Some ethical questions about college football…

So, with the college football season down to just one game – the one we all knew would end the season: Alabama v Clemson – let’s consider some nagging questions that have been biting at our necks all season long (some for much longer than that, if we’re honest with ourselves).

College football, as glorious a sport as it is, is a cluster of a mess. It’s a violent sport that multiple organizations are simultaneously trying to make safer for the participants, sometimes with contradictory directives. It’s also an amateur sport that creates unbelievable amounts of money for universities that are ostensibly non-profit organizations working to maintain the illusion of independence when they actually need each other to survive. It’s a sport that employs “student-athletes” who are given the restrictions of students but create the financial windfalls of top professional athletes. It treats the student-athletes differently than it treats its coaches, who are treated differently than their ADs and presidents, let alone their boosters and internet troll fans.

And at the highest level, it’s run only loosely by the NCAA, which ceded its control to the university presidents long ago, surrendering the championship process to the Associated Press first, then to the various coalitions of powerful university administrators that constructed the modern bowl system, the BCS and then the CFP in order to control their own “national champion” coronations.

So, it’s not unfair to ask some key questions which this hap-hazard structure creates:

Let’s start with the obvious one – why doesn’t the NCAA control the national championship at the FBS level of football, as they do for EVERY OTHER SPORT IN EVERY OTHER DIVISION?

The other half of Division One football (there’s another question that has to be answered – why are there two halves within the same division, with different scholarship restrictions and everything?) just completed its 24-team title-defining tournament with (by seeding) two of the three best teams playing a great, close game that ended with North Dakota State winning its 7th championship within the last eight years. We had several successful weeks of great teams playing exciting games, every one of which has meaningValdosta State and Ferris State just played a classic for the ages in the D2 title game, and D3’s tournament produced some amazing teams coming through the bracket – Mount Union, of course, and MHB, but also Johns Hopkins (normally known for its medical) and Wisconsin-Whitewater. WHY NOT DO THE SAME WITH THE TOP TIER OF TEAMS?

We ran a simulated 255-team tournament using every Division 1 tournament and results from the season to dictate the results – guess what? We ended up with Alabama and Clemson! (‘Bama won by four.) Looking at the games leading up to that title matchup, it would have been an exciting tournament, and again – every game mattered. I’m not recommending an Indiana basketball styled tournament for D1 football, but rather I’m arguing for consistency. The NCAA runs every other tournament for national titles; they should either run this one too, or give up the rest of the football brackets to the admins, too; I almost don’t care which. Four teams is fine by me; I don’t remember a year when the #5 team was a reasonable alternative to the #1 seed. But I do like the pomp and entertainment of the bowl system, and once the NCAA chooses its two/four/eight/24 teams for its championship tournament, the bowls can take whomever’s left and reward all the .500 teams with fifteen extra practices and swag and a trip to Orlando or Boise or New Orleans or wherever. But run your tournament like you run the other ones – home sites for the higher seeds, except possibly the title game (although Santa Clara’s a terrible choice, by the way).

Players should reasonably have the same flexibility as coaches or administrators when it comes to football – unless you’re concerned about the idea that they should be students rather than money-making athletes.

This is a huge dilemma for me. I’m old enough that “student-athlete” is more than a sarcastic turn of phrase – it’s a real thing, worth respecting. Once a student enrolls at a school, you’d think they would prefer to stay at that school through to graduation. (I didn’t, but it took my mother’s cancer to move me.) On the other hand, regular students DO have the right to change schools on a whim – well, within reason; generally at semester’s end.

Coaches, however, have the ability to come and go as they please. Manny Diaz left the U of Miami sidelines on December 13th to take the head job at Temple. Three weeks later, Miami head coach Mark Richt retired – and Diaz was hired back at Miami to be the new head coach, leaving Temple without a head coach again for the second time in a month.

Now, nobody begrudges Diaz for taking his dream job – the guy is the son of the former mayor of Miami, for Pete’s sake! – and Temple University actually earned a few million on the buyout clause in Diaz’ contract (in addition to another few million in their previous coach’s buyout as well!). But what about the sixteen players who signed letters of intent with Diaz to attend Temple University and play football for himAccording to NCAA rules and regs, they’re tied in to Temple. WHY should that be?

Here’s another version of that uncomfortableness. Consider this situation, which Clemson faced this season. In their attempt to give the players more freedom of movement, the NCAA chose starting this year to allow the students up to four games of playing without losing their “redshirt” year, which simply means that the year won’t count against their four years of eligibility, so as to allow young players to get a taste of the college game, to help a player who’s injured early in the year, and (here’s the key for this conversation) allows a player who moves to another school to count his current season as the required red-shirt season if he hasn’t yet played in more than four games.

What that produced in 2018 is an epidemic of miffed quarterbacks who realized they either lost their job to another QB or they were going to be stuck behind a younger QB for the remainder of their time at the school. Kelly Bryant was one of those – a started for Clemson in 2017, good enough to get them to the College Football Playoff final four, where they lost 24-6 in the semifinals to Alabama. This year, though, he had competition from a freshman stud named Trevor Lawrence. Clemson’s outstanding coach, Dabo Swinney, played both young men as fairly as you could imagine, always starting Bryant, but it was clear to any observer that the team was better with the freshman at the helm.

It was clear to Dabo, too.

And being a fair man, a man of ethics, Coach Swinney came to Kelly Bryant after the fourth game (still “early enough”), and gave him the truth: he was going to start Lawrence from here on out. There was still going to be a role for Bryant in the offense (think Jalen Hurts at Alabama, my role model for how this should have gone), but Lawrence gave them a better chance to beat teams like Alabama*.

