would not suffer all that much: most fans would not want to watch the NFL minor leagues which would be filled with either developmental players or borderline NFL players and would feature a bunch of guys learning typically-boring NFL systems. Meanwhile, the college game would still get everyone's attention on Saturdays as legions of fans and alumni would not suddenly quit on the game with a few star players absent from the field. Did the XFL or does the UFL detract from college football?

What this would allow is NCAA football to focus more on the student portion of student-athlete and worry less about the recruiting race as those top athletes would be moving on to a place where they have market value. Make the recruiting process more transparent, loosen some of the crazy restrictions (e.g. no text messaging), allow early signing periods, and make the National Letter of Intent process more fair (holding the schools to some requirements, like multi-year scholarships). Put everyone on more equal ground and end some of the crazy loopholes like oversigning and grayshirting. Get college football back to its true intent: to bring university communities together and to help develop well-rounded student athletes (not running minor league NFL teams solely focused on bringing in football talent, winning at any cost, and sending them on to the next level).

Will this ever happen? Unlikely, as the NFL is perfectly content with the current system (a free minor league system!) while the NCAA is in no place to want to change given the upward-spiraling money in the form of TV deals and bowl games. But, at some point, all of the negativity will come to a head and something will have to change. Nothing will be a perfect solution, but starting an NFL minor league system would help remove much of the hypocrisy in college football today and change the current downward trajectory of ethics in the college game.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.