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.

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