In Defense of College Football

Written May 14th, 2012 by Eric

Yes, there are serious discussions about ending this.

Last Tuesday, College Football fans were treated to a mid-dearth-season debate on College Football. Unfortunately the debate wasn’t about playoffs, nor about preseason polls, nor even about which conference was the best.

No, the debate was about whether or not College Football should continue to be allowed to play at all.

This all seems a bit strange. A game that weathered the storm of criticisms early in its life when young athletes were dying is again facing similar criticisms. Despite rule and equipment changes over the last 100 years, things are still the same.

But is there any benefit to College Football? I’m not talking the benefit of tailgates, parties, alumni passions, and rivalries. No, I’m talking about real, tangible benefits to the players and the schools involved. There has to be something that drives the system today, and it’s worth breaking it all down and seeing if there’s anything that might make the game worth saving.

Now, I will note that Mali and I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on this issue. He has already expressed his ideas regarding how college football should evolve to face the modern challenges. This article is not an attempt to refute anything he has said in particular – but is merely an attempt to look at College Football as an entity, whether we decide to change it or not. I want to save the sport in some form, regardless of what that form might look like.

There are two major objections raised when discussing College Football.

- College Football costs money for the majority of schools and very few schools earn from the sport. In fact the schools in the lower divisions of the sport regularly take money from student fees to pay for their college football programs.

- Football (in general) is a vicious and dangerous game. Players end up with injuries (concussions, ACLs, etc.) that reduce quality of life as the player’s get older. The players are not properly educated on these facts before playing the game, or are too young to make a well-informed decision.

These are some pretty damning objections by themselves, even if they aren’t the significant majority of complaints. A game that costs schools money, even so far that Rutger’s program costs every student $1000 per year whether they care or not, is pretty significant. Worse yet, serious injuries could occur to players that may change their quality of life down the road.

In defense of College Football we need to consider why these issues either miss the point, or are rendered invalid, by the facts of reality. Let’s consider a couple key facts.

1. Universities are (generally) a profit-seeking Business.

Pretty typical University Business plan.

I wish the typical University would be willing to just come out and say it, but it would be hard for them to deny it anyway. Universities are businesses first and foremost. They offer you an education in exchange for your money. That’s a legitimate economic exchange, and the University is hoping to earn a profit from it, just like most typical companies.

Whether you like it or not, there’s no escaping the fact that Colleges act like a Business in every possible way. Consider tenure decisions for faculty. The premise of “publish or perish” is linked strongly to the amount of money you bring to the university. If you don’t publish often, or don’t publish well, grant funding agencies are less likely to give you money down the line. That money is granted to the university for the use of that professor. It’s not granted to the professor directly. Therefore, research grants count as earnings for the university. If you don’t bring money to the table, the University isn’t going to want you hanging around for long.

2. There can be something more valuable than quality of life down the road.

From an economic perspective, forgive the cold analysis, one can view the injuries and resulting loss of quality of life as a “cost” of playing football. In a cost-benefit analysis, a player – even a well-reasoned, well-educated, and rational one – can come to the conclusion that what is gained from playing the game is of greater value than what it might lose them in the future.

For those of us who have never played the game, that may seem ridiculous. We’ll consider in a minute what the players gain from the act of playing the sport. For now, lets keep in mind that sometimes these kids can be more rational than we give them credit for.

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To properly defend the College game (and the game in general) we need to not only respond to the criticisms leveled, but we need to also provide a positive reason for the existence of the game. It’s not sufficient to come out as “break-even”, but we must, in the final analysis, have gained something significant.

The tricky part to all of this is the multi-divisional aspect of College Sports. There are significant differences in the benefits provided at the upper divisions as compared to the lower divisions. Therefore, I will try to be careful to indicate when arguments benefit a specific division or sub-section of the sport.

1. Academic Opportunities.

It is hard to debate the first, and possibly most positive aspect, of College Athletics in general. The “Student-Athlete”, as much as we might scoff at the notion in some respects, is still a student, and is still provided the opportunity of a college education.

