There is one truth about America’s beloved college football that you don’t need 20/20 vision to see: the sport is broken.
The sport has grown to outsized proportions and dwarfed the academic mission at many institutions all while hiding behind an easily penetrable veil of the “student” athlete. (How long has it been since the student piece actually came first?) The sport is also obviously dangerous. The more we learn about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other football-related brain injuries, the more disturbing the issue becomes.
Regardless, college football is raking in and spending more and more money each year, but in perplexing ways. Funding sources for expenditures include student-loan-rich, cash-poor students. And the expenditures include ever-rising salaries and perks for coaches while players, who have an average market value of $121,000, still receive nothing. At its best, the sport is barely serviceable in its current form. At its worst, it’s a 21st-century manifestation of slavery.
But, there is hope. I am not here to share the viewpoint of Buzz Bissinger or Malcolm Gladwell that college football should be banned. No, as an eternal optimist, I am here to offer a solution on how to fix our country’s greatest game. The changes I propose are great, but if implemented, college football can be saved.
For college football to continue, it needs to morph into a true minor league system for professional football. To do this, the sport needs to once and for all drop the farce of the student athlete and stop requiring kids to go to school when they don’t want to. Yes, altogether sever the student from the athlete.
How do you do this? Here’s how:
1. Remove college football from the NCAA and create a separate governing body. A separate governing body such as the ANFL (Amateur National Football League) or NFDL (National Football Developmental League) could be created. This governing body would oversee the recruiting, signing, transferring, and yes, paying of players and coaches. No more ticky-tacky recruiting violations. No more athletes signing away all their rights. Football players would be treated more like amateur athletes in established developmental leagues like Europe’s developmental soccer leagues, as they should.
2. Have colleges license their names and logos to the new amateur league. One of the beautiful things about college football is the fact that we can root for our alma maters and/or the school(s) from our home city/state. College football is an intimately personal endeavor. Many of us spent some of the best years of our lives at these institutions. If schools license their names and logos to the teams in the amateur league, we can keep a personal attachment to the teams even if the sport isn’t part of the NCAA. The Alabama Crimson Tide would still be the Alabama Crimson Tide with all of their decades of rich history. They could play in the same stadium and even practice on the same fields. The only difference is their players would have a little more cash in their pockets and wouldn’t be forced to attend “Rocks for Jocks.”
3. Individual teams/schools would decide if their players have to work toward a degree. What if Stanford, Duke, and Northwestern want to still require all players to work toward degrees? No problem. The decision would be in the schools’ hands. They could make it part of the licensing contract. If Alabama, Ohio State, and Texas don’t want to require their players to earn degrees anymore, that’s fine too. This system would add an extra wrinkle to the recruiting process. There are still going to be some great players who want an education. Where will they go? No need to force players to be in classrooms; let them choose.
4. Comprehensive insurance policies. The NCAA currently has an insurance program that elite athletes can use to get low-interest loans to purchase up to $5 million in insurance in the event that they get seriously injured prior to being drafted. This program is only available to players who are projected to be drafted in the first three rounds. The new governing body could offer something similar, but expand it to all players. The amount of the policy one would collect would be capped close to one’s future earnings while in the amateur league as well as a portion of potential pro earnings. Such a program, on top of the fact that players will actually be getting paid to play, will mitigate the growing chorus of people who criticize the sport due to the prevalence of serious injuries.
My suggestions for improving the sport are quite drastic, but necessary. I have always wanted to believe that all football players care about their academics and that college football is about much, much more than money. But even I can’t fool myself anymore, the truth is too obvious.
Once we accept the truth of college football, we must move to make the sport more transparent and reasonable. Paying players is reasonable. Forcing adults to go to class just so we can watch them play football on Saturdays is not. Football has become the hearty entrée, while academics are now the unappetizing side dish. Let’s accept this blatant reality and move college football forward together.
If you’d like to discuss this further, you can reach me on Twitter: @laruerobinson.
LaRue Robinson is an attorney. He founded and writes for the football website Any Football Fan. He played football for nine years, including three years of Varsity Sprint Football at Cornell University. He holds a law degree from Columbia Law School and resides in Louisville, Kentucky.