Despite being wildly entertaining, remarkably profitable, and a point of pride for American regionalism and culture, major college football has been marred by everything from fraudulent national titles to systematic exploitation of its athletes.
At first glance, there are the on-the-field issues, most notably the sports' inability to crown an undisputed National Champion for over a century. Off the field, following suit with major professional sports leagues, extremely lucrative television contracts are showering power conferences and member universities with an unprecedented influx of money.
Yet, somehow, on nearly every college campus, an anecdote exists about a star athlete unable to gather the cash necessary to purchase a pizza that is served in a box cloaked in the athletes' likeness. Go beyond these exploited moments on the field and you'll find that once these star athletes have completed their service for the school, there's a 50/50 chance they return to their hometown without a degree or preparation for a professional future.
As of late, a series of dominoes have fallen with the potential to radically address these issues. To address the on-the-field concern of a national champion, the College Football Playoff has tied up a majority of the loose ends. Even if the Playoff is imperfect right off the bat, PROGRESS. This is a good thing.
The bubble is bursting on the notion of amateurism as well. When the vote by the NCAA Division 1 board of directors handed institutional autonomy to the Power 5 conferences on August 8th, the ruling was nationally lauded as a win for the student athlete. The 65 largest and most profitable athletic departments are now able to reform the way they do business top to bottom.
Expected to be at the top of the Power 5 coalition's agenda is instituting a cost-of-attendance stipend for the student athletes, which has been valued anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per year, and will be distributed from the revenue generated by the Athletic Department (television, merchandise, ticketing, etc).
The third issue, academic reform, is the least discussed and quite possibly the most vital. Stipend aside, the compensation for the student athlete is an "education at a top rate institution." Fine. But with unlimited financial incentives for coaches and administrations to produce wins above all else, attention to academics gives way.
The incentive for head coaches to produce wins in major college football is enormous. Academic success exists as a cherry atop a sundae made of wins on Saturdays. Conference championships and bowl games not only produce immediate revenue, but establish a brand of success - which as we have seen, can be parlayed into a license to print money. The path of "Successful Head Coach" is a beaten one, as one winning program breeds another, which breedsanother.
If the only incentive to address academics is to keep players eligible, players' welfare in the classroom is going to suffer. Lt. Governor of California Gavin Newsom addressed the issue of academics among the state of California's larger programs, and said as much, voicing his displeasure with the "appalling" graduation rates among the student athletes, particularly the UC Berkley football team's GSR of 48%.
The Golden Bears are currently without an Athletic Director, but the State intends to highlight the future AD's contract with a series of benchmarks similar to that of HC Sonny Dykes': 70% graduation success rate yields a $10,000 bonus, 80% GSR earns $20,000, etc. The Texas Longhorns, whom themselves have boasted a measly 58% GSR at points in the last decade, have outlined a plan to graduate 70% of all athletes by 2016.
So let's take a step back. We are in the middle of a transitional period in which the 65 largest and most profitable football programs are making their own rules. While in the process of this transition, a series of inherent problems with the status quo are being addressed, including playoffs on the field and a distribution of the sport's revenue streams among the athletes.
This is the ideal time to address academic reform as well. However, the incentive plan outlined by the Lt. Governor and implemented at Cal has it backwards. When we're dealing in a world with such a high price tag on success, dangling the carrot will only go so far. It's time to hit ‘em with the stick.
The NCAA's sanctions at USC have served as a warning shot across the bow of all major programs. Even the slightest hindrance in competitive edge can be devastating. The Trojans were reduced from the most consistent national championship contender (82*- 9 from 2002 to 2008), to a slightly above average PAC12 team (44 - 27 from 2009 to 2013).
Their failures on the field, bolstered by the sanctions, cost Lane Kiffin his job and have set the program back in stature and prestige. It was USC's high profile and dominance prior to the sanctions that enabled the Trojans to survive the scholarship reduction to the degree of success that they did. Sanctions on scholarships hurt on the scoreboard, hurt coaches, hurt programs, and hurt the school's bottom line.
Propositioning head coaches with $10,000 bonuses as an incentive for academic progress is nice in theory, but exists in reality as a drop in the bucket relative to other compensation. Instead, the Power 5 coalition ought to set a precedent by holding the programs accountable to a benchmarked success rate, subjecting programs to punishment where it matters: on the recruiting trail and ultimately on the scoreboard and in their wallets.
Keep your $10k, Lt. Governor, but tell Sonny Dykes or Jim Mora that if the GSR falls below 70% at any point they'll lose 10 scholarships and will become the next USC - then watch what happens. I'd bet there's a chance academics will stop slipping through the cracks.
And really, wouldn't it be nice if a head coach could sit at the kitchen table across from a recruit's mother and promise a chance to play for the national title, a fair compensation for efforts, and a top rate education.... And actually be telling the truth?