Some may deride the image of the "student athlete", but there are some who still value the meaning of the term.

In many respects, particularly for Football and Basketball, the educational opportunity is provided to athletes who would not necessarily earn such a quality education otherwise.  Some students who don’t meet the usual entrance requirements are given a chance to prove their mettle anyway – the obvious exchange is in return for what the individual gives back to the university.

But there’s also the monetary angle. While athletic scholarships are not full-ride, they do defray some of the costs of the education that allow it to come within the reach of athletes from less well-off families. This opens the educational system to a larger set of the population, ostensibly in return for what the athlete is willing to provide the school on the football field.

Many, many players who have been through this system successfully talk about the benefit their education has brought them. They have been able to achieve goals and dreams, even after their football careers are over, that may not have been possible for them had they not received their education.

At the very top of the College Football game is an additional level of this point. College Football, for the teams that earn a net profit from the venture, tends to fund their athletic departments (such as at Ohio State and Texas, for example) so that other sports may be played. In these cases, the academic opportunities extend beyond the game of football and into other sports that are not as well earning. This provides scholarships to a larger range of individuals, and across genders, maximizing the positive impact of the sport.

2. “Football” Education.

Now, I’m not talking about learning football fundamentals here. I’m talking about the intagible education that you gain playing for someone like Woody Hayes, or Bo Schembecler, or – seemingly – Urban Meyer.

This is the kind of education that turns men into boys. The knowledge of how to be a better person, how to be a teammate, how to work with others, and how to make quality choices in life. This is the “father figure” role of a head coach, the “off-the-field” education that is just as valuable as learning the fundamentals of the game.

This is the education that keeps kids off the street, keeps kids from doing drugs, keeps them out of trouble. This is the kind of education a father is supposed to provide, but not every player manages to get from a father. This is one of the greatest positive benefits imaginable from athletics. The positive role-model education that really cannot be earned anywhere else.

Honestly, Woody Hayes explains it a lot better than I do.

3. Diversity.

I’m not going to spend long on this point. It may not be as obvious as you might think, however.

Universities often push for diversity in more ways than simply race – though that does tend to be a motivating factor. Diversity in life experiences and backgrounds is also a critical component to University recruiting. The ability to pick up individuals from a background that may not have lead them to college, except through their athletic ability, is another set of diverse experiences that Colleges would otherwise be unable to attain. Athletics provides access to that part of society, allowing the school to improve their overall diversity and, ostensibly, improve their educational quality.

4. Marketing.

You may recall from above the point I made regarding a University as a Business. They are in the business of selling an education to interested students for the cost of tuition, among other things. This should be obvious to the casual observer, especially these days.

Of course, Universities derive their money in multiple ways, but it stands to reason that maximizing their sources of income is a goal for them, much like for any other business. A school will work to maximize their funding from the State and Federal Goverments for education, from the government for research grants, from the students in the form of tuition, and from the alumni in the form of donations.

But how does a University get students to attend their University, particularly out of state students since they pay more, rather than one of the competition? The answer is by marketing, just like any other business. Now schools like MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and their ilk market themselves in a very simple way – by selling their academic standings – than the regular state schools. They can get away with this by having tremendous and long-standing academic opportunities.

What about the Akrons, the Toledos, the Colorado States, to name a few? Their academics don’t even come close to touching the big name schools. The answer for them is to market themselves however they can – and the advent of the large number of televised sporting events has made it easier than ever. By having a football program, a school can market themselves as an academic institution (it’s a college after all), and reach out to a large demographic – the average sports loving American.

Athletics playing a roll in School Recruiting? Nah...

