Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Curing a Cancer on the Academy

August 27, 2014, 7:10 a.m.; August 20, 2014, 1:10 p.m.

Notes: (1) This morning [Aug. 27] the Iowa City Press-Citizen published a hard copy and online opinion column drawn from this blog essay. It is reproduced below.

(2) Near the bottom of this blog essay is a list of "Prior College Football-Related Blog Essays, 2010-2014." They are grouped by: "The College Football Industry (impact, economics, crime, future)," "Football's Ties to Alcohol," "Football's Ties to Gambling," and "Impact of Fans on Stadium Neighborhood." (Not listed are additional football-related blog essays from 2006-2009.)
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We have a cancer--within, close to the Presidency, that's growing. It's growing daily. It's compounding, it grows geometrically now because it compounds itself.
--John Dean to President Richard Nixon, March 21, 1973
"Transcript of a Recording of a Meeting Among the President, John Dean, and H.R. Haldeman in the Oval Office," March 21, 2073, 10:13 to 11:55 a.m.," Watergate Trial Conversations, Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.
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John Dean, President Nixon's Chief White House Counsel, famously warned his boss that the Watergate burglary was like a cancer growing on the Presidency.

I'm no doctor, but with the opening of yet another college football season, somebody needs to tell the presidents of the big money football schools about the cancer growing on "the academy."

There have been earlier diagnoses of this disease.

In 1906, when college football was killing 15 to 20 players a year, and permanently disabling 150 more, the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, told college presidents he'd outlaw the sport unless they made it safer. Reluctantly, they organized and agreed to require helmets -- ultimately evolving into today's NCAA. Weiler, et al, Sports and the Law, p. 747.

My friend, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was appointed President of the University of Chicago when he was 30 years old. He considered Chicago's football program a distraction from the school's educational mission, pulled out of the Big Ten, and simply abolished the program. ( "Hutchins heaped scorn upon schools which received more press coverage for their sports teams than for their educational programs, and [gained] the trustee support he needed to drop football in 1939.")

Although Hutchins' analysis and solution are even more persuasive now than 75 years ago, few politically perceptive football critics are today advocating the death penalty for football -- nor am I. If parents and players know the health risks, taxpayers know the costs, fans and TV viewers want to invest their time (and money) watching, the libertarian position seems pretty clear. We will continue to have football.

Moreover, there is a win-win cure for this cancer on the academy that would solve current challenges confronting both higher education and big-money college football.

The cancer has metastasized its conflicts of interest for everyone in higher education who touches it. University presidents find it easier to capitulate to athletic directors and coaches than to fight (Penn State). Non-tenured professors have to weigh how flunking a football starter may affect their career. Coaches must give a nod to players' academic performance, but know that their own multi-million-dollar salaries are much more closely tied to their players' on-field performance. When players' become criminal defendants, ideals of players' personal integrity may conflict with a team's ability to win games. Conventional students are excluded from participation, suspect favoritism for team members, and use football as an additional excuse for drunkenness. Players who really would like a substantive college education are forced to choose between lab time and scheduled practices.

As this photo of a Kinnick scoreboard ad reveals, athletic directors are forced to rationalize why it's OK to take advertising and sky box dollars from the alcohol and gambling industries. The IRS struggles with the propriety of granting tax deductions when fans make "contributions" to a big-money football program as a condition of the opportunity to buy better tickets. [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson.]

Inevitably, the college administrators, who want to put the best possible face on their schools for the benefit of reassuring parents, attracting students, favorably impressing other academics, granting authorities, Regents, legislators, and the public, are left trying to explain away football's controversial externalities. There are the players' criminal records, the football-associated student binge drinking and sexual assaults, the associated reputation as one of the nation's top "party" schools, the fans' trash throughout the stadium's neighborhood, and charges that painting the opponents' locker room pink is unacceptably anti-feminist -- things for which "the university" is not really responsible, but which challenge its administrators and tarnish its reputation anyway; e.g., Kembrew McLeod, "Pink Locker Room Doesn't Even Pass the Giggle Test," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 26, 2014, p. A5. [Photo credit: Des Moines Register, 2006.]

These days, the conflicts, chaos, and controversies are making life more difficult for the big-money football programs as well.

