National College Football League shows its relevance with realignment

Commenting on this story, it is impossible not to recall the bold actions of Robert Maynard Hutchins, a widely known university president. During his tenure at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, Hutchins made the audacious decision to abolish football. His reasoning, as he articulated in an interview with the press, was that the sport was corrupted by the pursuit of financial gain. Hutchins explained in an article for the Saturday Evening Post that intercollegiate athletics, including football, had become more about making money through public entertainment than promoting physical education. This stance led Hutchins to successfully convince the university’s board to remove the football team, the Maroons, from campus. In my opinion, this approach should be adopted by colleges in the Power Five conferences, which are currently undergoing significant changes.

The recent conference realignment in college athletics has been primarily driven by the desire to secure lucrative broadcasting deals from major networks. For instance, last summer, Fox, CBS, and NBC collectively paid the Big Ten members a staggering $7 billion to broadcast their games. Clearly, the focus is on monetary gain rather than fulfilling the mission of higher education, as reflected in the case of Maryland, which left the ACC in 2014 to join the Big Ten for financial reasons. Maryland aimed to ease the burden of debt incurred from expanding their football stadium. As Hutchins pointed out, big-time college football is all about money.

College football has undergone a transformation over the past few decades, becoming increasingly commercialized, commodified, capitalized, and professionalized to the point where it resembles the NFL. This is evident in the recent appointment of Deion Sanders, a former professional football player, as the head coach of Colorado. Sanders promptly dismissed several players to make room for his preferred recruits, a move that was endorsed by the school’s administration. This type of behavior aligns more closely with the practices of professional football than with the ideals of college athletics. The only noticeable difference is that college football games are not predominantly scheduled on Sundays, and student-athletes do not receive salaries for their work on the field.

Given these circumstances, it is time to reconsider the structure of college football. As conferences expand and reorganize, it would make sense to create a National College Football League. Teams could maintain affiliations with schools to some extent, but conferences should be divided geographically, similar to the NFL. This would enable the restoration or preservation of cherished rivalries. However, under this new arrangement, student-athletes, who are primarily enrolled in universities for educational purposes, would have to travel greater distances to participate in games. This would lead to less time in the classroom and a reliance on excuse letters to justify absences, undermining the principles of academia. Research has already shown that extensive travel negatively impacts athletes’ academic and athletic performance.

Unfortunately, athletic administrators, who wield significant control over the lives of student-athletes, prioritize financial gain over academic considerations. For instance, Florida State is reportedly willing to spend over $100 million to leave the ACC and join either the SEC or Big Ten, necessitating regular travel to the West Coast. As Hutchins argued, the only way to address the problems inherent in college football is by removing the financial element from athletics, a move that may upset students, alumni, the public, and even the colleges themselves.

Nevertheless, people will eventually become accustomed to the new system, just as they have adapted to their favorite teams changing their controversial nicknames. Hutchins, who advocated for reform without being a sports enthusiast himself, once humorously remarked, “I am for exercise, as long as I do not have to take any myself.”

Personally, I am a football fan, acknowledging the numerous reasons why I shouldn’t be one. I find it difficult to ignore the sport’s intoxicating combination of strength, speed, dexterity, and roughness. We all know that football isn’t going away, but it no longer aligns with the educational mission of colleges. That doesn’t mean it should disappear entirely; it means that it should be acknowledged and treated as what it has become—a professional enterprise.

Now is the ideal time to redefine college football as a for-profit entity since many are concerned about the dissolution of rivalries and regionalism. By doing so, we can save the sport from perpetuating its own hypocrisy, as Hutchins pointedly observed in 1954. Teams should pay rights fees to their affiliated universities to use their facilities and adopt their traditional colors and nicknames, just as they do now. The universities can then allocate this income to support other intercollegiate sports on campus, as they currently do. However, football players should be treated and compensated as the employees they are, considering the hundreds of millions of dollars they generate and the wealth they accumulate for their coaches and athletic directors. They should receive the same healthcare and insurance benefits as other employees and have the opportunity to pursue higher education at the university they represent, with tuition remission.

It is clear that there are now fundamental differences between the nonprofit nature of colleges and the profit-driven football industry. Therefore, it is time to divorce the two entities and move forward.


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