College football reform that shifts emphasis toward the diploma is needed far more than payments to players. The reform program:
- Six-year scholarships, so when a football player exhausts his eligibility and the NFL does not call, he has two to three paid semesters remaining to fix his credits and graduate.
- Factor graduation rates into football rankings. The Associated Press, USA Today and BCS organization publish elaborate computer and poll-based rankings of college teams. The rankings avidly are followed by fans and determine bowl invitations; rankings will be central to the expected Division I football playoff system. Colleges and college coaches desperately want high rankings because these please the boosters and increase revenue. If graduation rates were a factor in the rankings — say, a quarter of the weight — coaches and athletic directors instantly would care whether players were at the library and in class.
Human beings respond to incentives, and right now, Division I coaches and athletic directors have incentives only for victories. Give them an education-based incentive, and they will respond.
At the NFL level, where football is pure entertainment, power rankings need only reflect quality of teams. Colleges are expected to teach and to play a role in guiding society. It is amazingly superficial of the Associated Press and USA Today to rank college teams on victory margins only, as if colleges existed solely to provide entertainment for sports fans. Add graduation rates to the rankings and college football will have an internal incentive to clean itself up. Internal incentives for reform are better than those imposed from without.
- In most cases, Division I athletes who transfer must wait one year before accepting an NCAA scholarship at the new college. So levy the same before their contracts are up. In 2012, Pitt head coach Todd Graham, who had been at the school just eleven months, was offered more money by Arizona State and instantly bolted. If Graham wanted to leave Pitt for Arizona State before his contract expired, he should have been required to sit out a year. Imposing a waiting period on coaches would reduce the mercenary atmosphere of big-college football and cause more coaches to set good examples.
- Make penalties follow the coach. The NCAA sanctions individual athletes, but almost never individual coaches. This means coaches know that if a scandal looms, they can simply jump to another school. The character education movement says actions have con- sequences; for college football coaches, actions rarely have consequences.
Suppose a college receives, say, a two-year probation. The head coach for the period when the violations occurred should be required to spend the same amount of time away from collegiate sports, regardless of switching employers. If college football coaches knew they would suffer consequences for taking shortcuts, fewer shortcuts would be taken.
- For any year in which a college football team's graduation rate is below the rate of students as a whole at the same university (crediting for players who transfer and graduate elsewhere), the head coach is suspended for one year, and the penalty follows him to any NCAA member school. That would get coaches' attention.
Human beings respond to incentives. The incentives described above would cause college football coaches to care about education.
In the end it is not the lack of pay but the lack of diplomas that is the fatal flaw of American college football.
Of course many highly accomplished people never walked in a robe and mortarboard to "Pomp and Circumstance." Edward Elgar, who wrote the music that has become the commencement anthem, himself never graduated from college. But in contemporary American society, no step more closely links to achieving a materially secure life than earning a college degree.
College is "the gateway to the middle class," President Barack Obama said in 2012. That year the unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma was 9 percent; for those with a college diploma, was 3.5 percent. Researchers Anthony Carnevale, Stephen Rose and Ben Cheah of Georgetown University have found that compared to a high school degree, a bachelor's adds $1 million to the average person's lifetime earnings. The bachelor's is a perquisite for a master's, which adds $1.4 million to lifetime earnings. For the 99 percent of college athletes who will never spend a day in the pros, the diploma is worth far more, financially and sociologically, than any cash payment they might receive for NCAA participation.
That the college football establishment actively lures a mainly African-American group of young men away from studying and graduating, by nurturing an illusion they will receive instant wealth in the NFL, is what is rotten about the NCAA apple. That the money-rich athletic conferences and big-university boards of directors go along makes their apples rotten too.
Education is the agency of economic and of political power not just for the person who receives the degree but for his or her family line. Studies show that the best predictor of a child's educational success is not race, income, or school type, but the highest educational attainment of adults in the household. One person who graduates from college may found a line of others who do.
For those African-Americans who come into collegiate sports from disadvantaged backgrounds, a check for $25,000 would be nice, but will not change their family circumstances. A diploma could change their lives — and the lives of their children and children's children, allowing them to achieve independent economic power that belongs to them, not to someone else.
Rightly or wrongly, in contemporary American society college sorts out who rises and who falls, who acquires economic power and who is cast adrift. The college football establishment gathers the fruits of the physical labor of African-Americans, without ensuring they receive the diplomas that represent economic power — often, actively distracting them from the classroom work that would give them power. The system may not have been designed to keep blacks down. But it functions that way.
From The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America by Gregg Easterbrook. Copyright 2013 by Gregg Easterbrook. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.