The NCAA still lives in its dreamworld of the 1906 academically accomplished students who played football without helmets just for the fun of it, and the college professors who doubled as their volunteer coaches. This vision becomes increasingly difficult to market now that, as CNN reports, the 68 top teams took in $2.2 billion in 2010. Chris Isidore, "College Football's $1.1 Billion Profit," CNN Money, December 29, 2010. The highest paid public employee in most states is some school's football coach. Student athletes? How many schools pay department heads millions of dollars a year? (For the details by school see ESPN's shocking, revealing, "College Athletics Revenues and Expenses - 2008." As just one example, the Hawkeyes ranked 16th that year by revenue. Of the top 17 schools, 7 gave their students free admission to the games played by their "student-athletes." The Hawkeyes still consider the UI's students as "customers" rather than students and charges them significant ticket prices to attend the games played by "their" school's fellow "students.")

College players want to unionize, to be paid more of their full costs of attending college, and a share of the millions the schools make off of their likenesses and jersey numbers in fantasy football video games and clothing sales. Byron Tau, "NCAA Hires New Lobbyists for Amateurism Fight," Politico, June 13, 2014 ("The NCAA is facing a number of existential legal and legislative threats to its current system of unpaid student-athletes").

"No pain no gain" is football's mantra. Players want compensation for the healthcare costs from football related concussions and other injuries that may last a lifetime -- a minor form of which is portrayed in this photo of an injured Iowa tackle, Brandon Scherff, screaming in pain during Penn State game at Kinnick, October 20, 2012. [Photo credit: John Schultz/Quad City Times, Oct. 21, 2012.]

Conferences are expanding. The once-midwest-centered "Big Ten" schools are now 14, including Penn State, Rutgers, and Maryland -- well to the east of Iowa. The football-wealthiest schools, and their conferences, have just negotiated a withdrawal from some of the NCAA's restrictive regulations.

In short, from a variety of perspectives this is not your great grandfather's college football.

So what's the win-win cancer cure for America's universities and their big-money football programs?

Start by recognizing them for what they are -- profit-making, commercial organizations, serving as farm clubs for the NFL (even if only 1.6% of college players will be NFL draftees), organizations largely disconnected from the research, scholarship, and classroom instruction of their loosely affiliated university. Spin them off, leaving them free from NCAA regulation and the conflicts inherent in their association with higher education. As for-profit corporations they will be less subject to criticism for what their boards of directors agree to pay their coaches -- and players. Remove the requirement that the players pretend to be college students during the football season and associated practice times.

The rest is "administrative detail" -- detail admittedly not insignificant, and possibly even deal-breaking. But detail that is not the central issue. The separate commercial football corporations could continue to lease the facilities (Kinnick Stadium) and name (Hawkeyes) they were using before. (It's unlikely any school would require a football stadium as a venue for a poetry reading.) Players who wanted to get a college education might be given some special consideration as a result of an agreement between the team and the formerly-associated school -- such as, say, a degree program requiring only attendance during spring semesters. But there would be no requirement that they be "college students."

Once the major college football teams are out from under the NCAA's regulations, there should be no problems with the professional leagues' requirements. It is at least already possible in some situations for high school athletes who have not attended college to join a professional team in the NBA, NFL, NHL, or a professional baseball team's farm club.

Could all this be accomplished before the Hawkeyes' opener against University of Northern Iowa this forthcoming Saturday, August 30? Of course not. Maybe it won't even be accomplished during my lifetime (given my age). But it's an idea that needs to be back on the table as a possible win-win solution to a battery of conflicts and other challenges confronting millions of Americans.

When there is a cure for a cancer of any kind -- whether on the presidency of the United States, or the presidencies of major universities -- it does seem a shame not to make use of it.

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Prior College Football-Related Blog Essays, 2010-2014

The College Football Industry (impact, economics, crime, future)

"The $100 Million Hawkeyes' Football Team; Hawks: "How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Dollars," Aug. 28, 2010

"Coach Ferentz Provides Classy Variety of Wins; Winning Isn't Everything," Nov. 22, 2010

"Fandom; Super Bowl, Super Mystery," Jan. 30, 2011

"Super Boosters' Super Bowl; Campions' Wins Can Be Taxpayers' Losses; Lessons for Iowa," Feb. 8, 2011

"Crisis Communications 101; There Are Three Steps," Feb. 14, 2011

"Hawkeye Football Players' Criminal Records; We're Number Two! We're Number Two!," March 3, 2011

"Felons as Student Athletes; Felons on the Field; From District Court to Basketball Court; Do Hawkeyes Check Criminal Records Before Awarding Scholarships? March 27, 2011

"College Football Scandals Larger Lessons; Football's Privileged Tip of Abuses by Powerful," Nov. 8, 2011

"Peak Oil, Peak Football; $80,000 for the Seat; $3750/Year to Sit In It," Jan. 21, 2012