Not surprisingly, the average sports loving American (let’s be honest, the average anyone) is not going to be the kind of person who ends up in Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford. When they go shopping for a school, they’re going to be looking for something more in their price-range. This is where the advantage of having a program comes in. For those of you not in the Cleveland area, what are the chances that you would have ever heard of the University of Akron if it wasn’t for the Zip’s athletics programs? If you want to take it up a notch, consider how many people probably knew about Appalachin State before they defeated Michigan. Also think about Division 3 Mount Union.

It’s actually well established that winning in major athletics does increase attention to the school as a whole. There is often a marked rise in applications to an institution that has just won a National Championship. Typically, athletic donations increases to a university after a winning season (though, amusingly, academic donations appear to fall off markedly). But even if we only consider the increase in applications, the school can ultimately be a little more picky about who it takes. That results in a higher quality student, and ultimately a slightly higher quality of education. It also makes it more likely that the school can earn a little more money with a larger freshman class than in other years.

But not every school makes money by having a football program. Again, consider poor Akron, who finds themselves holding a 1-11 season record. That’s clearly not going to draw students to your school. Why have a football program at all?

The answer is, there is still a marketing component. Just as a company will spend money on an advertising campaign in the hopes of increasing sales, a school markets itself through its sports programs. The Universities consider the cost-to-benefit of maintaining an athletic program, and recognize that while they do spend money on the endeavor, they ultimate gain local, regional, and national attention that can lead to collegiate applications.

While it’s harder for a school like Baldwin-Wallace to take advantage of that sort of marketing in this day and age, they do still benefit from the experience. Ultimately, the net costs to schools are outweighed by the net gain of the attention they recieve, from their perspective.

——

Chic Harley certainly has one of the most impressive football legacies.

The case has been made that there are positives to schools running major athletics programs. However, we haven’t really addressed the concerns of injuries and long term health effects to the players involved.

In all honesty, that’s a choice that must be made by the players themselves. To ban the game of football because we deem it to be unsafe, we would be denying the players the opportunity to choose their path in life. Many may argue that the players aren’t making well informed decisions, that we’re using their bodies amorally because they can’t possibly know better. I might agree with that line of reasoning, except for three factors.

First, by continuing to enhance our understanding of the injuries involved, we’re improving our ability to diagnose, treat, and hopefully prevent those very injuries. Concussions, which just ten years ago were blown off as nothing, are now considered to be extremely serious injuries. Our understanding of the injuries has improved dramatically, and it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising soul comes up with a clever technological solution – just as pads changed the nature of the game 100 years ago.

Second, by constantly discussing the issues of player injuries and long-term health, we are increasing the awareness of those issues in the minds of the parents and the players themselves. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find players who don’t have at least some understanding of what they may be risking by playing the game. That is doubly true for the parents.

Lastly, we often see new recruiting targets that are the sons of famous NFL players, or the grandsons, or even longer range legacies such as with Rob Harley. They grew up with the stories – good and bad – their entire lives. Their parents, grandparents, and entire family know first hand the issues involved. And yet those kids still choose to play football, and still choose to take the same path their forebears strolled. Perhaps long term health doesn’t come into their minds, but it’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t.

It seems to me that the benefits gained from playing College Football – both the benefits for the players, and those for the Universities – far outweigh any risks or costs incurred from the game.  From the academic advantages and access gained across many sports, and the special education gained through interactions with your coach, to the marketing of the schools involved, there is a lot to be gained for all parties involved.

That injuries may occur, costs may arise, or other negative aspects of the game make it more difficult to enjoy or follow is just as much a part of life as in any other activity.  It is foolhardy to ask individuals to make decisions based on our value judgments, if in the end they feel the benefits far outweigh the costs.

College Athletics is just as much an academic and educational experience as any other you’ll find in your University travels.  If ever there was a solid case for keeping the sport as a significant part of our colleges, the realization that it teaches valuable life lessons both on and off the field, is it.

9 Comments

  1. WVaBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    May 14th, 2012 at 11:57 am

    great stuff Eric as usual! I am someone who feels there are far more dangersous jobs that people mostly dont or wont put a lot of thought into it. If they really sat back and considered all of the hazards, I believe most people in general would try to protect themselves unless famil or someone else is in play.

