A Humble Proposal To Save College Football

I have a humble proposal to save college football. With all the lawsuits and chaos swirling around the NCAA and member schools, a simple choice needs to be made. One will destroy the sport. The other might save it.

Football players are either students who play football or professionals playing football as a job. There is no in between.

If playing football is a job – a trade – then they are not a student there to get a degree. They are there to provide a service to an organization, and to be paid for it. It that is true, then they should also be free of student obligations to get a degree (and in fact might have that obligation challenged in court), and also maybe not have restrictions on age, or eligibility, that college sports currently have.

If they are students who play football, then their primary role at the school is to be a student and to make progress towards earning a degree. They are playing football as one part of an overall educational experience. A part of the educational experience is going to classes, spending time on campus, balancing work and life. Colleges have eligibility requirements, and these students should abide by those eligibility requirements.

If playing football is a job, a school that sponsors such an arrangement loses something important. The teams cease to be an organic part of the school and instead merely an association to a brand, like Tide or McDonald’s. The athletes’ experience then are completely removed from the student experience, and thus what little linkage there might have been between students and athletes will have been severed. To be a student, you need to be eligible; to be a football player, you only need to be good at football.

The resulting teams of such an arrangement will be little different than the WFL, USFL or XFL, minor league football leagues. (None of which ended well – a lesson that will be extremely painful to learn once again if this is the path that they choose.)

But if the football players are students who happen to play football – they can generate money for the school, sometimes insane amounts of it. It’s inherently not fair that a student can get severely hurt playing a game they love as a part of their educational experience, and it’s also not fair that they don’t share in the massive revenues that result at some of the richest schools. If an engineer makes a discovery at a University, they can patent that idea and the school gets a cut of the revenue, but both sides make something. With football the revenues only go one place.

I find it so hard to accept that there are a lot of smart people that can’t accept all of these facts together.

If you mandate that football is a job and not an activity, conservatively 2/3rd of all college “brands” will decide that it is not worth the expense to employ more than 200 people, some on a temporary basis, to compete in a sport that has nothing to do with the educational mission to cash in on some sort of venture that will almost certainly lose money. If you mandate schools treat college football as a business, most will decide that they can’t make money in that business, and thus not do it.

However if the primary focus on college athletics is indeed “college”, these colleges will most likely continue to do what they’ve done for the past 150 years – field college football teams as a part of the educational mission and the entertainment of the local community.

If you accept this, then the issue of the death of 2/3rds of college football goes away. However, it doesn’t address the issue that some programs make insane amounts of money, thanks to insane TV contracts over the past 30 years.

You see, the real problem with college sports is that for the last 30 years, nobody thought to come up with a plan to share the TV money with the athletes. People thought that by making the richest schools richer, the benefits would trickle down to the athletes somehow, through waterfalls in the locker room or paying Nick Saban millions of dollars a year to be their head football coach.

The NCAA should have seen this, and put pressure on the richest schools to put a portion of their proceeds into a fund to provide medical care for all athletes – and for profit sharing for the athletes that create the drama and the storylines. Kind of like a University engineer patenting an invention.

Fortunately there is still time to implement this solution, once you remove all the politics from the process.

Congress could pass a bill to compel the NCAA and its member schools to come up with a healthcare, NIL and profit distribution model for all athletes in all athletic disciplines, to be paid upon leaving the college. It can be collected in a large monetary fund administered by the NCAA (or maybe someone else), and distributed after the student graduates – so that they can fulfill their primary mission, which is supposed to be education. Sort of like a 401k for athletes.

By doing so – by declaring them students and not employees, and giving them a way to be compensated – NIL payments and collectives die the next day. It becomes illegal. NIL is managed centrally by the NCAA or an independent organization, which is the way it should have been all along.

Add to that a limited antitrust exemption to the NCAA – to shield them from the lawsuits that prevent them from doing their job of administering and policing – and you’ve then saved college football for the next generation. The NCAA gains some autonomy at the cost of a check and balance in the form of Congress. The athletes gain what they’re really looking for, which is a share of the wealth they’ve created and some guarantees that the schools will take care of them if they get hurt.

It seems a small price to pay to prevent the destruction of college and high school football.