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College football is facing an identity crisis

Mark Emmert

If NCAA President Mark Emmert had to give a State of the Union address similar to United States President Barack Obama, I’m not sure Emmert would know what to say. There would probably a lot of awkward pauses, some throat-clearing and a few hesitant laughs as he gazed at the hundreds of blank stares comprised of university presidents, chancellors and athletic directors looking back at him.

Emmert would not be in an enviable position because, as it stands today, it’s hard to define exactly where the state of college football resides. The same goes for most revenue producing college athletics.

College football has an identity crisis. If it was an 18-year-old college freshman, its major would be “undeclared”. The truth is that the sport has no earthly clue what to call itself.

Is it still considered an amateur sport? Every single player across all university-sponsored sports is given the title “student-athlete”. The mantra of athletic scholarships has always stated that the sport is the means to receiving a college degree.

But today’s college game hardly lends itself to that commandment.

With each passing year, universities in BCS conferences get richer and more powerful. The Pac-12’s new, reported $2.7 billion television rights agreement will ensure that every member equally gets somewhere in the ballpark of $20 million in revenue annually over the next 12 years. Big Ten schools have been pulling in similar numbers from the revenue-rich Big Ten Network. The sport is a hefty business.

And the words “amateur” and “business” are rarely uttered in the same sentence.

College football knows what it wants to be. It wants to be the NFL, where there is an entertainment price tag placed on everything fan-related. From television coverage to high-scoring spread offenses and everything in between, the goal of collegiate football bigwigs is to keep the fans happy and keep them coming back. But, for whatever reason, college football won’t admit they want to be just like its big brother.

Even though they’ve already started acting like him.

Paying Players: Legitimate vs. Entitlement

This was a stark indicator that college football wanted to evolve and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, of all people, got the conversation rolling. Should conferences that have the means to pay their players beyond what their athletic scholarship dishes out do so? Delany admitted that the proposal was not about creating a level playing field, but rather looking out for the best interest of the student-athlete in his conference.

Ironically, Delany argued that paying players more — a very non-amateur move — would help cover the total cost of being a college student – a very amateur ideal.

There are issues, to be sure. If universities begin paying athletes in revenue-producing sports such as football and men’s basketball, they will have to pay every student-athlete who participates in a university-sponsored sport. After all, and by Delany’s own logic, the purpose is to help with the total cost of college and the girls who play women’s tennis are no less a college student than the star player of the football team.

In some instances, they may be more so.

But where does the line between legitimate needs and entitlement get drawn?

When a football player signs a National Letter of Intent, they agree to forfeit a normal college experience and dedicate an astronomical amount of time to playing the game and going to school (or, just playing the game). Getting a job on the side, while not impossible, is practically unheard of. Many would argue that playing football is the athlete’s job. It certainly brings millions of dollars directly for the betterment of the university.

If a player wants a portion of that revenue, does that really make him an entitled person? I believe that’s a different question than asking “are there entitled football players?” to which the answer is unequivocally “yes”.

College football has already made several moves to de-amateurize the sport. While paying players extra money presents larger concerns, refusing to do so embraces an outdated philosophy in a new-age industry ruled by bottom line agendas.

(Im)proper benefits

Just about everything seems to be identified an impermissible benefit, and frankly, it’s getting old. That’s not to say the events at places like USC are acceptable  – they’re not — but punishing a kid for selling memorabilia that’s rightfully his is downright asinine.

The incidents involving Ohio State players receiving impermissible benefits have taken more twists and turns over the past year than all of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies put together. For Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, it’s been especially turbulent. If rumors that Pryor banked upward of $40,000 for signing autographs turn out to be true, the NCAA rulebook might spontaneously combust. Pryor, as a result, appears to be getting the hell out of Dodge and moving on from Columbus.

And, no, we still haven’t forgotten about former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. The NCAA’s investigation of Newton and his father, Cecil, was based around finding this unattainable “money trail” after Newton’s father reportedly admitted he solicited money from schools for his son’s talents. That solicitation alone would be a violation of NCAA Bylaws, but somehow, Cam’s eligibility remained intact because he was “unaware” that this whole deal was going on.

Yes, there are rules and they must be abided by. And that’s the problem. In no way am I condoning the allegations against Pryor or Newton, but the “do as I say, not as I do” attitude of college football is nauseating. The sport continues to make business decisions on a day-to-day basis, yet refuses to accept the idea that their players could do the same.

Memorabilia sales, alcohol sales and rising ticket prices — they’re all used to put a little more dough in the back pocket of athletic departments and schools like Texas, Penn State and Alabama do it better than anybody.

There are lots of financial benefits to college football. Who gets a portion of that pie is a selective process. I’m not sure paying players would stop players from receiving impermissible benefits, but removing the amateur title from them would.

This is the End

As a famous episode of “Seinfeld” once accused, “You just double-dipped your chip!”

