O’Neill Observes: College football’s critical illness

By Jeremy O’Neill
Executive Staff

It really pains me to have to write this article. College football was part of my upbringing, and my earliest memories of October Saturdays include hot dogs, marching bands, and being discouraged from wearing the color red. I believe that this uniquely American institution is something special that deserves to be preserved for its history and cultural significance. 

But as we move deeper into the 21st century, while College Football is being played against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the problems it faces seem larger than ever before. For many years now, the question of whether or not to pay college athletes has been talked about. On the one hand, the NCAA has always defined its student-athletes as amateurs, and has rewarded some athletes with scholarships. Thus, it gives many young people an opportunity at a college education that they wouldn’t have been able to achieve otherwise.

On the contrary, schools profit extensively from their football programs, and often pay coaches and other staff exorbitant salaries while the people actually playing the game struggle to survive. Multiple reports of college athletes not being able to afford any living expenses beyond what is covered by their scholarships have come out in the past few years, and this issue is made worse by the fact that division one student athletes rarely have the time to work a part-time job to supplement their income. 

Why start with football in this debate on college sports? Quite simply, it is likely to be the first sport to see money come to its players because it generates the most income out of all sports from sponsorships, television deals, and ticket sales. It is also the most broken of all of the college sports, largely because of the amount of money involved. 

The past six months have been a sort of reckoning for college football as different conferences created their plans for how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming season. Various conferences adopted different strategies, but they all eventually agreed to play some sort of season, even for schools that have no students on campus. It is this decision that is the most troubling for the future of college football.

Over the summer, the Pac-12 Conference said it would cancel all fall sports, including football, and reschedule them until 2021. This seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and commissioner Larry Scorr assumed other conferences would follow through. “Player safety is our number one priority” remarked executives across the country, which was a great publicity move.

The executives didn’t stand by their word for long, however, and soon each of the major five football conferences announced plans to play some sort of season. This left the Pac-12 in an interesting situation, because not playing football in 2020 while the other four “power five” conferences did, and thus cashed in on the billions of dollars in TV revenue would be devastating for schools financially and from a recruitment standpoint. So, we realized very quickly that player safety was not the number one priority (Although college football’s response to the concussion crisis shouldn’t make this too much of a surprise).

Now besides the fact that playing college football during a global pandemic seems, in a word, irreverent, there are plenty of other issues with playing football right now.

First of all, it is impossible to play the game of football without repeated close contact with other individuals. The line of scrimmage is rarely a place of social distancing. Second, most of the schools playing Division I football do not have students on campus this semester. That means that college football players are not student-athletes, as the NCAA wants us to believe, but athletes who happen to be students.

So, if they are athletes first, why aren’t they paid or compensated? Their coaches are certainly paid. In 40 states, a football or men’s basketball coach was the highest paid public employee for 2019. To use two examples, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom earns $210,000 per year. Chip Kelly, the football coach at UCLA, earns $3,500,000. Lincoln Riley of the University of Oklahoma football program makes a cool $6,400,000, but his governor, Kevin Stitt, earns $147,000.

Unfortunately, one cannot discuss college football without talking about some of the parallels it holds with slavery in America. It is a system that is most heavily loved and defended in the south, and relies predominantly on young, strong black men who risk their lives and their bodies for the profits of a small, predominantly white group of men. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but the time must come soon for college football to ask itself: are we about money, or are we about our athletes?

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