ADVERTISEMENT

It's time to recognize that Division I college football is really a minor league professional sport and treat it like the pro game it is.

That means making drastic, fundamental changes that end college football's role as the National Football League's sole development agency and removing the nonstudent players from campus so America's universities can focus on their real mission: education.

Until such measures are taken, college football will remain a corrupting influence on both society and higher education. Players, coaches, administrators, trustees, students and even some faculty conspire to hide the deceptions. Let's end the hypocrisy now.

Attempts to reform college football historically have failed. After many decades of rules changes, little has changed: Last year, 2004 national champion University of Southern California was stripped of its title; this year, 2001 national champion Miami and 2002 national champion Ohio State are in hot water.

Reform attempts fail because they ignore the extreme level of fan and alumni support that college football enjoys, the hoped-for rewards from television and bowl games -- which include not just money but publicity -- and the fact that playing college football is the only path for talented high school players to get to the pros. As long as these three factors remain, corruption is inevitable.

Most cheating begins with offering scholarships to players who don't belong in college.

Winning requires the best athletes, not the best students, and it's obvious to any objective observer that many Division I football players are not at home in the classroom; at best, they are faking it. They are steered into meaningless classes with "safe" professors; they plagiarize; they get illicit tutoring -- whatever it takes to retain eligibility. Many coaches, alumni, administrators and faculty facilitate the charade.

Even schools with high admission standards routinely recruit athletes with ninth-grade academic skills. At the top-tier University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it recently was revealed that about half the players in the last six football recruiting classes were admitted through a special committee process required for students who fall below minimum academic requirements.

A career in professional football requires physical toughness and aggression -- big muscles, not a degree in English or physics. So it's irrational to expect a player's chance for a possible pro career to depend on his academic performance. Some of these players will cheat to get by; to expect otherwise suggests a complete lack of understanding of human nature and incentives.

Further complicating the matter are the often-unrealistic demands on players' time, even for serious scholar-athletes.

Many say that colleges exploit players by earning profits from their talent and giving little in return, and should therefore pay them salaries. While serious student-athletes -- and there are many -- do improve their futures by earning real degrees, academically unqualified athletes often don't benefit much from their time on campus.

They become prime candidates to accept illegal benefits from corner-cutting coaches, overzealous boosters and rogue agents. Their talents have value, but a college education is the wrong form of payment.

Rachel McCoy, wife of former University of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, discussed the pressures players faced in a candid ESPN radio interview this summer that had many wondering whether Texas would be the next school investigated by the NCAA. "There's no way that college kids can really, honestly say no to all this stuff," she suggested.

The only way to end the cheating and hypocrisy is to eliminate the one corrupting principle that can be eliminated -- requiring college for prospective professional football players.

Cutting the cord may sound impossible, but Major League Baseball provides a hopeful model for doing it. Baseball subsidizes its own minor leagues, instead of getting colleges to foot the bill for player development. As a result, college baseball is thriving with good players who actually want an education. But players who would rather forgo college also have a route into the pros: baseball's minor leagues, where they can be paid a salary while improving their skills.

To adopt such a model, the NCAA would have to agree to severely punish any school that admits players who have little chance of academic success at that institution. This means many outstanding athletes will never play Division I football.

The NFL certainly wouldn't like it -- it would have to subsidize the new minor leagues.

But the alumni would still have football teams to cheer (manned with real students), athletes with more brawn than brain would still have a route into the pros and universities could finally end their hypocrisy.

***

Jay Schalin is director of state policy at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C.