Privatize Football

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In 1874, students
from Harvard University and Canada’s McGill University played a
two-game football series in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first
game was played under Harvard’s Association Football rules, what
we know today as soccer. The second game was played by McGill’s
rules, a variant of rugby. The McGill rules proved so popular with
the Harvard players they adopted and taught them to other eastern
schools. The next year, Harvard played Tufts University in what
was likely the first game of “American football.”

By 1876, students
from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia had formed the Intercollegiate
Football Association to develop and maintain common playing rules.
Among the IFA’s first leaders was Walter Camp, a Yale student-player
credited with developing many of the familiar rules of American
football, including the set play from scrimmage, the down-and-distance
system, and limiting each team to 11 players on the field. Camp
also embodied the notion of “amateurism”; although he remained active
in coaching and promoting football throughout his life, he became
a businessman and eschewed playing or coaching football for money.

Camp and his
allies fervently believed that college football should remain under
student and alumni control. He resisted early efforts by the Yale
administration and faculty to regulate — or abolish — football.
Most university presidents, in fact, hated the game. One notable
exception was William Harper, the first president of the University
of Chicago. Harper saw football as an excellent means of promoting
his newly formed school, and he hired the first paid coach in football
history, Yale alumnus Amos Alonzo Stagg. Chicago’s early success
under Stagg spurred the creation of the first athletic conference
in 1895, the Western Conference, which survives today as the Big

Although football
quickly grew in popularity, the violence of the still-developing
game caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1905
—  a year that reported 18 football-related deaths — Roosevelt
convened a summit with Camp and Ivy League representatives to discuss
possible changes to the sport. Later that year, 60 colleges met
in New York to form an alternative to the student-led IFA —  a
group known today as the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

and Federalization

The IFA quickly
dissolved itself into the NCAA, giving it a monopoly on football
regulation. In its first few decades, the NCAA merely continued
the IFA’s role as a playing rules committee. But now that the university
presidents, not the players and alumni, were in charge, the NCAA
slowly morphed into a grander bureaucratic entity based on the concept
of preserving “amateurism” at all costs.

The first NCAA
Constitution banned “proselytizing” — the recruiting of, or offering
financial incentives for, any student to enroll at a school based
on athletic ability. The NCAA viewed any compensation related
to a player’s athletic ability unacceptable. This yielded over time
to reality; eventually, the NCAA allowed schools to offer athletic
scholarships, but even today the strict ban on outside income related
to athletic ability remains.

itself is a class-based concept. In Walter Camp’s day, an amateur
was merely a generalist who didn’t specialize in a particular sport
or hobby. This excluded members of the “working classes,” because
their specialty in physical labor gave them an unfair advantage
over gentlemen of the privileged classes (like Camp). The idea of
paying amateur athletes was unnecessary, as their social position
made it unnecessary.

By the early
20th century, academics transformed amateurism into a moral code
consistent with collectivist principles. Howard Savage, a Carnegie
Foundation official in the 1930s, said “professionalism in school
and college athletics … is a most serious evil,” and that amateurism
represented “the moral struggle between force and the uses to which,
with the sanction of our civilization, it may be used and should
be put.” In other words, athletes were barbarians who had to be
tamed by the “civilizing” presence of academics. Savage noted that
while it was acceptable for students in artistic fields to profit
from their work — because they offered “tests of even temper and
self-control” — it was never acceptable for athletes to profit
from their efforts.

The Subsidized

Of course,
there is nothing wrong with the universities profiting from
the athletes. As student-alumni control of football yielded to university
administrators, schools not only realized substantial profits from
football, they moved to block competing influences. Schools constructed
on-campus stadiums to capture revenues going to municipal and privately
owned stadiums. When a pair of postseason college basketball tournaments
emerged in the late 1930s, the NCAA quickly acquired one of them
and turned into what we know today as “March Madness.” When television
emerged, the NCAA spent three decades trying to restrict public
access to games, until the Supreme Court struck it down as an antitrust
violation in 1984. And, of course, from its earliest days, the NCAA
has tried to outlaw every form of private wagering on its “amateur”

The NCAA itself
is a giant subsidy scheme that redistributes revenue from two sports
—  men’s basketball and football — to dozens of other sports
and hundreds of schools that generate little or no independent revenue.
This same process exists at the university level, where football
revenues often support entire athletic departments.

Overall, college
athletics is a money loser for the universities. Former NCAA executive
director Cedric Dempsey said in 2002 that only 40 major college
programs turned a profit, and even at the lower levels of the NCAA
— schools that offer few or no athletic scholarships —  expenses
had jumped as much as 30 percent in recent years.

