In last week’s Friday Feature, I offered the somewhat unorthodox view that college sports as we know them should be eliminated.
That commentary covered the foundation for this belief–now the stated policy of The DFR–in broad terms: mainly, major college sports are an ocean of hypocrisy and occasional outright crime, and such things belong nowhere near a college campus, which should be a bastion of learning and, if nothing else, a sanctuary for students (particularly young students) against society’s more wretched excesses.
Yet, the astute reader will notice that, The DFR being a sports-related blog, it doesn’t make much sense for this site’s author to call for an end to college sports as we know them–in particular college football and basketball, which are the main feeder system for the very major leagues that are this site’s raison d’etre.
And those readers are right. These games do not need to end entirely; they just need to be extricated from the institutions of higher learning that they are currently debasing. How? Read on…
Many who would object to calling NCAA football and basketball (and, for that matter, all other college sports) cesspools of hypocrisy, crime, and perhaps outright evil, would probably also admit–if you got some truth serum into them–that the current structure of glomming volunteer professional sports leagues onto universities is not a workable, sensible, or ethical situation. Some major college sports coaches are utterly loathsome, but the majority are relatively decent men who are trying to make a living–and perhaps even a difference in young people’s lives–within the sports they love. But, in order to make that living, they are forced to compromise their integrity so often that the most courageous among them would agree that today’s situation simply must go.
The current situation makes no sense; its negatives continue to corrupt the establishments that should be among the best institutions our society has to offer.
Understand: many of those compromises are not about breaking NCAA rules; they’re about enforcing them. Much of what the NCAA rule book proscribes is not about maintaining competitive balance; it’s about maintaining a status quo in which the athletes are indentured servants while the institutions rake in monumental revenues based on the jocks’ efforts. The athletes know this; the coaches know this; NCAA administrators certainly know this; and we as fans should acknowledge it, too.
And really, this is all about us fans. Having minor league sports melded to colleges and universities would not exist but for the fans’ rabid and insatiable taste for these games. Major college sports are incredible cash cows, thanks to TV money (not to mention merchandising; just ask Ed O’Bannon), because of that insatiable desire. That unquestioning support has allowed the NCAA to stagger forward all these years, growing more dysfunctional and sleazier with every passing season, while still collecting all those dollars. And that demand for these games will remain, no matter what. That’s why eliminating college sports can never mean the games disappear entirely; such a plan would never fly.
So let’s keep the games; we can just make them have as little as possible to do with our colleges and universities.
My modest proposal is simple: make the current conferences–or new conference arrangements, as the member organizations see fit–legitimate minor leagues for their specific sports. The Big XII Conference, the Big 10 Conference (dubbed here the Big Can’t Count Conference), the Pac 12, the ACC, the SEC, all of them can still exist–they will just exist as minor sports league operations, NOT as institutions of the NCAA. And their component teams will be professional sports organizations, NOT departments within universities.
In other words, you can still have the Georgia Bulldogs; they just won’t be the University of Georgia Bulldogs. The University of Michigan Wolverines just become the Michigan Wolverines. The UCLA Bruins simply become the Los Angeles Bruins. Top flight programs such as these will form the highest junior level pro leagues; other teams with lesser portfolios, so to speak, will fit into lower level leagues, possibly with promotion and relegation a la soccer’s EPL.
The benefits to such a new arrangement should be obvious. First and foremost, players will be able to earn money playing their chosen sports, without having to devote any of their time to undesired academic pursuits. (I’ll return to this point in a moment.)
Coaches and administrative staff will no longer have to kowtow to a host of rules designed to maintain the fiction of amateurism; they will only be answerable to the regulations adopted by their leagues–just like current major and minor league organizations do.
And while the schools will no longer see the revenues they once did, they won’t have to take on the expenses they once did, either. As we saw last week, running a big-time college sports department is not necessarily a road to incalculable riches. And, of course, not only do the athletics departments sometimes lose money through operations alone, they also can incur liabilities for the school when they bring onto campus athletes who can’t or won’t function as civil members of the community. How much will Baylor University be paying out in lawsuit settlements in the near future? Get the Sam Ukwuachu types off the campuses and schools may see their endowments remain a little safer in the future.
Of course, this separation will be difficult at first, mostly for logistical reasons. Certainly not for financial reasons; the current major powers in football and basketball–and maybe baseball, possible even a few other sports–should be able to generate enough revenue to make themselves viable businesses.
And the programs that can’t make that cut? Well, I’m no rabid capitalist, but this is one situation where “the market will decide” is not such a bad idea. If the Kansas Jayhawks can cut it as a football or basketball organization, fine. If the Akron Zips cannot, in any sport, so be it. No community–not even LeBron’s hometown–has a divine right to a local rooting interest. If some localities see their teams go under in the new order, perhaps that’s the situation that should have prevailed all along.
And who knows? Maybe Akron and other current MAC programs will be able to make it as minor league outlets. Batavia, NY has a team in the New York-Penn League (Class A); with some kind of NFL affiliation or sponsorship, perhaps a junior junior league pro football team could play in Akron. It’s not impossible, the NFL’s multi-billion dollar revenues could make it happen, if local resources could not.
Furthermore, these new minor league teams, while no longer under the control of the colleges, could still have some minor connection with their traditional homes. At first, these minor league teams would probably have to continue playing on campus, in the stadia that they have occupied for years–at least until they are established enough as viable businesses to build their own facilities (which, in some cases, would probably happen quite quickly). So students on campus would still (for a time, at least) have a source of entertainment there on campus, same as they always have. They just wouldn’t have to worry as much about being terrorized by the players during the non-game hours.
And–I told you I’d get back to it–just because those minor league football and basketball players aren’t forced to be students, it wouldn’t mean they couldn’t be students. Indeed, the traditional ties between the teams and their original host universities could be maintained–with minor tweaks to the relationships. For instance, a player who signs to play with the Oklahoma Sooners junior pro football team might, by arrangements made between the team and the school, have the option of attending the university as a special admission. Such a perk could be part of the contract. Many of the athletes who sign with a minor league team wouldn’t want that perk; but the ones who did could have the option–and, thanks to their incomes as junior pro players, they might have the money to pay for their education themselves!
Suggesting that colleges divest themselves of the semi-pro sports businesses will surely elicit emotional, hyperbolic, knee-jerk wails about how awful it would be to see old Alma Mater’s great traditions end–but the plain truth is, such a new arrangement would be a blessing for all concerned. The current situation makes no sense; its negatives continue to corrupt the establishments that should be among the best institutions our society has to offer. Getting colleges out of the sports business is a no-brainer; the only question is, are there enough of us out there with brains enough to make it happen?
For everyone’s sake, let’s hope the answer is yes.