Editorial: College football is sinking further into a world of make-believe, while universities just sink

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics last week released a new set of recommendations on how to clean up major college football. The commission stressed that leaders in college athletics were looking for bold solutions.

Here’s a bold idea: How about we start playing college football on this planet instead of in some alternate reality?

If you think college football is part of the real world, perhaps you didn’t see that the University of Alabama used its private jet to fly a COVID test to a lab so that its head coach could be on the sidelines of an October game against rival Georgia. That sounds about like how testing works for the rest of us, right?

The incident is a good analogy for how untethered the sport has become, but it doesn’t fully capture the danger. The most destructive aspect of big-time college football is it needlessly spends millions upon millions of dollars that universities desperately need to improve academics and the affordability of education.

Perhaps you guessed, but the Knight Commission’s bold recommendation didn’t tackle that issue. Instead, the commission’s recommendation calls for the NCAA to get out of the business of regulating big-time college football. The 130 schools that make up Division 1 football would be governed by a separate, self-governing entity.

The idea makes sense because the national championship for Division 1 football already is run by a separate entity; however, the NCAA is still responsible for player eligibility, rules enforcement and a host of other administrative issues. The NCAA covers those administrative costs, but doesn’t get paid to do so.

In that respect, the recommendation has an element of common sense. The group that generates the revenues ought to be responsible for the costs. While sensical, it is hardly bold. What would be bold is a spending cap for college athletic programs.

It is badly needed, and the Knight Commission has the data to prove it. Its report stated that from 2009 to 2018, the salaries of football coaches at the Power 5 schools have grown 93%. Total academic spending at those schools has grown 29%. What type of values statement is that?

Big-time college athletics is screwed up because it doesn’t keep score the way the rest of the world does. Think of this: Big-time CEOs are highly competitive people, just like coaches and athletic directors. But CEOs keep score with the bottom line. I’m better than you because my profit margin was 20% while yours was only 15%. Money isn’t used to keep score in college athletics, and thus it isn’t valued in the same way. It is just a means to an end that includes national championships and wins and losses recorded in a book.

Pro sports figured out this problem long ago, and most have salary caps. College athletics could create a similar system, except it would be an overall spending cap. Pro sports leagues make huge amounts of money, with the profits benefiting the owners. It would work the same in college athletics. Television contracts won’t get smaller with a spending cap. The profits simply would go to the academic sides of universities. A spending cap likely would take national legislation from Congress related to antitrust laws. That could be difficult, but it seems like that is one of the hallmarks of bold ideas.

So, no, this Knight recommendation isn’t bold. However, it may end up being fear-inducing at places like the University of Kansas. If big-time college football has to finally start paying all its costs, it may decided that the top tier of football really doesn’t need to be 130 schools. It may become pickier about who it lets into its club, based on what each school is bringing to the table. Bringing a basketball to a football table may finally catch up with KU. Probably not right away, though. The big-timers may want to let the dust settle before they tackle the political battle of carving off the hanger-ons.

Maybe in the interim, there will be some bold thinking in the world of higher education, and support for a spending cap can emerge in time. Don’t bet on it, though. College athletics isn’t about being bold. It is all about holding onto the gold.

Until that changes, college athletics will continue to be one of the most screwed-up value statements in America.


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