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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.