Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Molders of men

As the yearly BCS/playoff talk comes back to roost like a bizarro robin, I need some counsel. Remind me again, just what is it about big-time college football that has anything to do with the mission of educational institutions? My Uncle David, who has lived in Ann Arbor for decades, reminded me that when he went to U of M, they played a nine game season. Now they play what, thirteen or fourteen? College football programs can no longer claim to be carrying on the rosy-cheeked Victorian mission of enrichment through exercise and diversion. Red Grange long since destroyed that notion.

Now everybody knows college football is about Tostitos and Adidas and the U. It’s about paydays against patsies and ranking boosts for running it up. These are professional football programs using below-market labor, offering the carrots of social mobility through education and NFL fortune. Are, they leaving a large percentage of their players adrift, knowing they had no NFL prospects but riding them to a payday anyway. All ballplayer Ned gets is a background in Playstation, some choice co-ed poontang and a few years worth of outsourced coursework in "Communications." Everybody knows this, right? I went looking for some statistics to see if I could verify my assumptions. College football is a beloved American institution, but is its Wu Tang for the children?

Yes and no.

PART ONE: Fresh air fund

According to the NCAA, fifty five percent of students who were enrolled in Division I university football programs in 1999 graduated within six years.1 This is not significantly worse than the fifty seven percent graduation rate amongst all males at those same institutions in the same time period. As to the quality of those degrees I can’t comment, but I know that it’s possible to get a top notch education, like Craig Krenzel did, but it is far easier not to (read: OSU linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer’s old class schedule of music, AIDS awareness seminar and golf).2 I've heard numerous stories about athletic department file cabinets filled with info on all the cushy classes where senile, tenured profs give the same quizzes every year. Everybody who has been to a big time college has an anecdote I’m sure they could lend to this discussion, but for me, all roads lead me to ask one thing: Is college football doing right by its scholarship players- the ones who have the most to gain and the most to lose. For every Michael Irvin, who goes to college in order to wear fatigues, get NFL bank and and a career as an analyst inane ESPN head, how many Maurice Claretts are there, selling out a promised future that never comes?

Forty nine and fifty percent of black and Hispanic football players graduate, respectively (culled from the same sample as previously referenced). This stands in stark contrast to the sixty two percent graduation rate of white players. This may not seem significant unless you account for the fact that black players outnumbered white players in the sample by 6535 to 5742. White football players graduate at the same rate as white males in the total student pool, but black students...wait a second, only graduate thirty six percent of the time, as compared to the forty nine percent rate of black athletes.

Football, if it does nothing else (except concuss you) gives you structure and discipline in your day to day life. It’s not news that African Americans are a chronically underserved population in the United States, particularly in the field of education. For example, the top members of the graduating class of say, West Philadelphia High School will surely get accepted to college, but they are coming from an environment where they score generally half as well on standardized tests as their peers in Pennsylvania and the level of educational intensity will ratchet up at least five-fold. Football players enter into an environment with a highly developed system for taking kids who are not college ready and getting them through. Why? The school needs something from these kids- the money they can generate by selling jerseys without nameplates and filling the stands with alums every Saturday, pocketbooks open.

So student-athletes are doing better than their peers (disregarding the fluff degree point), but the school is still going gangbusters making money, which is going towards Title IX support and back into the program from whence it came. Coaching salaries go up, Notre Dame makes TV deals and Kirk Herbstreits everywhere put filet mignon on the table. Every year, the ADs find a way to include one more game so that they can make the late-season poll surge (e.g. USC and Florida in '06) and cash in for millions in a BCS bowl. Some universities, like the Ivies, Carnegie Mellon and Chicago downsized their programs in the early to mid twentieth century, recognizing the degree to which football was subverting the aims and identity of the institution. But the money has proved too lucrative for most schools. Although most D-I athletic programs lose money, sixty-four percent of D-I football programs make money, according to an NCAA year 2000 figure.3 Without the money coming in, it's unlikely that players from low-income backgrounds would be getting the opportunities to go to school. If they weren't making money for the Uni, they would have no place at the school. Here we see the most perverse element of big time college athletics- despite any defense that can be offered by differential graduation rates, these kids are not getting the degree because the university is determined to provide educational opportunity, they are getting degrees because they are cash cows.