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  2. Michael Philip DaggerNo Gravatar
    May 15th, 2012 at 1:58 am

    A. You assert Universities are profit-seeking businesses. Do you know what “profit-seeking” means? By your logic the department of water and power are profit seeking. The US government is profit seeking. After all, “They offer you [a service or product] in exchange for your money.” These universities are not profit-seeking. Universities don’t take your money and distribute them as dividends to their shareholders.

    B. You want to give these student-athletes access to higher education? Give them the full four year athletic scholarship when they sign from high school and don’t make it dependent on them playing sports. They’re in college to play ball and they know it. If they screw up their grades, they get put on academic probation or get classified as “disabled” or some other work around. If they screw up on the field, they lose their scholarship and probably leave school.
    You also have the issue of how much some of these students really learn [1,2].

    C. Football education? And that justifies the amount of money to pay athletic coaches to teach 85 football players or 15 basketball player? No one argues against football coaches “teaching young men right and wrong blah blah etc etc”. People have trouble seeing how these points connect to, for starters, billion dollar TV deals. [3]
    What about academic professors guiding students through research? There are numerous other opportunities available to students which don’t put such a huge drain on resources focusing on such a small sample of students.
    I won’t even touch Jerry Sandusky…

    D. You contradict yourself.
    ->”The ability to pick up individuals from a background that may not have lead them to college, except through their athletic ability, is another set of diverse experiences that Colleges would otherwise be unable to attain.”
    ->”But even if we only consider the increase in applications, the school can ultimately be a little more picky about who it takes. That results in a higher quality student, and ultimately a slightly higher quality of education.”

    What gives a higher quality education? Diversity which brings students the university would never see? Or high quality students who raise the standard and, by extension, keep the rift-raft out?
    And I’m bothered by the focus on athletes. This same argument can apply to art students, yet the debate never comes.

    E. Personally, I don’t care about player safety. As long as the athletes aren’t lied to about potential problems, it’s their life and they can do what they want. However, I can’t stand bad logic:

    ->First, by continuing to enhance our understanding of the injuries involved, we’re improving our ability to diagnose, treat, and hopefully prevent those very injuries. Concussions, which just ten years ago were blown off as nothing, are now considered to be extremely serious injuries. Our understanding of the injuries has improved dramatically, and it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising soul comes up with a clever technological solution – just as pads changed the nature of the game 100 years ago.

    Your logic: Disease X use to kill millions of people a year. Now it only kills 1 million people a year. Therefore, its not a problem anymore!
    And of course our understanding of injuries is expanding rapidly. We didn’t know anything before.
    And the idea that “someone else will take care [of concussions] by making some clever technological invention” is childish.

    Like many people, I’m not against college football. I really enjoy watching it, more so than the NFL. But I object to the notions of things like “amateur-ism” and “student-athlete”. With big money championships, these are professional leagues.

    1. http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=4737281

    2. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/28/sports/views-of-sport-how-illiteracy-makes-athletes-run.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

    3. http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=6471380

    [Reply]

    JimNo Gravatar
    May 15th, 2012 at 7:14 am

    Two links to ESPN articles? No thank you.

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    MaliBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    May 15th, 2012 at 11:23 am

    That’s a great response, Michael- and I think you’ll find (if you look around a bit) that we’re not “believers” in the SHamateurism myth.

    Oh, and I think the bigger question would be if Jerry Sandusky would touch you… :)

    [Reply]

    ErictBBCNo Gravatar
    May 15th, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Great thoughts.

    A- You misconstrue the concept of profit-seeking in this context. Yes, by my definition the federal government is profit seeking, and I’ll own that. The argument here is that they are attempting to earn money for their own ends. The difference lies in the face that universities cannot force you to do business with them (while the government can). Thats where the idea of marketing themselves comes in.