College football double dips in amateurism and professionalism. More than it should. It acts like the NFL, but refuses to admit it. Like an adult, it does its best to get the most lucrative business deal available. Yet, like a child, it clamps on to the leg of amateurism, hoping that if they close their eyes and pretend real hard, the truth that sport is changing will go away.

Strangely enough, it’s the players who are affected the most from that immaturity.

There is no more “going to”. College football has changed, for better or for worse. If nothing else, the sport can’t go in reverse — it can’t get “more” amateur-ish. And when things change, those affected must evolve. For the sport, that may include paying players, or allowing them to make their own source of income.

But college football is dragging its feet. Why? I don’t know; the change has already come, and with every NCAA investigation or notice of allegations, the sport further self-inflicts wounds that prevent it from being what it really wants to be.

And you don’t have to know what you are to know what you want to be.

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16 Responses to “College football is facing an identity crisis”
  1. southernpatriots says: Jun 9, 2011 4:16 PM

    The presidents of the NCAA member universities need to take control of the NCAA which is supposed to be there to serve them, their respective universities and their goals. If the NCAA has departed from this, the presidents need to reign it in and re-establish the purposes. Law suits and threats of federal intervention is pending or by this time active. The time for change is here. Change does not come easy to anyone, especially to entrenched universities. However, if they consider what the fans and supporters truly would like, they will not make mistakes and will help the NCAA and its member institutions rise to new levels. Sometimes it is difficult for men to hear that they need to be men, but this is what they need to do.

  2. akhhorus says: Jun 9, 2011 4:17 PM

    You’re trying to use the recent scandals of proof of something? There’s been scandals–far worse scandals–in college football and in college sports in general for years and it didn’t change anything but the rules about these infractions. If the NCAA didn’t change dramatically after the SMU scandal(or many other ones, like Miami), they’re not going to change because of OSU, Auburn, etc.

    As for paying players, they know what they’re allowed to do and not do when they voluntarily sign with a school. They’re also getting something many people don’t have access to: a free college education(which is worth tens of thousands of dollars). Trying to make this an issue of exploitation smacks of trying to justify their bad behavior after the fact. The Newton family was shopping their son around for illegal cash payments not because they were poverty stricken. Pryor was after money just to blow on cars and gucci products, and his OSU teammates weren’t trading merchandise for cash to buy food with, but trading it for tattoos: so spare me this nonsense that they’re just trying to live on little money.

    As for the schools, most-if not all football programs don’t make their colleges a dime(or if they do, they pay for non-profitable sports for other real student-athletes to participate in). So, this “the schools are swimming in cash” argument is bunk.

    I realize that this blog is dedicated to a campaign of getting rid of the BCS etc and trying to stir up shitstorms for no real reason, but please try to approach coherence when you write stuff like this please.

  3. gorilladunk says: Jun 9, 2011 4:18 PM

    Ben, glad you were able to find a venue to republish your Master’s thesis.

  4. lucky5934 says: Jun 9, 2011 4:23 PM

    BUT, thanks to the NFL’s labor disupute/lockout, College Football will still be highly sought after come September.

  5. polegojim says: Jun 9, 2011 5:59 PM

    Ben is EXACTLY right! Yes I’m YELLING.
    Schools should make money… but I don’t like the 10 headed apocalyptic monster the BCS has become. Drop them, pay one entity to manage ONE playoff system, and let the schools make the rest. Advertisers will STILL be lined up.

    With all the crud, too many have completely LOST sight of what College football been, and IS all about…. for 100+ years –
    College… School… Amateur athletics.

    That’s the part that many of us LOVE, even over the NFL. Kids learning the ropes and watching them develop potential and mature.

    The ‘maturity’ of today’s college footbal should be Needs not Entitlement, Stipend, not Salaries. Playoffs, not BCS.

  6. southernpatriots says: Jun 9, 2011 6:26 PM

    polegojim: We all have advocated for what you posted for many years now to no avail. We hope the presidents will now listen to the fans and exercise their authority with the NCAA which is supposed to be there by them and for them and make the changes needed.

  7. tryagainplease says: Jun 9, 2011 7:15 PM

    ‘College… School… Amateur athletics.

    That’s the part that many of us LOVE, even over the NFL. Kids learning the ropes and watching them develop potential and mature.’

    amen.

  8. tomosbornesretirementcostjoepaatitle says: Jun 9, 2011 7:26 PM

    It is simple, more lower divisions of PROFESSIONAL football need to be created. How is it that the UK, with a fraction of our population, can support close to 100 professional soccer teams, and here in the US we can only carry 32 professional football teams. Something does not add up somewhere.

  9. pjduffey says: Jun 9, 2011 8:41 PM

    @southernpatriots:
    The NCAA already DOES serve the presidents, they are in absolute control. The problem is that it serves their financial interests to get this virtually free labor.

    @akhhorus:
    We are talking about MASSIVE revenues here (see http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2009/06/20090615/SBJ-In-Depth/Top-Revenue-Producers-In-College-Athletics.aspx). Quite a few people are putting their hands in the jar, but not the most essential people–the players. (By the way, the NCAA, itself, has over $750 million in revenue; see http://www.ncaa.org/wps/portal/ncaahome?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/ncaa/NCAA/About+The+NCAA/Budget+and+Finances/index.html).