The diploma is a complete red herring- a convenient and fortunate externality which enables top-tier football schools to claim they are strictly in the do-right business. As I mentioned above, well over half of college football programs are profitable, some of them very profitable, with some, like Notre Dame generating revenues of 61 million a year and paying the school's entire athletic budget, according to CBS news. It's short of heartwarming to think of the kids who get to play volleyball because of the sweat of the Notre Dame's second string safety. That second string safety is being pimped to make volleyball happen. If national averages hold, he'll have a forty nine percent chance of graduating. Like graduate students of the 1970s, the football players' answer should be but one word, and it's not payment, it's union.

PART II: Anarcho syndicalist wheel route on two

Whereas graduate students have a difficult time defining themselves as university employees rather than trainees, football players have a much clearer case because they do not get paid, but they generate income, business and publicity based on their labors. Furthermore, they have a strong case, demonstrating the spuriousness of the argument that the Notre Dames are sure to make- the one saying that college football is about academic enrichment through sport and giving educational opportunities to underprivileged but athletically gifted kids. If that’s what it was about, why should schools reap any more money than is needed to subsidize the program and its scholarships? Top-tier football players are much like any other workers- they are compensated, sure, but under-compensated relative to the total profit. But they have a strong bargaining position.

But what piece of the pie should a college athletes union pursue, given its potentially diverse membership? Paying college athletes would simply make the economic situation in college athletics more fractious and unequal. There is no real reason to pay athletes when professional leagues exist to do just that (the issue of age limits in pro sports is a totally different post). Furthermore, the markets created by player payment and the inevitable bargaining and differential pay escalations between programs and sports would shatter the foundation of college athletics, for good or for ill. So, given one does not want to explode college sports, there are numerous compensations that could be made to minimize the risks associated with playing college sports. I can think of several risk-reducing programs which would provide athletes with equitable compensation for their service, spread across the entirety of each tier of quality:

1. Provide a stipend to cover the necessities of college life and the athlete’s children, if there are any.
2. Offer free insurance packages covering “work-related” injury with increased, arbitrated settlements for those with professional athletic prospects.
3. Focus on academic results: guarantee scholarships for four years and make hard and enforceable limitations on the amount of quote unquote voluntary practice there is. Shorten the football season by at least a game- teams may play no games within ten days before finals.4

I am OK with athletes not having individual licensing rights, so long as revenue from gross merchandise sales, corporate sponsorships and the like are directed in part towards the services listed above.

Obviously, there are powerful and moneyed interests which do not want any of this union business, in part because the opiating effect of modern sports media has made the inequity of college football somewhat of a white elephant. Surely the mention of a union will prompt doom and gloom prognostications from those ADs and executives who stand to lose control. This would be more or less consistent with the response of every manager who stands to lose strands of their authority to a union. But if everybody wants a college football playoff and everybody wants a conference championship game, they must be made to understand that these players are not their playthings.


1)The NCAA also keeps a statistic for graduation rates of student athletes called the “graduation success rate” (GSR) which excludes those who didn’t finish because of injury or death or came to school through transfer. Because rates of debilitating injury (requiring surgery etc) are possibly much higher than amongst the football playing population, I ignored this statistic. Furthermore, comparing simple graduation rate for students against GSR for athletes would be an apples-and-oranges situation.

2) Somehow Ohio State players figure very prominently in this article. I guess half of my college football anecdotes come from the OSU-UM games every year.

3) Surpluses from football and basketball generally go to subsidize other sports which do not generate revenue.

4) In the course of my research for this post, I stumbled upon The College Athlete’s Coalition, a small, California-based union started in 2001. They have several other goals which I did not list above, including the relaxation of employment restrictions.


I would like to credit my Uncle David with the idea for this piece- it was he who first suggested to me that an athlete's union would be a valuable institution, although I am sure he has much more to say about it than I.