It’s the gaudiest, noisiest, most-celebrated amateur sports enterprise in America. It’s college football, which begins again with all its feverish competition and contradictions.
It’s perfectly imperfect, that’s for sure. Feel free to wring hands over the flaws — shady recruiting, questionable academics, haves-versus-have nots. Many do. The discussions are vital and reform always is on the agenda, but let’s not head down dead-end paths.
No, college athletes should not be paid, at least not any more than the sizable value of their scholarships, training and education. No, college football is not a vehicle for rampant exploitation, unless players allow themselves to be exploited. If you assume you’re going to the NFL, that’s your fault.
Hysteria always garners the most attention, especially when wrapped in juicy anecdotal tales. For instance, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen created a stir recently by saying “football and school don’t go together,” suggesting a full commitment to the sport and academics is impossible. He’s a bright guy, an economics major, and might be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He’s unique, and I don’t doubt his story.
But it’s certainly not everyone’s story. It’s not Warde Manuel’s story, the Michigan athletic director who played under Bo Schembechler and had his career ended by a neck injury in 1989. He eventually earned three degrees, including an MBA from Michigan in 2005, and rose steadily through the sports administration realm. He was the AD at Buffalo, then at Connecticut, and now gets to oversee Jim Harbaugh’s high-intensity operation.
“I’m not bashing Josh or anyone for having an opinion, I just disagree,” Manuel said. “There’s nothing about being a student athlete that’s insurmountable to success at both. The statement that keeps rolling in my head is, since the advent of intercollegiate athletics, managing both has gone on with great success for the majority, and probably the super majority. While it’s not easy, it’s definitely doable at a very high level if you put your mind to it.”
‘They speak up’
Of course there are issues, deeper ones than those raised by Rosen. He appears capable of navigating the system just fine. Others might struggle to get into school, then struggle to stay academically eligible, then have to make tough choices. Others might not be suited for college in the first place.
It’s on the universities to acclimate students, especially athletes who might come from challenging backgrounds. It’s also on the athletes to understand the scope of the commitments, and I think most generally do. If they don’t, well, maybe it’s good Rosen spoke out.
“Human beings don’t belong in school with our schedules,” Rosen said.
“No one in their right mind should have a football player’s schedule and go to school. It’s not that some players shouldn’t be in school; it’s that universities should help them more, instead of just finding ways to keep them eligible.”
And then, Rosen hits the crux of the issue: “Any time any player puts into school will take away from the time they could put into football. They don’t realize that they’re getting screwed until it’s too late.”
Some don’t. Many adjust. More and more players are graduating in three years, although probably not a lot of economics majors. The graduation rate for teams that played in bowls last year nudged up to 75 percent, from 73 percent in 2015.
It’s the toughest contradiction in the game, balancing two arduous disciplines. As coach at Stanford, Harbaugh once famously discussed his frustration with it as a player at Michigan.
Have time demands for academics and athletics been a problem? Absolutely.
Can it still be a problem? Certainly.
As stubborn and slow as the NCAA can be, it does respond, sort of. New rules instituted this year are designed to spread out a college football player’s athletic obligations and promote safety, although you could argue it’s a minor change. Two-a-day practices no longer are permitted, and one day off from athletic activity per week is mandatory. But in exchange, programs were allowed to extend preseason camp by a week to get in the allotted 29 practices.
Years ago, the 20-hours-per-week rule was created to limit the burden on athletes, and while it can be difficult to monitor because of “wink-wink voluntary” workouts, it’s there for a reason. It's also there because a problem was acknowledged.
“Athletes have gotten really vocal, and we encourage it,” Manuel said. “When they feel like coaches or a department is mandating something and they’re calling it voluntary, they speak up. And our coaches have gotten much better at saying to our young people, hey, you need to take a break.”
‘Just one of those things’
Running back Ty Isaac began his career at Southern Cal and now is a senior at Michigan. He’s seen it from all sides, as a highly touted recruit, then a transfer, now a guy who might not have the NFL career he once envisioned. For him, a degree grows in importance.
“I understand that it is difficult,” Isaac said. “From what I read, (Rosen) has a pretty difficult major, so I’m not going to knock him. I’ll give him credit for that. But it’s just one of those things, you know what you signed up for.”
Northwestern star running back Justin Jackson recently echoed those sentiments. It does take more sweat and sacrifice than the average person probably realizes, and maybe that was Rosen’s overriding point.
Schools need to be accountable, and that’s the theory behind the Academic Progress Rate, which was instituted more than a decade ago to chart athletic programs, and can punish those that fall behind.
The system always can be improved, and the debate is always necessary. But to suggest the balance in college football is somehow unworkable is a reckless exaggeration, and a slap at those who make it work.