"What America Most Highly Values; In 23 of 50 States It's Football Coaches," Aug. 16, 2013

Football's Ties to Alcohol (and see, "Impact of Fans on Stadium Neighborhood," below)

"A Busch in the Hand is Worth . . . Who Knows? They Won't Tell Us," June 16, 2012

"'We're # 2!' . . . in Campus Drunks; Coach: Players Should Drink in Dorms, Not Downtown," Aug. 21, 2012

"UI Administrators 'Shocked' By School's Beer Ads; Who Could Have Guessed?" Aug. 30, 2012

Football's Ties to Gambling

"Does Herky Have a Gambling Problem? NCAA vs. Hawkeyes," Jan. 25, 2012

Impact of Fans on Stadium Neighborhood

"Football Trash Talk; Iowa City: Where Great Minds Drink Alike," Sept. 12, 2012

"Anheuser-Busch, UI & Hawks a Win-Win-Win; Advertising Pays," Sept. 17, 2012

"Clean Streets and Creative Consumption," Sept. 30, 2012

"'GO, HAWKS!' -- Just Not in My Yard; Homecoming's Public Urination," Oct. 5, 2013

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Note: On August 27, 2014, the Iowa City Press-Citizen ran excerpts from this blog essay as an op ed column. Its online version is reproduced below; [brackets] identify the text as submitted, and contained in the online version, that was deleted from the hard copy version.

Let's Stop Making Players Pretend to Be Students
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 27, 2014, p. A11

John Dean, President Nixon’s chief White House counsel, famously warned his boss in 1973 that the Watergate burglary was a cancer growing on his presidency.

With the opening of the college football season, somebody needs to warn the presidents of big-money football schools that there’s a cancer growing on their presidency.

There have been earlier diagnoses of disease.

In 1906, when college football was killing 15 to 20 players a year, and permanently disabling 150 more, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt told college presidents he’d outlaw the sport unless they made it safer. Reluctantly, they agreed to require helmets and organized what became today’s NCAA.

University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins considered Chicago’s football team a distraction, scorned colleges that received more publicity from sports than educational programs, and with trustee support simply abolished football in 1939.

Hutchins’ analysis and solution are even more persuasive today. But few politically perceptive football critics advocate the death penalty — nor do I. So long as parents and players know the health risks, taxpayers know the costs, fans know its cost in time and money, and all still want football, we’ll have it.

Moreover, there is a win-win cure for this cancer that would solve current challenges confronting both higher education and big-money college football.

The cancer has metastasized its conflicts of interest for everyone in higher education. University presidents find it easier to capitulate to coaches than fight (Penn State). Athletic directors must rationalize taking advertising and skybox dollars from the alcohol and gambling industries. [Coaches must encourage players’ academic performance, while their multi-million-dollar salaries turn on players’ on-field performance. Non-tenured professors fear flunking players.] Players who do seek a college education must choose between lab time and scheduled practice.

Nor is the current system loved by the big-money football programs.

The NCAA lives in a 1906 dream world peopled with academically accomplished students playing football without helmets just for fun, and the college professors who doubled as their volunteer coaches. This vision is an increasingly tough sell when the highest paid public employees in most states are football coaches, and their college football industry grosses billions of dollars a year.

College players want to unionize, to be paid the full costs of attending college, and a share of the millions schools make from their likenesses in video games. They want reimbursement for the healthcare costs of football-related concussions and other injuries that may last a lifetime.

[Conferences are expanding. The once-midwest-centered Big “Ten” schools are now 14, including Penn State, Rutgers, and Maryland -- well to the east of Iowa. The football-wealthiest schools, and their conferences, have just negotiated a withdrawal from some of the NCAA’s restrictive regulations.]

[In short, this is not your great grandfather’s college football.]

What’s the win-win cancer cure?

Recognize the big-money college football programs for what they are — profit-making, commercial entertainment organizations, serving as farm clubs for the NFL (even if only 1.6 percent of college players will be NFL draftees), substantially disconnected from the research, scholarship, and classroom instruction of their schools.

Free them from NCAA regulations and their inherent conflicts. Remove the requirement players must pretend to be college students.

The rest is administrative detail. Most professional leagues already have provisions for players who’ve not attended college. Perhaps the football corporations could lease their former facilities (Kinnick Stadium) and name (Hawkeyes). Players who want an education might have a degree program permitting spring-semester-only enrollment.

When there is a win-win cure for a cancer of any kind, it’s a shame to refuse even to talk about it.

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Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and sports law professor, provides more on this and other subjects at FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com.

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