Are There Only Losers in College Football?

I will not belittle the accomplishments of those who, with enough talent, skill, and dedication, were lucky enough to secure a roster spot on a collegiate team (and keep it), no matter the team. My own 12-week trial as a [failed] walk-on for a Division III baseball team made me understand that even a team that racked up an impressive number of losses in the decade before my enrollment was able to attract a group of highly-skilled athletes, some of whom, I am sure of it, could have played Division I baseball.

In practice, I remember watching in awe as a starting infielder, a first year student no less, would nimbly field grounders. I still don’t know how he was physically able to cover so much ground while anticipating the odd hops the ball tended to take off of the artificial surface. Legs and arms are only so long.

What I did know about him was that he wasn’t allowed to float through any of his classes. In fact, no one on the team coasted. No one could. Our athletic department didn’t circulate an “easy class” list, and our school didn’t offer direct-reading courses to pad GPAs. If the players hadn’t applied themselves in the classroom, they would have all failed, and only then would I have been allowed to suit up.

All this is to say that my school’s administration made it clear that its primary role was to develop young adults with high level analytical and leadership skills, not to sell season tickets and television rights. That my school wasn’t in a position to sell television rights in the first place is an important consideration. The administration occupied an enviable position, as it was able to fulfill the school’s educational mission without the siren songs of T. Boone Pickens. Division I universities often don’t have that luxury. They have passionate alumni, student bodies, and money on the line. They have every incentive to ensure their football program’s winning record; they also have luxury suites to sell!

What is a university’s mission? To entertain the masses or to educate future leaders? From the perspective of football programs, it looks a lot like the former. I fear that Division I football programs distract players from the very real possibility that they’re receiving a sub-par education and that their safety/future/success is of secondary concern to the college football industrial complex.

Can we blame the athletes? Not entirely. You can imagine some of the recruiting sales pitches to the impressionable, cocky, and naive teenagers on recruiting trips. How could you resist?

These players may think that they’re wanted for their fearlessness running crossing routes, but in this game, they don’t own the means of production. These recruited players help ensure healthy revenue streams that are re-invested not in a university’s educational activities, but in the handsome salaries of head coaches. Reports have shown that revenues earned by athletic programs rarely exceed their annual costs. Anecdotally, in his Economic Facts and Fallacies, Thomas Sowell relays a telling quotation from a former Yale University president: “I have yet to see the laboratory or library or dormitory built with football or basketball revenues” (Yeah, alright, it’d carry more weight if he were from Texas).

Division I football players spend on average 44.8 hours a week on football related activities. When do they have time to attend lecture? Write a paper? Visit the library? There’s a reason that these universities employ entire departments of academic advisers and tutors deployed to keep student athletes academically eligible for game day.

So what are our college football players learning? In a preliminary review of the listed majors of the football players on a randomly selected Division I football team (one of Scot’s favorites, no less), I found that over 60 percent of players who had listed a declared major were studying some form of business. That’s a popular major among football players! Was it equally popular among the general student population? No. Here are the four most popular majors as a percentage of the general student population:

  • Business: 14%
  • Psychology: 6.6%
  • Human physiology: 4%
  • Biology: 4.3%

So, why do this university’s football players yearn for that organizational behavior seminar? Maybe they know it’s the next Wharton or Haas. Maybe they’ve racked up a business start before the age of 18 and want to learn about managing innovation and economies of scale. Or maybe (dare I say more likely) they’ve been steered to the major by a phalanx of academic advisers who have identified less rigorous undergraduate majors because they have to face the wrath of both coaches and administrators if a student athlete fails. This defensive move effectively lowers the achievement expectations of student athletes and calls business a “soft” subject (which it isn’t).

Who stands to lose from this game? Some may say that football players on scholarship are receiving a free education. They are certainly receiving a free diploma (if they graduate), but what that diploma is worth or even a measure of is another debate. I am not the first to ask this question. Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia published an entire book about the startlingly small skill gains seen in college graduates of particular majors (undergraduate business programs being the principal culprit).

Are universities churning out concussed student athletes with “thanks for participating” diplomas simply to keep the prestige of a storied athletic program? Only in America would we thank a college for giving us a diploma that doesn’t mean much; without one, your employment options are limited.

Photo used under Creative Commons License, courtesy Chris Daniel.

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