Of course,
much of these losses are borne by government-run universities. As
I discussed in a 2004 paper, while 80 percent of Division III (non-scholarship)
schools were private institutions, 65 percent of Division I (scholarship)
schools were government sponsored. The growth of college athletics
mirrored the boom in government-run universities spurred by the
massive influx of student subsidies (and research “grants”) in the
years following World War II.

The Privatization

Awhile back
I had an exchange with a law professor who was incensed over the
competitive environment for college coaches. He couldn’t understand
why the NFL could prevent its member clubs from “tampering” with
one another — that is, Team A hires a coach under contract to Team
B — but the NCAA was powerless to prevent the same among colleges.
I replied the main difference was that NFL teams were privately
owned and universities were not. He didn’t understand; surely, universities
were “owned” by the students and the “public”!

What I meant
was that since NFL teams were privately owned and operated, the
owners had market incentives to cooperate on certain subjects and
adhere to a certain code of mutually beneficial conduct. That’s
why you don’t see many reports about the kind of tampering and cheating
that are now commonplace in college athletics. The college programs
are unowned and answer to multiple layers of often-conflicting bureaucracy,
including athletic departments, university presidents and boards,
the NCAA, athletic conferences, the Bowl Championship Series, and
federal and state authorities. There’s nobody truly “in charge.”

In particular,
the NCAA is a self-sustaining bureaucracy. It exists to justify
its existence. The most recent example is the NCAA’s flogging the
University of Southern California because a former player, Reggie
Bush, accepted money from an outside agent. By the NCAA’s reckoning,
agents are the greatest force for evil in the universe, as they
seek to corrupt the ideals of “amateurism.” But agents reflect a
simple economic reality: There is a market demand for talented football
players, and agents assist players in maximizing their value.

Former NCAA
president Myles Brand once argued there’s a fundamental conflict
between “education” and “profit” and that “we must be vigilant”
in keeping the latter away from the former. This attitude reflects
higher education’s long descent into state control — universities
as a whole are not expected to be profitable, so why should athletics
be any different? Except that for at least some schools, their football
(and basketball) programs could successfully operate outside the
NCAA’s bureaucratic system.

of college football might sound like sheer lunacy, but in some respects
it would be a return to the 19th century system of student and alumni
control. Wealthy alumni boosters could pool their resources and
purchase the assets and naming rights to existing college programs.
In exchange, universities could get out of the minor league football
(and stadium operations) business, allowing them to shed some of
their massive bureaucracies. Obviously, players would benefit from
an abolition of “amateurism” and its quasi-socialist principles.
Not only could they gain the right to market their services, they
would be able to form voluntary associations — and yes, even unions
— to strengthen their bargaining position.

would also improve the quality of the football product. The NCAA’s
regimental approach to “student-athletes” severely restricts practice
time and overall access to coaches. These arbitrary restrictions
don’t apply to any other college discipline and effectively deprive
students of the vocational education they’re seeking. This may not
matter to players at lower-level schools — they don’t expect to
play in the NFL — but it stunts the growth of high-level players
with pro potential. And since privatization would reduce the size
of “major” college football by eliminating unprofitable programs
that only exist because of NCAA subsidies, the remaining programs
would produce stronger schedules — and even the elusive championship
playoff, which has never existed due to NCAA bureaucracy.

The counter-argument
is that privatization would totally sever the mystical “student-athlete”
link. But it would actually liberate the student from the athlete.
The NCAA’s model remains tethered to 20th century assumptions about
how students obtain degrees. These assumptions are moot in the Internet
age. Privatization would enable experimentation. Some programs might
offer players “vouchers” that could be used for tuition after their
playing days are over. Other programs could utilize online learning.
Schools might even commit the ultimate heresy and offer full degree
programs in professional football — which is hardly unthinkable
given the proliferation of majors offered by the typical university.


There’s no
real alternative to privatization. The NCAA’s enforcement bureaucracy
will never be effective. The disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots”
in college football will continue to expand. The number of secondhanders
demanding subsidies will continue to increase. And the façade
of “amateurism,” already cracked beyond repair, will shatter sooner
rather then later.

Of course,
the same could be said of the state-controlled university system
itself. Privatizing football would provide a roadmap for doing the
same to the other parts of the nation’s bloated academic bureaucracies.
Which is precisely why the established interests will fight to their
dying breath to preserve some form of “amateurism,” and insist that
education should never be tainted by the horrors of profit.

21, 2010

Oliva [send him mail] is
a writer and paralegal living in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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