By Ken Reed

College football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is dead.  That’s a good thing.  The cartel system never crowned a true national champion and was unpopular with players and fans.

Unfortunately, in its place we now have an ill-conceived four-team playoff scheme that will provide an expected $500 million windfall for college football’s power brokers, but won’t address any of the key issues in the game.

The move away from the BCS to the four-team playoff was done for two reasons: 1) to avoid the inevitable anti-trust legal challenges to the cartel-like BCS model, while continuing to limit access and revenue distribution to smaller conferences; and 2) to make more money – with none targeted for the athletes that actually produce it.

The fact is, a commercial sports entertainment enterprise like big-time college football is incompatible with the educational mission of our universities.  The ultimate solution is for our colleges and universities to get out of the sports entertainment business.  It’s been done before.  The University of Chicago once dropped its Big Ten football program to focus on its educational mission.

In their proper perspective, athletics can be compatible with the mission of a college or university.  But it needs to be at the Division III level, where there are no athletic scholarships; where the athletes are students first, and the schools aren’t seeking profits at all costs from their sports programs.

Granted, that’s not going to happen on a large scale anytime soon.  So, we need to make the best of the current situation.

The new mini-playoff system isn’t intended to address any of the multitude of problems in college athletics in general, or college football in particular.  Let’s take a quick look at a few key issues.

According to a joint study by Drexel University and the National College Players Association, college football and basketball players on “full” scholarship in the NCAA’s top division are required to annually come up with an average of $3,222 out of their own pockets to cover the expenses of college attendance.  That’s unconscionable given that both sports bring in millions in revenue.

Second, students are increasingly being asked to help foot the bill for big-time college athletics through student fees.  Rutgers’ students set the pace during the 2010-11 fiscal year, coughing up nearly $1,000 each to fund sports while academic budgets were being slashed.

Third, despite the recent widespread celebration of the 40th anniversary of Title IX, one of our country’s great civil rights laws, the gender gap in opportunities between male and female athletes has actually expanded in recent years, due primarily to the escalating arms race in football and men’s basketball.

Fourth, even with a growing mound of research pointing to the likelihood that football players risk long-term brain damage due to concussions and sub-concussive brain trauma, the NCAA and college athletic departments continue to do very little to educate football players about safety issues surrounding head trauma.

The lords of college athletics — college athletic directors, conference commissioners, and university presidents – spent this past spring — and a chunk of summer – greedily talking about ways they could protect their cartel while enhancing revenues.  If they were ethical educators and administrators, focused on doing what’s best for the athletes and the sport, they would’ve come out of the meetings with action steps like these:

  • Scrap the four-team playoff idea in favor of a 16-team playoff (the 11 FBS conference champions, and five at-large teams).  This model provides the fairest and most exciting way to determine a national champion.  It is also the preference of a large majority of fans and players – two key stakeholder groups whose voices have been ignored by decision-makers.  Analysts believe revenue from a 16-team playoff could be $1 billion plus, which would go a long ways toward funding the following programs.
  • Establish a funding mechanism to benefit the players that produce the revenue.  First, multi-year scholarships (four years, or five if the school decides to redshirt the player) are brought back to replace the current one-year renewable scholarships, which are based solely on athletic performance and have nothing to do with education.  Second, the existing out-of-pocket shortfall that Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) players currently face is covered out of playoff proceeds.  Finally, a large portion of the college football playoff revenue is set aside to establish trust funds for players who complete their college degrees.  This incentivizes athletes to graduate and allows universities to symbolically communicate that they value their athletes’ education.
  • Halt the practice of using student fees (along with university academic budgets) to help fund athletic departments.  Students shouldn’t be required to support big-time college athletics.
  • Use a significant portion of the playoff monies to move FBS universities toward Title IX compliance by rectifying the gender inequities in college sports, most notably in the areas of participation opportunities, scholarship dollars, and operating budgets for female athletes.
  • Start a campaign to educate NCAA athletes about the risks associated with head trauma.  It’s safe to say the vast majority of today’s college football players don’t know anything about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or any other long-term neurological conditions related to brain trauma.  It’s the responsibility of athletic departments to change that.

If our universities don’t begin to take actions like these on their own, it will be time to force them to do so.  Teddy Roosevelt once demanded major changes to the game of football in order for it to remain on our college campuses.  A similar step might soon be needed.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


Comments are closed.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.