Free the college football market

Published 8:55 am Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Column: Donald Kaul, Other Words

The burlesque show that is college football has gone about as far as it can go. Each fall it arrives clothed in garments of academic integrity (the players are scholar-athletes, don’t you know) only to peel them off one at a time as the year goes on.

This year the show has arrived on the scene buck-naked with its academic integrity packed away in a trunk somewhere. A striptease without the tease is mere pornography.

Donald Kaul

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College football pretends it’s about boola-boola, but it’s really all about ka-ching ka-ching.

Recent months have seen a wave of scandals hit one big-time program after another, with traditional powers like the University of Southern California, the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Ohio State and North Carolina State either censured or about to be. All involved payments to players in one form or another.

Yet even while asserting the sport’s essential innocence, college presidents and athletic directors began a game of musical chairs trying to rearrange college football conferences so that their respective schools could dip deeper into the river of television money that flows through campuses. Traditional rivalries, geographic proximity and common sense all went by the wayside in the money grab. And it isn’t over yet.

The University of Michigan, a not atypical athletic powerhouse, recently spent a quarter of a billion (that’s with a b) dollars to renovate its 84-year-old football stadium. This is in addition to building a new indoor football practice facility to replace the old one, as well as adding a recruiting center, a basketball practice facility, a baseball stadium and a matching softball field. Did I mention the new soccer field or the renovations of the ice hockey and basketball arenas?

It all demands money, and football is the big — in some cases only — dollar magnet on the athletic scene.

What makes it such a brilliant business plan is that they don’t have to pay the players. Oh, the athletic departments buy the “student-athletes” scholarships and say that’s the equivalent of pay for players.

Except that the education many of the athletes receive isn’t worth the price of a movie ticket.

Colleges take a Republican view of things. That means anything the corporations do to make money is fine and dandy, while anything the workers do is greedy and possibly illegal.

Howard Cosell, the great if sometimes obnoxious sports journalist, once said: “The last thing in the world a college or university should be concerned with is being No. 1 in football or basketball if the price one pays for that is the corruption of character and the undermining of true student morale on campus.”

Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago at the time, said essentially the same thing in fewer words when he had his school drop football in 1939.

“Football,” he explained, “has the same relation to education that bullfighting has to agriculture.”

His old school has since taken up football again, though now at a truly amateur level, Division III. Hardly anyone goes to the games but they have great cheers. The New York Times recently relayed this splendid example:

“Themistocles, Thucydides

The Peloponnesian War,

X-squared, y-squared


Who for? What for?

Who we gonna yell for?

Go Maroons!”

Now that’s a cheer alumni can be proud of.

They say you can’t pay college players because you’d then have to pay all athletes on campus, which would be unaffordable. That’s probably true.

The solution, however, (short of following Chicago’s lead) is capitalism. Let boosters, supporters, shoe companies, whoever, pay the kids over the table.

Some athletes would play for the money, some for the love of the game, others for the education. The most zealous of fans would have a sense of helping their schools without feeling guilty. What you would lose in amateurism you would more than gain in honesty.

You either believe in free-market capitalism or you don’t.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. Read more on the Internet at