College football continues to corrupt our universities. At least we could pay the players

More than ten years ago, I wrote that it was time to get football out of our universities because the sport was corrupting the universities’ mission. Not surprisingly, I got a lot of pushback about that, but I’ve continued to make this point, both here at Forbes and in The New York Times.

This weekend, I watched a college football game for the first time in years. I was struck by how much worse things are–and by worse, I mean driven by money.

Don’t get me wrong. Football is entertaining for its millions of fans, and college football is extremely popular, especially for those who live in cities without a professional team. I’m not so naive as to think people will give this up.

The problem is that major college football is a professional sport where everyone makes money except the main participants: the players. Worse, the players are being told by their coaches, assistant coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents that they’re getting a great deal. We give you free education! And you get to play football for our great team, and everyone will cheer for you!

If this is really so great, then why don’t the coaches work for free? College football coaches are paid multimillion-dollar salaries, usually far higher than anyone else at the same university, even the university president. The average salary of NCAA Division I coaches this year is $1.75 million, and some coaches make over $10 million. In most states, a football coach at a public university is the highest-paid state employee.

But the players get zero. This situation, to put it bluntly, is unethical. Universities with large football programs are profiting handsomely off the unpaid labor of their own students.

Universities have been told this before. In 2011, civil rights historian Taylor Branch wrote a ground-breaking cover story in The Atlantic titled “The Shame of College Sports,” As Branch wrote then:

“Big-time college sports are fully commercialized. Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.”

That was 11 years ago. The situation has only gotten worse.

What’s striking about watching a college football game on television, as I did this past weekend, is the degree of commercialization of the sport. The game is interrupted constantly with advertisements from sponsors, and the stadiums are decorated with ads as well. ESPN has a large, professional team of announcers covering every aspect of the game. The television work is highly coordinated and professional, with many cameras covering every angle of every play.

There is a LOT of money in college football.

I listened to interviews with some of the (winning) players after the game. They were excited, and they praised their coaches and fellow teammates as they were supposed to. They seemed to believe that the game they’d just won was supremely important, and that their performance (an upset victory) was meaningful and even “historic” (as one player said).

But it wasn’t. Football is just entertainment.

What’s especially sad, to me, is that nearly all of these players are getting short-changed on their education. They spend most of their time on football for a good portion of their year, despite the laughable pretense by the NCAA that these are “student athletes.” They’re athletes, certainly, but they don’t have time to be students, not during football season. The universities (and especially the football coaches) just don’t seem to care, despite their continual protestations to the contrary.

Only 1.6% of college football players make it into the NFL. Or to put it another way: at the end of their college years, 98.4% of college football players will be spit out into the real world, with poor job prospects because they didn’t focus on their education.

And it’s actually even worse than this. We’ve learned in recent years that football carries serious risk of permanent neurological damage, due to repeated blows to the head that happen to many players. It’s a violent contact sport, and the ever-greater size of today’s players has made it much more dangerous than in its early years in the mid-20th century. (I wrote about this too, back in 2019.)

Universities could start to fix this unethical situation by paying the players what they’re worth. Here’s one idea: if universities are seriously concerned about the education of these young men, they should separate their football programs from their education programs. Teams could pay to license the university’s name, hire and pay players, and pay fees to use the football stadiums. (Football fans claim that the sport makes a profit, and if this is true, the teams should do just fine in this scenario.) The athletes could be offered full 4-year scholarships that they could use after their playing years were over, or perhaps in the off seasons, so that they would be able to truly focus on their education.

But meanwhile, as The Atlantic‘s editors put it over 10 years ago,

the real scandal is the very structure of college sports, wherein student-athletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves.

Pay the players. That’s the only way to fix this.

New report says COVID was probably a lab leak: should we believe it?


A week ago, Vanity Fair and ProPublica published a long exposé on the origins of Covid-19, in which they revealed new evidence of a lab leak in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in November 2019.

The big reveal: the report makes it appear much more likely than before that Covid-19 originated through an accident at WIV, where presumably one of the scientists was exposed to the virus. The new evidence in the ProPublica report largely centers on the work of a translator, Toy Reid, who claims to have a unique gift for interpreting the “secret language of Chinese officialdom.” Even native Chinese speakers can’t really follow it, he claims in the article.

Reid scrutinized a collection of internal and external communications from WIV, and says that he found messages in the fall of 2019 that indicated “inhumane working conditions and hidden safety dangers.” And most significantly, a message on November 12 refers to some kind of biosecurity breach, which might have referred to an accidental exposure of someone in the lab to a virus.

The date of this incident appears to coincide with an incident described in a 2021 article in the Wall St. Journal, which reported that 3 WIV employees sought hospital care in November of 2019. This incident has never been confirmed to involve Covid-19 infections.

