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Should We End College Football?

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The term “student athlete” is at best inaccurate and at worst a fiction. Once upon a time college football was organized and run by and for students. Maybe it’s time to return to that by starting all over.

Which institution of higher learning in America will one day become the University of Chicago of the twenty-first century? We don’t know yet. But there will be one. There almost has to be. In truth, there likely will be more than one. After all, the potential candidates are legion. Who knows, there may even be a race to determine which such institution will be first.

First in what—or the first to do what, you ask? Hint: The race in question concerns sports. Sports?? Hmmm… maybe it will be the first university to apply Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to all of its varsity teams, thereby assuring that the composition of each squad will be nearly as precise a reflection of the racial and ethnic proportions of American society as is humanly possible to measure. Wait a minute! No university would ever leap into that race to the bottom for its football or basketball teams.

Well then, how about becoming the first university to field varsity sports teams for transgendered athletes? No, but that isn’t a bad guess, not to mention an ideologically inspired one.

That leaves open a few possibilities for individual sports. Maybe there will be a race to be the first school to have a transgendered man (meaning a woman) win a men’s swimming event, thereby proving once and for all that there really is no difference between a male and a female. No, that’s as unlikely as a transgendered woman (meaning a man) losing in a woman’s swimming competition.

Maybe it’s time for hint number two: This sports related issue has everything to do with money and next to nothing to do with education. Ah, now were finally getting warmer.

Well then, it must be the first school to jettison any number of varsity sports in the name of assuring a full roster of players for the one varsity sport that reigns over all the others. No, a number of schools have already done just that, including my own alma mater of the University of Minnesota. But now we are not just warm. We’re near to boiling instead.

Think back to the University of Chicago and its 1937 decision to abandon intercollegiate football. That would be the same university that produced the first Heisman trophy winner in running back Jay Berwanger. It would also be the first school to pay its football coach more than it paid its president. In other words, intercollegiate football was a big deal at the University of Chicago when it decided to get out of the business of college football.

Yes, even then college football was already well on its way to becoming a business. And today? It’s big business. Just ask any number of our multi-million dollar coaches.

Of course, it’s not big business on the order of John D. Rockefeller, whose money created the University of Chicago in the first place. Nor is it big business on the order of an Andrew Carnegie. Let’s be honest.  The modern business model for college football is neither Rockefeller’s nor Carnegie’s, each of whom was determined to drive competition out of business. Whether the tactic was to cut prices, demand rebates, or employ various economies, the idea was to eliminate competitors.

Not so for college football. This big business needs competitors, most of which could be otherwise defined as patsies. How else to better ensure getting to that no longer lofty status of becoming “bowl eligible?”

To be sure, there are bowls (Weed-Eater) and there are bowls (Rose). Just as there are conferences (the Pac Ten or what’s left of it) and there are conferences (the Big Ten and the SEC, each of which is now on the verge of mushrooming beyond unwieldy proportions). And they all have a role to play. At least for the moment.

But for how long? The Wild West of college football that the NCAA was created to contain has returned. It was 1906 when the NCAA came into being at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt. Injuries were rampant. Players were dying. And what were then called “tramp athletes” were forever on the move from school to school.

Roosevelt’s progressive era was determined to create order out of chaos, including football chaos on and off the field. And it did—at least insofar as football was concerned. As a result, an NCAA-imposed order reigned supreme for decades. But no more.

Thanks to the innocuously-named “transfer portal,” the “tramp athlete” has returned. But no tramps need apply. These vagabonds are full bore entrepreneurs. And why not? If coaches can bail on their contracts, (while dipping into their ample bank accounts to satisfy buy out provisions), why shouldn’t players be able to move from school to school without sitting out a year, but with a better NIL (name-image-likeness) contract stuffed in a different jersey.

So what about those NIL contracts? Why not? A case can be made that an athletic scholarship is quite valuable in and of itself. But another case can be made that these student athletes are being exploited, given the size of the economic pie that is big time college football.

In many respects the current version of football chaos makes good, if not necessarily perfect, sense. Everybody wins—at least money-wise. There is a certain irony to it as well. The NCAA that came into existence to create order is now an NCAA that is presiding (?) over a great deal of disorder.

It may also find itself presiding over a declining number of member schools with big-time athletic programs. Unlike Rockefeller and Carnegie, the really big time programs may well be indirectly driving their “competitors” out of business as well.

What’s also true is that the term “student athlete” is at best inaccurate and at worst a fiction. Once upon a time college football was organized and run by and for students. Maybe it’s time to return to that by starting all over.

Higher education in America is currently under fire on many fronts for many good reasons. Therefore, it’s high time–and maybe even past time—to get back to the basics on many fronts within these institutions. Football is surely one of them.

Nonetheless, it might still take a courageous college president, or three (these presidents seem to be making news in threesomes these days, to abandon an enterprise that increasingly has little to do with education. But it likely will—and certainly should—happen. And who knows? Maybe once this ball starts rolling there will be an evolution toward European-style club sports instead of college-driven sport.

These clubs could then become feeders for the NFL. Heck, they could eventually provide some real competition for the smug and stodgy N(o) F(un) L(eague). And, as we know, competition is a good thing, even if the Rockefellers and Carnegies might vehemently disagree.

Such a scenario could leave the SEC sitting there all by itself—with perhaps the likes of Ohio State and Michigan on the outside looking in. Here’s the solution to that. Let them all play each other on a round robin basis throughout the fall. Head to head, maybe even twice—and without any patsies along the way or in between.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is a photograph of the Pomona College football team, 1911, which is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota and brings history to life in the persons of G.K. Chesterton, George Orwell, H.L. Mencken, Branch Rickey, and Teddy Roosevelt at History on Stage. Dr. Chalberg also teaches American history, as well as an occasional course on G.K. Chesterton, online for Homeschool Connections. He taught American History at Normandale Community College.

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