It’s astonishing what research nuggets of pure gold can be found for free on the internet — like a foundation’s very thick and damning report on the harm football inflicts on universities and students, a uniquely American problem.
It touched on rescheduling games just to make more money, disregard for player safety and almost comically sleazy practices when recruiting high school players.
Profits from sports helped fund academic buildings and college programs, it concluded, “but those profits have been gained because colleges have permitted the youths entrusted to their care to be openly exploited.”
A vast commercial enterprise built on exploitation seemed obviously unsustainable. Yet this explosive report came out in the fall of 1929 and the games continued.
Could this be the year college athletics finally undergo fundamental change?
This is what happens in a crisis. Industries and institutions are shaken up because revenue and profits dry up. Without money, the unfairness in the way risks and rewards were spread around gets exposed.
Like how the Great Depression forced thousands of American banks to close and left the survivors in a very different competitive landscape.
The biggest and richest universities in football have been wrestling with whether or how to play the upcoming season as the deadly COVID-19 pandemic in the country just keeps rolling. At stake is an awful lot of money.
The news coverage explained how university officials knew how bad all this looked, with their institutions and their TV partners getting the money but the risks of playing with an infectious disease still borne by students and amateur athletes.
The University of Minnesota and its competitors in the premier Big Ten Conference are among many that put off football and other sports this fall. Obviously this is disappointing for the athletes getting ready for the season and a terrible outcome for the universities.
Only one-third of the athletes on the University of Connecticut team, the first major division football program to formally cancel the 2020 fall season, had been able to attend every summer workout so far. Players routinely held out because of potential exposure to the virus.
The coach later said he looked ahead to the fall and couldn’t answer whether the players should dress individually at a hotel and then bus to the games or wear masks on the sidelines. Would it be wise to even spend halftime in a locker room? And to some of his players, the choice to abandon the season seemed obvious.
Yet others want to play.
One speaking up was Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback of the team fielded by Clemson University in South Carolina. He’s currently the favorite to be selected first in the National Football League’s 2021 draft of college players.
Just to be clear about his situation, this year’s No. 1 pick agreed to a pay package that included a $23.9 million upfront bonus.
Another vocal let’s-play voice is that of Scott Frost, coach at the University of Nebraska. An employee of Nebraska’s flagship public university, Frost makes 47 times the salary of Nebraska’s governor.
He’s working cheap compared to Clemson’s coach, also an employee of a public university. He topped the last ranking of coach’s pay at more than $9 million. As is typical these days, his deal includes bonuses for achievements like his team winning titles.
All of this is possible because of the enormous entertainment value of the games, including a staggering amount paid for TV broadcast rights. The Big Ten generated about $700 million of its $1.8 billion in total sports revenue from media rights, football bowl games and tournament payouts, based on the last reported year of financial information.
The Vox Media site Banner Society this year explained just how football is the past and present economic engine for athletic departments, including a link to that famous 1929 report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
The football players, of course, get no cash bonus for winning the league title. Nobody playing for a Big Ten team received a raise when the new TV contracts kicked in. Only a relative handful of players will later get NFL jobs and maybe only one will gets a multimillion-dollar signing bonus.
It’s true they get tuition, fees, lodging and meals covered. Yet about three out of four University of Minnesota undergraduates get some form of financial aid now without having to sign up for a 40- to 50-hours-per-week grind.
One of the things that might come out of this tumultuous year is some sort of players association, an idea championed by Clemson’s star player, among many others. The demands so far have included curbing excessive sports-department spending, like bonuses for coaches.
Yet as encouraging as this seems, these demands, even if met, could leave intact an amateur sport awash in money the performers on the field largely never see.
It seems unreasonable to talk about restoring the amateur ideal in football when it jumped the tracks maybe a century ago. Instead it makes sense to just acknowledge the obvious — big-time college football is a professional league and the players need to finally be treated fairly.
As for how the details of a new program then get worked out and what happens to sports with no shot at TV money, well, that’s obviously going to be complicated.
But why can’t the University of Minnesota in effect sponsor a professional football team to compete against the teams backed by the universities in Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin?
With commercial sponsor logos now common on player jerseys, the university wouldn’t even have to design new football uniforms.