It’s summertime everybody, and we all know what the means: college football! I don’t mean ACTUAL college football games, with running and hitting and scantily clad women with pompoms or anything like that – no, college football opening weekend isn’t for another 8 weeks, but just like everyone being unable to stop talking about Mad Men even when it’s on hiatus, conversations about college football seem to spring up in the heat of the summer, whether you want them to or not.
Now, to be clear, I don’t mean the gave the rest of the world calls football, the one where people actually spend most of their time kicking a ball with their feet, no, this is American football, the sport that has taken over for baseball as America’s pastime, with that weirdly shaped ball slangly called a pigskin, which, for a vegetarian like myself, is already an initial turnoff, but I digress.
And last month held big news for the college football nation. First it was the end of the saga of the Penn State Michael Jackson, AKA Jerry Sandusky, as he was convicted on 45 of 48 counts related to child sexual abuse, including 17 1st degree felonies, and will be sentenced to a minimum of 60 years in prison, effectively a life sentence for a 68-year-old man, unless something changes during the appeal phase of things.
But that wasn’t the biggest of the big news in college football this summer. No, that story really got cooking a few weeks ago as commissioners of the athletic conferences representing the biggest football schools along with the Notre Dame athletic director (because in case you weren’t aware, Catholics are just that special) all met here in Chicago to discuss the future of big time college football.
What came out of that meeting was monumental: The 11 commissioners and the honorary Catholic reached consensus agreement to have a 4-team college football playoff starting in 2014. Fans have been clamoring for a playoff for a while, especially since the dawn in 1998 of the BCS, which used a combination of human knowhow and computer programming to select two teams worthy of competing in a single game to decide the sport’s champion. As one commentator put it, a playoff would be a truly historical event for a sport that has successfully existed for a 143 years without one. Then last week, in what many consider only a formality, the NCAA presidential oversight committee approved the 4-team playoff plan, which, at least for now, is scheduled to remain in place starting in the 2014 season and continuing through the 2025 college football season.
Even if you don’t follow college football, I’m sure you know what bowl games are: those special games that used to be few and far between but now last from early December to early January with names that range from the well-known Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl to the much more tacky Chik-fil-A Bowl, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, and yes, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (not to mention my personal favorite, the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl). Last year, there were 35 such bowl games, meaning 70 of the possible 127 bowl-level schools—more than half—participated in a bowl game, including for the first time one school—UCLA—that had a losing record. Is it really much of an honor when more than half the teams, including some with more loses than wins, are able to make the post season? Let’s ask the NBA, shall we?
And while most college football fans, and sports fans, for that matter, have been calling for a college football playoff for a while now, they also love the bowl games, a highly profitable endeavor for television providers, the NCAA, and the schools that participate. So the plan for the playoff is to leave the bowl games in place but to have two different bowl games each year set aside for the semi-finals with the winners of those two games then playing a championship game in whatever stadium and city will pay the most to host the game.
As for the four teams that get to participate in the playoff, a selection committee—much like that used to create the NCAA bracket you’re all familiar with from those illegal office pools held in March every year—will decide who is worth to make the final four. Many commentators see this 4-team playoff as a first step that will likely lead to an 8- or even 16-team playoff at some point, probably even before most of you reading this have died of cancer for all the non-organic food you’ve been eating.
So while many fans are cheering in delight, I really couldn’t give a rats ass, or anyone’s ass, for that matter, because in the past few years, I’ve really stopped caring about college football—and college basketball, and most of the professional sports, too, actually. I still follow sports, though, mostly by reading ESPN.com, because sports, like the weather, are often one of those go-to conversational topics with family and friends and work colleagues and people I’ve just met who I still don’t know enough about for either of us to talk about anything that we actually do care about, like the over-production of meat and factory farming, for example. But I don’t want to be left out of those kinds of conversations either, so I stay up to date on the news in sports, if one really even constitutes it news, but that’s a debate for another day.
No, the reason I’ve stopped giving time to college sports was buried in one of the numerous ESPN.com articles written about the impending college football playoff. The line went like this: “Industry sources have indicated a four-team playoff might be worth as much as $400 million to $500 million annually.”
In case you haven’t heard, when it comes to college sports, It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby.
Last March, Turner Sports and CBS agreed to pay the NCAA $10.8 billion, with a B, to broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament for the next 14 years. The NCAA and its schools get all this money, and CBS and Turner get all the ad revenue that comes with so many people watching these young, amateur, “student athletes,” as they’re called, giving it their all to win a national championship.
And that’s where it all falls apart for me. These men and boys—and let’s be honest with ourselves here, because, like it or not, no one is packing sports bars to watch women’s sports, or even most other men’s college sports—young men and boys in their late teens and early 20s playing college football and college basketball, these big money sports, sports that generate millions and millions and millions of dollars for their universities in the form of ticket sales, merchandise sales, and television revenue, with nothing to show of it but a scholarship to take classes and have a place to live, a scholarship that some studies estimate still falls about $3500 short of the true price of attending college each year.
(Joe Nocera has written extensively on the NCAA for the NY Times, including this insightful article: Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.)
There was actually a plan for a month or so last winter to allow for a $2,000 stipend for some players, hoping to close that gap, but after over 100 college athletic directors and commissions signed letters of protest, the plan was rescinded.
It’s that gap that causes players, many who come from financially challenged families, and many who are students of color playing at schools ruled by white men, to seek out other ways to make the money they need to get by, doing things like selling gear and autographs and championship rings, all on the black market, since the NCAA has prohibited these actions in order to preserve the integrity of the students’ amateur label status. One such scandal happened just a few years ago, in 2010, where 8 students at THE Ohio State University were caught accepting $14,000 in cash and tattoos. While penalties for Ohio State included losing the ability to play in a bowl game this season, it didn’t stop Ohio State from reaping the benefits (monetary and otherwise) they received by playing in one of the most prominent bowl games during the 2010 season, the Sugar Bowl.
And while the scandal did cost Ohio State’s coach his job, the players are really the ones who are punished in this ridiculous system. The players, working in what some have called a system of indentured servitude, receive next to nothing, while everyone else higher up on the food chair is rewarded mightily. Notable details of the contract for Ohio State’s new coach, Urban Meyer, were revealed a few weeks ago and include a $700,000 base salary, $1.85 million a year for media responsibilities, S1.4 million as part of Ohio State’s contract with Nike, a $1200 monthly stipend for two cars, and access to a private jet for personal use up to 35 hours a year. This is before any employment bonuses that include $1.2 million if he stays through the end of the contract and yearly incentives based on the team’s success. In all, the coach is guaranteed at least $4 million annually, more than the combined value of the athletic scholarships for the entire football team he will be coaching.
In an age where income inequality and economic oppression are hot topics of the day, it’s important for sports fans everywhere to recognize their own place in the problem and to think twice—or four, or eight, or sixteen times—before they go supporting such an inequitable system with their time and money. And if you just love the game too much to give it up, why not check out your local youth sports leagues or even join a league of your own?. You might even save some money that you could use to help you pay down the college debt you incurred attending your exploitive alma mater in the first place.