    The choice you pose is an illusory one: play by our rules or don’t play at all. That is not a choice, it’s an ultimatum. An ultimatum from the folks who have no problem paying dividends in excess of $400 million (i.e. PROFITS) to its members. (see http://www.ncaa.org/wps/wcm/connect/public/NCAA/Answers/Nine+points+to+consider_one)

    I disagree with the characterization of the NCAA as an institution that is at all comparable to slavery. That said, it is absurd to pretend that it is anything other than a business. Players have every right to get pissed that they are being “paid” (via scholarship, value of coaching, use of facilities, etc) a fraction their market value. They don’t have to look very far to see fair compensation (how about their coaches making seven figures a year?). It becomes even crazier when the NCAA tells them that they can’t accept a $50 gift. Or a $5 gift for that matter!

    The current state of the system CREATES these problems. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that the answer is not continuing to pretend that the elite level of college football is an amateur sport.

    Great article Ben; good points.

  10. mdnittlion says: Jun 9, 2011 9:14 PM

    Just be honest about it the biggest stadiums in America aren’t for the pros it’s for college. Some of the major program bring in more money than some NFL franchises. I know people in big time media markets don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. College football is on the edge of becoming America’s past time. And if Major League Baseball wanted to go head to head with the World Series vs any SEC/Pac-12/Big 10/Big 12/ACC/ND match I think the ratings would speak for themselves.

    Why can’t the poor kids that the system makes billions on get a little piece of the pie. Like Jamie Foxx said in Any Given Sunday “In the pros the field hands get paid”.

  11. uglycassinova says: Jun 10, 2011 12:15 AM

    Reading about the NCAA’s hypocrisy is really starting to bring back those good ole childhood memories, like when my parents would beat me and at the same time tell me that we shouldn’t hit other people. Thanks for the education.

  12. polegojim says: Jun 10, 2011 12:38 AM

    @pjduffey – what I don’t get is this supposed ‘revelation’ or ‘awakening’ that NCAA is a Big Business. Oh how aweful….
    Of COURSE it is a Big Business, as intended.

    Universities ARE a Big Business, and always have been… for 100′s of years.
    What’s the rub all of a sudden? The Entitlement Factor!!!

    Do the Universities owe other students profit sharing opportunities? No. How about departments that earn grants through student performance? Any student hanging around the Deans office waiting for a check? No.

    I have two idea’s:
    1) Have any athlete that thinks this is a bad deal…. STOP playing college sports and GO DO SOMETHING ELSE.
    2) OR – have student athletes and their parents start up their own League or University, build a campus, recruit and hire admin and professors, put together a BOD, and build up their own program via national recognition. THEN they can keep some of the money.

    Either way. PROBLEM SOLVED!

  13. deep64blue says: Jun 10, 2011 12:19 PM

    Great article – well done.

  14. JMReviews says: Jun 10, 2011 12:47 PM

    Ben’s point about student athletes not being able to also have jobs is somewhat silly. Most people work in college to help pay for housing, food, tuition, books, and the like. The scholarship takes care of all of these things, and student athletes don’t have to worry about them.

    One fear I have about the university paying the athletes is, will this be negotiated when they sign a LOI? If so, this will create an advantage for bigger schools that can afford to pay more for its student athletes.

    Schools could consider allowing players to accept benefits from agents, car dealers, etc, as long as this does not happen during their recruitment. A player can accept benefits at any school. This does not create a competitive advantage as the players are already at the schools when this happens.

    Just a possibility.

  15. igor1984 says: Jun 10, 2011 2:21 PM

    If you are interested in football where the players remain at ‘amateur’ status, check out some Division III games.

    For the most part, D-II is also still focused on the ‘amateur aspects’ of the game, but even some of those schools are morphing into D-I programs in terms of money, scandal, and an apparent desire to ‘win at all costs.’

    But I’m sure in the ‘trickle-down’ world in which we live, channels like ESPN 8 (the Ocho!) will need games to broadcast, so when Mt Union vs. Otterbein is a game of the week, everyone can get a piece of the action and terms like $cholar-athlete will mean something different than it did ‘back in the day.’

  16. mogogo1 says: Jul 11, 2011 2:14 PM

    Greed is going to kill the NCAA unless they are very careful. The Fiesta Bowl fiasco shows just how out-of-control they’ve allowed the big bowls to get. They’ve allowed all this realignment in the name of the almighty dollar, with traditional rivalries going out the window. (Some of these moves may work out fine, while others just seem bizarre. Colorado in the Pac 12? TCU in the Big East?) They increasingly treat the athletes like cogs in the machine. (Do they ever plan on getting tough on schools who fail to graduate athletes?)

    I’ve never been a proponent of paying student-athletes, but I think they absolutely should use part of the profits to fund future education for players. (Like when a guy discovers he’s not going to make it in the pros and he really would like to have a degree.)

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