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Pigskin Profit

How do you make college football more ethical for athletes in the face of a university system reluctant to give up an order that enriches its presidents, coaches, advertisers and corporate sponsors?



"Sadly I have come to the conclusion that in general ... football as it is presently conducted in American colleges and universities serves neither amateurism nor the sports ideal — that, instead, it is big business, deleterious in its effects upon both the athlete and the non-athlete and the sponsoring institution itself."

The quote sounds like something a modern-day critic of big-time college football might say about the sad, money-driven status of the sport today.

It's the type of broadside that can be heard every fall when football season begins, and every spring when college football teams gather for a few weeks of spring practice, annual rituals that culminate with intrasquad scrimmages. The University of Virginia just wrapped up its spring scrimmage, while Virginia Tech's is Saturday.

The words resonate now with football players at Northwestern University moving toward formation of a union, arguing that they are, in fact, university employees — and so taking another step toward acknowledging that big-time college football is, in fact, big-time business. In late February, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board agreed the players legally could form a union. The matter is now headed to NLRB's headquarters in Washington.

But back to that quote. It was first published more than six decades ago, in 1953. It's part of a scathing attack on the industry by longtime college-football insider Richard I. Miller in his book "The Truth About Big-Time Football."

The book was a clarion call that's been repeated through the years, most notably by longtime college professor Murray Sperber and journalist Rick Telander. Sperber, author of "Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education," argues that not only universities but also the athletes themselves already tacitly view their campus experience as a professional one — much to their eventual detriment. "That only a small percentage of collegiate athletes ever achieve their pro sports dream," he writes, "is irrelevant to its power over them and its role in shaping their lives at school. ..."

Telander, a Sports Illustrated beat writer, vented his overwhelming disgust with university pigskin in his book "The Hundred Yard Lie." He offered what he called "a modest proposal for cleaning up college football."

That proposal was altogether unique and radically game changing (excuse the pun): the establishment of a league of professional football teams — each one sponsored by a college or university but connected in no way with the educational mission of the school. The sham notion of a student-athlete would be eliminated. The university-sponsored teams would work as a proving ground for young players who aspired to careers in the top-level National Football League.

Telander argued that college football already was a de facto minor-league system for the sport, a cynical, profit-driven machine that ignored both the education of its participants and the notion of an amateur ideal in college sports.

Enter the farm-system concept, a version of which we've actually tried before. In 1946. At the behest of Bert Bell, then-commissioner of the National Football League.

Bell was lauding the formation of the Association of Professional Football Leagues by three of the country's best lower-level pro circuits: The Pacific Coast League, the American Football Association and the Dixie Football League. The Dixie League was based in Richmond and included two Richmond franchises, the Arrows and the Rebels.

The NFL eagerly jumped on board with the possibility of using the APFL as a sort of farm system. Supporters hoped the idea would codify all pro football under a unified system of rules and restrictions, such as the one established in the baseball world decades earlier.

But the time wasn't right and the notion collapsed. Minor-league football gradually receded in popularity and financial viability and the Association of Professional Football Leagues fell apart. The Dixie League, for example, ceased operations after the Richmond Rebels bolted the circuit.

Things would be different today if the two concepts merged — the one attempted in the 1940s and Telander's. A minor-league farm system would now succeed in dismantling the corrupted college-football industry and establishing a more viable, not to mention ethical and moral, alternative.

Not that it'll ever happen. The NFL is more interested in its current model for financial growth — global expansion — instead of strengthening any system at home. Helping to clean up amateur sports simply would be too generous and charitable a venture for a profit-hungry league.

And colleges and universities, including U.Va., Tech and other area schools, would be reluctant to give up an order that enriches its presidents and coaches, advertisers and corporate sponsors, and broadcasting partners. Such a proposal would be staunchly opposed by the powers-that-be who benefit from college pigskin.

The status quo — the one that has existed for a century — is simply too entrenched, too alluring, and too powerful, and those involved are, sadly, simply too selfish and too close-minded for any real reform to happen.

But good luck and godspeed to the Northwestern University football players, anyway. S


Ryan Whirty is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in the Negro leagues and other African-American sports history.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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