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The College Football Report: The Shame Of College Sports And The Ol' Ballcoach's Not Unreasonable Solution

Among the swirling debates on conference realignment and other controversies in the early weeks of the 2011 season, a long-standing question about the nature of college sports has moved to the fore. Should colleges and universities compensate football players?

The issue dates back to the early days of the NCAA but only attracted serious attention as broadcast networks began drawing huge national audiences (and associated revenues) for televised college football games in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1983, legendary football coaches Hayden Fry (of Iowa) and Tom Osborne (of Nebraska) answered the question in the affirmative. Both went on record to support the idea, with Fry going further in an interview published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

"We ask kids to meet all these entrance requirements and deny them an opportunity work while they're playing. They can't even go out and have a hamburger or go out for a date. They even have to pay $10 for testing fees . . . Fifty dollars a month would be a good starting point but $500 [which equates to nearly double that figure today] would really be professional."

Other long-time supporters include civil rights activist and former Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Chambers pushed for a bill to recognize NCAA student athletes in Nebraska as state employees. The change would have bestowed the same rights, protections and benefits (such as compensation for players injured "on the job," i.e. in a game) as all other employees of the state. Chambers finally left office in January 2009, after 38 years of service, without fully realizing his vision of restoring (if it ever existed in the first place) fairness to college athletics.

But what had been a simmering pot came to full boil in a scathing article published in the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly. In The Shame of College Sports, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch condemns the ignoble history and shameful role of the NCAA in college athletics. Pronounced as "the most important article ever written about college sports" by none other than Frank Deford, Branch's article denounces the "very structure of college sports, wherein student-athletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves." We think Deford may have gone a step too far in anointing the article, as Branch follows a history of arguments to the same effect, but The Shame of College Sports may be the best summation of the systemic flaws responsible for the corruption in major college athletics today.

The difficulty is not in judging Branch's perspective or conclusion - the article should be mandatory reading for even casual fans who only tune in to March Madness or BCS bowls - but instead in assessing his solution. Like most who have confronted the issue, Branch seems most assured in his assault on the problem and less so about his cure. The fact remains that no one has come forward with an elegant fix to the nightmarish complexity of revenue-producing college sports.

That said, everyone involved - fans, players, parents, coaches, administrators, agents and the professional leagues - can't continue to ignore the proverbial white elephant. We have seen bloggers, commentators and sportswriters present a bevy of solutions, none of them particularly convincing. In a recent article published online by The Sports Economist, two Clemson economists (one a Professor Emeritus and BB&T scholar and the other a J. Wilson Newman Professor - important titles, we assume) present the extremes of the spectrum: full amateur (ala the Ivy League) or full professional. Branch, by contrast, argues for quasi-professionals ala Olympic athletes.

In a response, also on The Sports Economist, Brian Goff (Professor of Economics, Western Kentucky) examines the remedies along the spectrum, including increasing stipends, eliminating athletic departments, restructuring the NCAA rules on violations, and raising the penalties for violations. Goff ultimately arrives at the same conclusions as his colleagues. However, Goff also offers (in his words) a "very, very unlikely" answer to the problem, namely to "set up athletic teams as separate organizations (for profit or not-for-profit like the PGA) that pay royalties to academic institutions for use of the brand name and rent on facilities."

He wasn't kidding about the impractical nature of his argument, although from a hypothetical perspective, his point does make sense. Also: Go Hilltoppers!

Incidentally, Goff isn't alone in suggesting ridiculous solutions. During the offseason, the Ol' Ball Coach put forth a plan to pay players out of his own pocket. Despite his history of half-baked ideas, Steve Spurrier didn't seem to be joking when he described his concept: pay each player $300 per game. For a 14-game season (a likely schedule for bowl teams), such a stipend would set back a coach less than $300,000 - an amount that sounds somewhat reasonable in a world where the guy ranked #20 (Jeff Tedford of Cal) on a list of top coaches' salaries in Division I pulls down $2.3 million per season. Further, coaches might be able to set up nonprofit fundraising firms to solicit funds from boosters to pay for the stipend.

(Wait. We don't know if that's legal - it probably isn't - but if so, we have cracked the code!)

In addition to the lawsuits Branch cites as possible threats to the establishment in college sports, the seemingly unstoppable realignment into four so-called superconferences may permanently enfeeble the NCAA. Such a historic shift in the landscape of college sports - which would presumably open up the possibility of paying athletes - would change everything.

Branch notes that if the conferences could arrange a playoff for the national championship, the NCAA "would be terrified - and for good reason. Because if the big sports colleges don't need the NCAA to administer a national playoff in football, then they don't need it do so in basketball . . . [w]hich would deprive the NCAA of close to $1 billion a year, more than 95 percent of its revenue."

Thus, for all of the arguments against superconferences, and we have made some in this space previously, this one reason may justify such a drastic realignment. Amputating the NCAA from college athletics would be painful, but given time, we may not notice that it's gone.

The Sports Seal's Picks, Week Six
Year-to-date record: 8-4-1

Friday, October 07, 2011
Boise State (-21) @ Fresno State, 8:00PM Central

Saturday, October 8, 2011
Texas A&M @ Texas Tech (Under 71.5), 6:00PM Central
Missouri @ Kansas State (+4), 2:30PM Central

The Free Range Chicken's Picks, Week Six
Year-to-date record: 5-4

Friday, October 07, 2011
Boise State (-21) @ Fresno State, 8:00PM Central; Fresno State by 2

Saturday, September 31
Florida Atlantic @ North Texas (-4), 6:30PM Central; North Texas by 21
Ohio State @ Nebraska (-11), 7:00PM Central; Nebraska by 1

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Comments welcome.

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