The NCAA football season is now behind us, and who among us isn’t going to miss it? The football, that is. I will admit that the scandals, suspensions and vacating of wins made for some interesting story lines.
So did the returning of a Heisman Trophy (without refund), the pulling of scholarships and the father reportedly shopping his star high school QB and future Heisman winner son around to the highest bidder. And who could forget the entrepreneurial young men who will be suspended next year, but were allowed to play in a bowl game this year?
But really, wouldn’t it be refreshing to not have such matters so frequently monopolizing the sports pages and the resources of the NCAA? It’s no small wonder that most fans, and even some non-fans, seem to be in favor of “cleaning up” college football. Or so they say.
For some, “cleaning up” means that the NCAA and its member schools start insisting that student-athletes take the “student” part more seriously. Many of us are tired of the charade.
For others it means implementing a fairer system for determining the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings and who the annual BCS bowl teams and eventual BCS champions are.
Still, for others, it means getting the money—and specifically the dirty money and the low-lifes who control it—out of the game.
In reality, it means fixing all three, which is possible. However, the people who have control over the game at all levels will have to demonstrate the will and desire to make it happen. So far there’s no indication that they’re inclined to do so.
In addition, the fan who claims he wants the sport “cleaned up” had better be ready to accept some new realities. He may not like much of what it will take to get there and what the end result might mean for many of the top programs.
At the root of college football’s problems is the fact that NCAA football, especially BCS football, provides a free minor league system for the National Football League (NFL). This is a big reason so many players aren’t committed to finishing their educations and honoring scholarship commitments. Many of the best ones enter the NFL draft after their junior year.
It’s why we have recruiting scandals and illegal player payments from unscrupulous agents. It’s also why so many players don’t take the “student” part of “student-athlete” seriously. The only reason many of them are in school in the first place is to play football in the biggest and most visible arena available for showcasing their talents to NFL scouts.
The intense competition created by a system built on this model tempts many programs to consider “football talent” alone when recruiting high school students to play for them, since that is what so many of the other top programs and their rival schools are doing.
In the process, these schools gain an incredible competitive advantage over football programs who also take into consideration—as they should—whether the students they are recruiting can actually function as legitimate students in a collegiate environment.
The truth is ever since high school, or earlier in some cases, many of the biggest, strongest and fastest athletes have never been required to be good students. These low expectations follow them right to college and continue there.
It is a monumental task for schools with true student-athletes to compete for BCS bowl berths and a possible BCS Championship against the teams that have dominated the game in the recent past. They have dominated the game largely by selling us on the idea that their pure football prodigies are legitimate students. Unfortunately, we keep buying, so they keep selling.
The evidence suggests that BCS success depends largely on how much emphasis (and money) a school wishes to place on football at the expense of academics. The more importance a school places on academics, the more difficult it is to attract the coaches and players who can be competitive on the field against today’s top-10 or top-15 programs.
The reverse is also true: Schools which allow coaches to get away with not caring about whether their star cornerback or running back makes it to his biology lab every week gain an advantage, because both coach and player are free to focus their minds and collective energy on preparing for and winning football games rather than on such mundane matters as attending classes or writing papers.
Stanford, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Duke, Boston College, Navy, Air Force and Vanderbilt were the only Division 1-A schools as of 2009 whose graduation rates for football players were in the 90-100 percent range.
Stanford was the only team among these that was nationally ranked and played in a BCS bowl game in 2010. So, teams comprised entirely of true student-athletes can at times compete in prestigious bowl games and for meaningful football titles, but it’s infinitely more difficult and rare, as recent history demonstrates.
On the flip side, with very few exceptions, college football’s most successful BCS teams have low graduation rates as compared to schools with lower BCS rankings, such as those listed above (if they are ranked at all).
A sampling of some of this year’s top BCS teams and top BCS teams of the recent past—including some recent BCS Champions—shows the following graduation rates, in no particular order: Auburn (57 percent), Oregon (53), Wisconsin (63), Alabama (55), Ohio State (52) Michigan State (51) Texas (50) and Oklahoma (46).
The Southeastern Conference (SEC) is widely recognized as the strongest football conference in the NCAA. Based on 2008 data, their graduation rate as a conference is 60.5 percent. The Pacific 10 Conference (PAC 10), also a traditional football power, had a graduation rate of 61.3. Without Vanderbilt and Stanford bolstering these conferences’ graduation rates respectively, they likely would’ve dipped into the 50s.
So how do we “clean up” the academic imbalances between NCAA teams which leads to this competitive imbalance? How do we level the playing field for all BCS schools and teams so that those that are intent on educating their players and pursuing football success simultaneously can do so without sacrificing football competitiveness?
If we’re sincere about wanting to clean up college football and have a level playing field where on-field competition is concerned—while preserving the true student-athlete ideal—here are a few suggestions:
A football scholarship is a contract and should be enforced like any other contract. As part of that contract, all NCAA scholarship players would commit in writing to playing a minimum of four years for their schools. They would also agree to successfully completing a legitimate course of studies and to graduating with their classes. Any player who leaves school prior to graduation to sign an NFL contract would be required to repay any scholarship money that has been received.