    B- I have no argument with this point. I’m not saying college football as it exists today is perfect, only that there are concepts involved worth protecting, even if the way we go about it is wrong.

    C- as with “b”, the concepts involved need modification. I agree on the concepts of the money involved (which we’ve argued about on this website repeatedly). It doesn’t change the lessons learned though.
    As for the academic advisor leading you through research, I can tell you from personal experience (I am currently a graduate student in Physics at MSU) that the interaction and lessons are on a completely different level than what athletes and their coaches share. Good coaches hold a much closer bond to their athletes (often viewing them as their own children) than most advisors do. The difference is striking, and does not hold the same value.

    D- I see why you say I’ve contradicted myself. However, those are not mutually exclusive areas, and I would argue (from the university perspective) that they would view both as equally valuable to the educational experience. Athletes who might otherwise not make it to college can still be bright enough to succeed and enhance the college experience. I’ve seen athletes on both sides of the coin – one who kicked my ass in a philosophy class in college, and one who needed special help to make it through a painfully low level astronomy course. Also “being picky” about who they take to enhance the college experience through applications can be based in a wide range of traits (diversity, knowledge, experience, etc.). It’s up to the university to make the best decision for their school….getting back to the concepts of acting like a business.

    E- I didn’t say it’s to a problem anymore. I said that our ability to combat the problems is improving, partially due to improved attention to the problem at hand. To construe this as me saying its not a problem anymore is, frankly, lazy thinking.
    My argument is that because we are getting better about it, both in treatment, and in technologies, and because this is similar in nature to the problems faced 100 years ago which were successfully beaten by better understanding and better technologies, I expect that the problems of concussions will be solved in a similar way. Going to the extreme of eliminating the sport seems ridiculous when the problems can be solved. I’m certainly not trivializing the nature of the threat concussions pose today, nor do I believe that even 1 person suffering a concussion means the problem is solved.

    Mali and I are in very strong agreement with you about the concepts of amateurism and student athletes (though I still maintain the student athlete concept can work, but the strategy of going about it needs serious modification.). I recommend you read Mali’s thoughts on that in the link I provided above. You may find them familiar.

    Thanks again for sharing your geat thoughts!

    [Reply]

  3. ErictBBCNo Gravatar
    May 15th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Some thoughts regarding post football life from a thesis submitted to the School of Philosophy at Marquette.

    http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/story/19053496/expacker-koonce-gives-inside-look-at-player-trauma-transitions

    It’s a good counter-point to my arguments. It does, however, speak to my argument that we’re doing a better job of learning about the issues involved. One thing that really strikes me is the story of the guy who sat in his car all day long because he couldn’t fit into the business environment. How many psych problems do NFL players have that we don’t know about because they refuse to talk about it? They’re so used to playing the “tough guy” role that they don’t know how to open up and ask for help, or even admit they need it.

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  4. Buck23No Gravatar
    May 15th, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Its the nature of the game. People drive cars daily and “DIE”, BUT WE ALL STILL DRIVE CARS DONT WE…. Football is a game that when you think about it teaches a great deal about life. Imagine if there was no football …. imagine what kind of life most of these inner-city kids would have looking forward too…. Having a discussion about ending college football is a very dangerous talk…. in alot of cases if there was no football alot of these kids would be locked up in prison or dead in a casket… Thank God they do have some skills… which we enjoy every given Saturday!

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  5. Buck23No Gravatar
    May 15th, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    Football teaches family, unity, respect for one another. Appreciation for teamwork. Their skills on the field bring hope in the classroom. That they can become something better, a chance to get a degree off of their skills on the field…. after all have you ever thought about some of the conditions these kids grew up in.
    The technology will get better, one day someone will design a helmet that prevents 99% of all concussions.
    Ever ask yourself what the odds were of them being successful on the street and surviving the living conditions alot of these athletes grew up in?

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    Buck23No Gravatar
    May 15th, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    Without football…………………….

    [Reply]

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