To add some context: Reid’s findings were released by a Republican U.S. Senator, Richard Burr, in a report that was not endorsed by the full Senate committee investigating COVID-19’s origins. Burr’s report concluded that Covid-19 was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.”

Not surprisingly, this new report has been getting a lot of attention.

The report initially might seem convincing, until you realize that it doesn’t include any actual biological evidence: no reports of actual infections, and no specifics about any viruses that might have escaped from WIV at the time. It seems to be based entirely on the translation super-powers of Toy Reid.

It didn’t take long for other experts to weigh in. There are plenty of Chinese-language speakers out there, including native speakers who are likely much more fluent than Toy Reid. One translator wrote on Twitter that Reid “screwed up.” Another said that a critical passage identified by Reid “doesn’t suggest a biosafety problem had occurred at all.”

Hmm. Here I have to admit that I have no idea who is right here, since I don’t speak or read Chinese. However, it does appear that ProPublica and Vanity Fair may have put too much faith in a single translator who might have had a political bias.

And there’s more. A number of virologists weighed in to point out that the Vanity Fair piece had ignored work that pointed to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market (in Wuhan) as the source of the virus. I wrote at length about that research in March, when 3 new scientific papers had just appeared (as preprints), all pointing fingers at the seafood market as the source of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, all of the evidence in those papers was circumstantial. None of them found an infected animal that was the true source of Covid-19. Instead, they found that many early cases in people were centered on the seafood market. Even supposing that is correct (and it might not be, because China never allowed outside scientists to go to Wuhan and test people all over the city), it is still just circumstantial. Perhaps a scientist from WIV got infected and stopped by the seafood market that day–we may never know.

But let’s return to this week’s controversy, shall we? A virologists who led one of the papers I discussed back in March, Michael Worobey, was also quoted in the Vanity Fair article. He had major objections to what they wrote, and he posted them in a lengthy Twitter thread here, which is well worth reading.

Vanity Fair described Worobey’s work as providing evidence that a natural zoonotic origin (in other words, an origin in an animal at the Wuhan seafood market) for Covid-19 was “plausible.” Worobey objected, pointing out that his comments were much more definitive, and that his position is that:

"OUR TWO RECENT PAPERS establish that a natural zoonotic origin is THE ONLY plausible scenario for the origin of the pandemic." (all-caps in original)

After Worobey’s Twitter thread appeared, Vanity Fair and ProPublica updated their stories to include exactly that quote, without the all-caps.

Worobey makes a compelling case that Vanity Fair and ProPublica misquoted him (or at least omitted important details), and it seems they have fixed that error. However, neither the Twitter thread nor Worobey’s scientific paper make a definitive case that, as he puts it, a natural origin is the “only plausible scenario” for Covid-19.

Not at all. The paper by Worobey and colleagues concluded that “the earliest known COVID-19 cases from December 2019 were geographically centered on this market.” Let’s grant that this statement is accurate: even so, their data does not prove that the market was the “origin” of the pandemic, especially because they failed to find any animals infected with Covid-19 from that market. They only found human cases. This leaves open the question of where the very first human case occurred: it’s entirely possible that the first human was infected elsewhere–perhaps at the Wuhan Institute of Virology–and that human visited the seafood market while actively spreading the virus.

And their data relies on samples collected in Wuhan, which is of course controlled by the Chinese government. Note the wording of that conclusion from the paper, which refers to “the earliest known cases.” China does not want the world to think that the Wuhan Institute of Virology might have caused the pandemic, so how can we ever know if there were early cases originating from WIV?

On the other hand, as I wrote back in March, China has known for decades that their live animal markets are a source for novel human viruses, including the 2003 SARS outbreak and multiple cases of avian influenza jumping from birds into people. And yet they have done nothing to shut down those markets.

So it’s complicated. In any case, as Matthew Iglesias pointed out in The Guardian, even if the entire Vanity Fair article is wrong, the lab leak hypothesis is still plausible–very much so. The fact remains that one of China’s major virology research institutes, which was known to be conducting research on SARS-like viruses, and which was known to be collecting viruses from bats, is located just a few miles from the live animal seafood market. That’s one heck of a coincidence.

Finally, let’s take a step back: why all this attention to whether the virus originated from a virology institute or from a live animal market? Either way, the implication is that humans caused this pandemic. As I wrote back in March, we should take away at least two lessons from this experience: first, that live-animal food markets should be shut down, especially those that sell wild animals rather than farm-raised ones; and second, that gain-of-function research on deadly viruses should be shut down as well.

So let’s stop arguing about the precise origin of the pandemic, and start taking steps to prevent the next one.