While this in itself may not pose much of a deterrent to a player who’s going to sign a multi-million dollar NFL contract, at least schools can recoup money spent on athletes who abandon them prematurely and reinvest that money in another scholarship player.
Second, any player who violates this contract by not fulfilling his academic requirements while still in school will be suspended from the team until his grades are brought up to a minimum average of 2.0 on a 4.0 point scale, or to another respectable minimum agreed upon by member schools.
While some professors may be “fans” of their school’s football team, the vast majority surely believe above all in the importance of academic integrity. I believe most could be counted on to report players who aren’t paying serious attention to their class work, if they knew their chancellor or president and the NCAA stood behind them and supported them.
Any professor or department dean who receives pressure to suppress poor player grades would contact an NCAA hotline to report this. If the NCAA compliance office finds that a reported player is in fact delinquent in his studies and that the coach and Athletic Director have failed to remove him from the roster after being formally asked to do so by the dean, the school will vacate all wins from the time the head coach and AD were notified by the department’s dean of the player’s academic ineligibility.
Initially, this will be an administrative nightmare because no one will believe it has any teeth. Case after case will be reported and it will take the NCAA time to follow up on all of them. Due to the initial case load, some may not be investigated and decided upon before the football season ends.
In that event, if a reported player is ultimately found to have been academically ineligible for all or part of the preceding fall term, in addition to the team vacating wins that he participated in, he will be suspended from playing in games during the following fall term until mid-term grades are released or until another such time that his eligibility can be reevaluated.
If the player who was supposed to have been suspended (but wasn’t) was a non-returning senior, one scholarship will be denied the coach for the current recruiting season. This will prevent coaches from not paying attention to the academic performance of their senior players.
In time, as cases come to a close and punishments start taking effect, coaches and athletic directors will see that the new policy does in fact have teeth and begin taking the academic issue more seriously. This will result in fewer violations and fewer cases coming before the NCAA for review.
Then, two things will happen: Football players who are true “college material” and who have not been applying themselves academically, but are now required to do so, will see their grades improve. If their grades do not improve, they, along with players who are failing to meet standards because they had no business being admitted to college in the first place based on their academic transcripts and ACT/SAT scores, will be dismissed from the team.
They’ll be deemed ineligible to play football for any other NCAA member school for a period of two years and until they demonstrate that their academic habits have improved to meet NCAA standards.
As this process unfolds over a period of several years, we’ll begin seeing more and more true student-athletes competing on the field at all schools, not just at the schools that had previously been at a competitive disadvantage because they insisted on a healthy balance between academics and football all along.
A byproduct of this is that the best college-age players in the country who are unable or unwilling to meet the academic standards of a reputable university will be forced to showcase their talents elsewhere until they prove themselves NFL-ready. We may be doing them a favor. They’ll at long last receive a paycheck!
After all, so many of them have been whining and complaining, claiming that they deserved one all along for their football efforts while they were in school and on scholarship. A select few may be ready for the NFL and the big bucks right out of high school. Others will have to seek out semi-pro experience here in the U.S. or go to Canada or Europe.
Another huge benefit to the college game will be that much of the dirty money and many of the unscrupulous agents will follow these players as they migrate away from the NCAA and toward semi-pro teams and the NFL.
Eventually, and ideally, maybe the NFL will be forced to do what Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League did long ago: create a minor league system for player development. It’s high time they stopped sucking for free off of NCAA football, while at the same time indirectly contributing to its corruption.
Many who love college football will cringe at these ideas, fearing that the talent level will be lessened and the overall quality of the game will suffer should they be implemented and succeed. They are correct. The overall quality of most of the teams currently dominating the college game will be lessened.
The fact that fans would object to this only serves to illustrate how out of whack things are and how far we’ve strayed from the original spirit and intent of college football. It was never intended to be semi-pro football. If the quality of the players is your primary reason for watching, let me point you toward the guys who play on Sunday. Let those of us who prefer the Saturday brand have our game back as it was intended to be played…by students.
It’s the acceptance of the idea of winning at the expense of academics that has put BCS football in the situation it’s in now. If the quality of the play deteriorates in the NCAA because of these reforms, so be it. If the players are a little smaller and a little slower, we will survive. Twenty years ago they were smaller and slower than they are now, but we still watched with just as much interest and cheered with just as much enthusiasm as we do today.
We’ll continue to be entertained and passionate. But we’ll finally know that the kids playing the game aren’t just a collection of semi-pro athletes insulting our intelligence by trying to pass themselves off as students.
Lastly, to further insure a renewed commitment to academic integrity within the BCS system and member football programs, a formula would be devised using the most current football graduation rates.
Those rates would be incorporated into the BCS computer model so that a low graduation rate for a school’s football program would negatively affect the BCS ranking of that school. Conversely, a school with a high graduation rate would receive bonus points and have its BCS ranking raised.
Do I honestly believe that any of these ideas will ever be considered, let alone implemented? Of course I don’t. I’m not crazy. I understand which side the NCAA’s and Div 1-A’s bread is buttered on. My intent is to point out a rough model for what could be, if only the people in charge had the courage and integrity to give it the “old, college try!”