I hear that Rutgers played Penn State in a Big 10 football game the other day. No doubt the Scarlet Knights “gave it everything they had,” as they say, and “left it all out on the field” in their effort. Nevertheless, Penn State won, 28-3, in a game that probably wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.
This could be the beginning of a rant against the excesses of big time college football. But I would rather take advantage of the dysfunctional Rutgers program to advance a modest proposal of my own, one that would take college football back to the days when student-athletes were highly valued for their brains and their brawn.
But first the Rutgers off-field fumbles. The recent headline item was about five Rutgers players — not in the news for any heroics on the field, just for some off-the-field charges that included armed robbery and aggravated assault.
Yet that was not what triggered a 22-page Rutgers report and a 1,142-word statement by the college president, Robert Barchi. As the president explained, “the university has been reviewing an allegation that the head football coach, Kyle Flood, circumvented established policies and procedures in contacting a faculty member to discuss the academic standing of a student-athlete. After consultations with our senior vice president for academic affairs, with our interim senior vice president and general counsel, and with the interim senior vice president for enterprise risk management, ethics and compliance, the university retained an outside investigator and counsel.”
To save 1,000 words or so, and to cut to the chase: In order to keep one of his starting players from being declared academically ineligible, Coach Flood had E-mailed and met personally with an instructor who had given the player a failing grade and urged the teacher to give the player another chance. Flood was fined $50,000 and suspended for three games — “severe and justified” is how Barchi described the penalty.
Barchi’s summary did not mention — but the media reported — that the course in question was Dance Appreciation, which — according to one student survey — is notorious as an “easy A.”
There is a growing weariness with the labeling of bigtime players as “student athletes,” when they are students in name only. To end the hypocrisy, as well as the exploitation of young athletes who risk long-term injury while they are performing in the big business of college football, some argue that players should be paid to play.
This idea is gaining traction. An effort was made to unionize players at Northwestern, but was rejected by the National Labor Relations Board. Last year a federal judge ruled that the NCAA violated anti-trust laws by not paying athletes for the commercial use of their names and photos. A pending lawsuit argues that the current system of athletic scholarships illegally caps the value of the athletes.
The subject was also the main item of discussion in a lengthy September 11 New York Times interview with the president of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins. Notre Dame is adamantly opposed to treating players as professionals, and would drop out of the NCAA if it went in that direction. Still, Notre Dame now follows a “full cost of attendance” scholarship model, which provides the student athlete with a “full ride” that includes money for personal expenses and travel. And Father Jenkins was not averse to the idea of players monetizing their fame while they were still “student athletes.”
Paying the players may end the hypocrisy but it will just further remove the sport from its intended place in the academic setting.
I have another suggestion: Reduce the role of the coaches and increase the role of the players. To do that I recommend banning coaches from the sidelines and the press boxes during the games, instead turning game management — including play calling and player assignments and substitutions — over to the players. The only adults on the sidelines would be the medical staff, who would determine if an injured player is unable to return to action.
In today’s bigtime college football the real big men on campus (BMOC) are the coaches. The top 25 highest paid college coaches range from Lou Sabin of Alabama, No. 1 at just under $7 million a year, to No. 25, Bobby Petrino of Louisville, who earns $3 million. Rutgers’ Flood, not even close to making that list, reportedly earns $1 million, but at least it’s more than the Rutgers president, whose salary is $650,000.
Football’s faithful boosters like to talk about the leadership and character that the sport instills in the players. This will be the test. A kid who otherwise might be dismissed as too small or too slow might be a genius on the sideline, helping to call plays. Arguments over who should start and who should sit on the sidelines would have to be solved on the fly, as in real life. The thinking that determines whether a team plays for a tie or goes for the win (and risks a loss) would not come from someone with a multi-million dollar contract on the line.
Teamwork would be valued more than ever. The best coaches would prepare their teams for these contingencies.
The games might not be nearly as crisp, but the passion and spirit of the players might be higher than ever. When they “leave everything on the field,” their brains will not be included. Their intelligence will matter more than ever, on and off the field.