*Side note: there are no other teams like Alabama. Maybe Clemson itself, but that’s about it. Really, Swinney’s preparing for game fifteen, the only one that matters for those two teams.

When coach Nick Saban told Jalen Hurts the same thing the same week – that Tua Tagovailoa was going to start, but Hurts would continue to have a role – he put the team ahead of himself, and it worked out well for him as he got his moment of glory against Georgia on the same stage he lost it to Tua last January. Result: Alabama has two good quarterbacks going in to the national final, especially valuable because the starter’s ankle was operated on one month ago and is still a question mark.

In Clemson, however, Kelly Bryant put his own interests in front of his team’s: He immediately resigned from the Clemson Tigers football team. The very next week, with one fewer star QB on the roster, the nightmare came true: Lawrence got hurt, and Dabo Swinney had to turn to his third-string slinger, freshman Chase Brice. Thankfully for the orange and white, Brice got them through their toughest test of the season, winning a 27-23 nailbiter against nationally-ranked Syracuse. But if Bryant had still been there, it would almost certainly not have been nearly that close.

NOW, did Bryant have the right to quit? Absolutely. If I’m at a school or a job where I’ve been told that my opportunities for growth and success moving forward are going to be severely limited from here on out, I would also strongly consider moving somewhere that improved my chances of personal success. And most people believe that despite the commendable stand made by Jalen Hurts, the national championship-winning QB will be transferring to another school for the 2019 season.

But the difference is that that’ll be happening at the end of the season. This is a team activity. And it works season by season – you start a season with your team, you finish a season with your team. When I taught beginning band (or any level of band), we always made it clear that the students were to stick it out through the school year – if you decided you didn’t want to keep going next year, that’s up to you, but your band mates depend on you, and it’s important to be there for them. Hurts knows that, and when the moment came when he was needed, he was not only there, but had prepared for the moment and was ready to excel. It’s my position that Bryant owed that to his team.

Now, having said that “you start a season with your team, you finish a season with your team”, there’s an obvious exception to that: getting traded. But that’s an administration privilege. OR, you might get benched for the season; that’s a coaching privilege. So, it’s okay when they do it TO you, but not for you to do it on your own?

The NCAA rules are starting to lean more towards player flexibility – my favorite rule change recently is allowing graduating students to transfer without sitting out a season, as a reward for early graduation. But there’s still the issue of players being stuck when a coach moves/reneges/is fired, or when a new coach comes in and decides not to honor the scholarship granted by the previous coach (that happens more often than most people realize, because it happens to kids at the bottom of the roster). As unseemly as player movement in college is, it’s still unfair to the (UNPAID, don’t throw the whole “scholarship” thing at me; it’s hardly sufficient compensation given the $ their teams make) student-athletes.

There are so many more issues that have to do more with the dichotomy of “student-athlete”/”amateur sports” and “multi-billion dollar industry” than anything else…

Why don’t teams compensate athletes in sports where their performances create so much money? (We’re basically talking football and basketball here – sport to sport fairness is actually a huge reason to vote “no” on this topic).

Why can coaches escape penalties issued by the NCAA to a school team or athletic department, by taking a job elsewhere, but the students can’t?

Why can a coach leave a team before the end of the season (i.e., before their bowl game) with impunity to take another job, but when players sit out a meaningless exhibition game, it bothers us (ME!) so much? (I wish I could explain this feeling in my heart – I think it goes back to that “start the season, end the season” principle we talked about.)

If you and I can start our professional careers at whatever point an employer will hire us, why do basketball players have to wait through one year of college before starting their NBA career – and football players three years before the NFL can hire them?

Again, to be fair, none of these are cut-and-dried issues. You’ll undoubtedly throw exceptions to each at me in the comments, and that’s your right. (And you’ll be right, as far as the examples go.) 

But there’s a fundamental decision that has to be made before trying to regulate any of these related topics…

What is our collective position regarding the rights or the deserved benefits due to the student-athlete in general, and can/should we differentiate between money-making sports and non-revenue sports, first of all, and secondly between “elite” athletes (i.e., the “ones the crowds come to see”) and the rest?

Decide that, and you’ve moved a long way towards deciding the appropriate answer to most of these questions.

Let’s assume that women’s field hockey players in Division II won’t be changing any of the benefits they currently receive. Let’s also assume that all of Division II and III, and all of the sports that do not generate revenue for the team, will be unaffected by all of this, except as it might touch them from transfers in and out of the D1 revenue sports teams.

So, who are we talking about, then? Football players, basketball players (probably both men and women), and… is that it? College baseball isn’t the primary route to the majors…volleyball and wrestling attract decent attendances but have no pro league to advance to… track & field… soccer… lacrosse… no, I think it’s just those three.

And, is it ALL football and basketball players? Or just the “famous” ones?

Once you’ve decided what subset you’re talking about, then you need to decide what you think they “deserve”. Take the rights of the “civilian” individual into account – what would be fair and allowable for the young man if he WASN’T on a college team? – and common sense comparisons to what the “grown-ups” (coaches et al) are allowed to do.

So, consider what these young men (and a few young women) deserve in terms of their monetary compensation, their ability to transfer “companies” they work for, the value of the education they receive, and the amount of control they have over their own careers – which is really what we’re talking about here: the start of the professional careers of some of these future stars, these future workmen, and in some cases these soon-to-be failures (who have the absolute right to fail!).

I don’t have THE answer. I don’t know that there IS “an answer”. But there are principles that should be followed and fairnessĀ thatĀ must be obeyed. And most of all, the rules should be consistent throughout the entire system. What’s good for the coaches should be good for the athletes.

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