MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Do you know what the most popular TV show is in the fall? I'll give you a hint, it's not "The Voice." It's this...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND SONG, "SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL THEME")
SIEGEL: The game that bleeds red, white and blue is, of course, pro football, in that case NBC's "Sunday Night Football." Do you know what the most popular cable show is? It's not "Chopped" or "Property Brothers" or Bill O'Reilly.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL THEME")
SIEGEL: It's "Monday Night NFL Football" on ESPN. Throw in some NFL Thursday nights, college games mostly but not all on Saturdays, Friday night high school games and you have what Gregg Easterbrook calls "The King of Sports." Football: part sport, part national addiction, part cult. "The King of Sports" is Easterbrook's new book. He writes about football for ESPN.com. And over the years he's written about energy, the environment and other public policy issues for The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly and several other highbrow monthlies and weeklies.
Welcome back to the program.
GREGG EASTERBROOK: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Yours is one of the most conflicted books I've ever read. You love the game. And you document the umpteen ways in which it has forfeited any claim to your love. Why not say enough, goodbye, football?
EASTERBROOK: Because I think it should be reformed. I think in our modern polarized debate, we tend to assume that you're either for something or against it. The intermediate position that you really like something but you're aware that it has deep-seated problems is harder to fit into modern discourse. So I love the United States and I want it reformed. I love football and I want it reformed.
SIEGEL: OK, you write about football at all levels. Let's start at the top, at the professional level. The National Football League, big surprise to me, is a hugely profitable nonprofit. How is that?
EASTERBROOK: Well, it's a scandal that I can't understand why people aren't marching in the streets over, I suppose. The headquarters of the National Football League is chartered as a nonprofit and treated by the IRS as a nonprofit due to a few keywords that were slipped into a piece of legislation 50 years ago. The individual teams probably pay corporate income taxes but we don't know since most of them don't disclose any figures. Most of them receive public subsidies but don't disclose anything.
The top of the NFL, Roger Goodell, the commissioner, his $30 million-a-year paycheck comes from what looks on paper to be a tax-exempt philanthropy.
SIEGEL: It's a...
SIEGEL: It's a consortium of teams, pro football teams, most of which live off of public subsidies.
EASTERBROOK: Yes. Judith Grant Long, a researcher at Harvard, calculates that 70 percent of the cost of NFL stadia has been paid for by taxpayers. In general, the public subsidizes pro football to the tune of around $1 billion a year is what I calculate in my book. And yet, it's phenomenally profitable, subsidized up one side, down the other, and yet a very profitable business.
SIEGEL: When it comes to college football, of course, most of the big football programs in the country are also public universities.
EASTERBROOK: Yes, and aspects of collegiate sports is tax-deductible, not just football. But football is where the big money is. The typical large public university, there's eight or $9 involved in football for every one in all other sports combined. And you can't rationalize the NFL receiving tax exemptions because the NFL is just an entertainment organization.
Colleges, on the other hand, they serve a beneficial social purpose. So we don't mind them getting tax exemptions but not for the football program. The football program brings in more money than it needs.
SIEGEL: You write very glowingly of Virginia Tech Football coach Frank Beamer and the football program he runs in which, as you describe it, players graduate the way that non-football playing students typically graduate, academics are prized as they are at Stanford or Notre Dame or a couple of other big time college football programs. Because I was reading your book, I watched Virginia Tech play on television the other day. They beat Marshall in triple overtime. I didn't hear the play-by-play announcers ever say: This Virginia Tech team, they graduate most of their kids, they run a good academic program.
EASTERBROOK: You never hear that because that's bad for business. The NCAA doesn't want to talk about graduation rates. Division I football players, overall graduation rate of 55 percent. That's not only below students at the comparable universities as a whole, football players should graduate at a higher rate. They get five years. They don't have to pay for college. They get special tutoring.
It's never mentioned by the NCAA or any of its partner networks because it's bad for business. Three years ago, Stanford and Virginia Tech met in the Orange Bowl. That game was the highest combined graduation rate in football bowl history, and neither the network nor the NCAA said anything about it. They want the bar to be kept low.
SIEGEL: Yeah. You write that actually it is possible, at least for a few universities, to be highly competitive and to actually maintain some academic standards. But it's getting harder and harder.
EASTERBROOK: Well, that's why I chose Virginia Tech as my example: 20 consecutive winning seasons at the big-deal football level and 77 percent graduation rate for its football players - very admirable track record. Most colleges don't have admirable track records. Some places, it's terrible. LSU, when they won the national championship five years ago, their football graduation rate was 44 percent. But did you hear that on ESPN...
EASTERBROOK: ...Fox, CBS? Of course not.
SIEGEL: You suggest that the football rankings should actually factor in graduation rates, which I understand the sentiment. But it's a bit like, you know, to pull an example out of my youth, it's a bit like saying they should have kept the boxing - the heavyweight boxing title with Floyd Patterson 'cause he was a more articulate guy than Sonny Liston. He didn't win.
EASTERBROOK: Well, people respond to incentives. If you're a college football coach, your only incentive is to win. Nick Saban of Alabama has won the last two national championships. His contract gives him nine times the incentive payments for victories as it does for graduation rates. So what, at the University of Alabama football is nine times more important than education? Maybe that's true. But if you change the incentives, you change people's behavior. If Alabama's graduation rate was included in its poll ranking, Nick Saban's behavior would change and so on throughout the system
SIEGEL: So, in your book you document the many, many flaws in American football, a game you love. And you make recommendations. We can't hear all of them right now. But give us three big changes that might improve football.
EASTERBROOK: For young people, parents wondering: Should my child play football? Not before middle school. I think the evidence is ironclad on that. High schools should stop allowing year-round football - during the season only. So boys have time to get their grades done and get other extracurriculars. Colleges should have six-year scholarships instead of the current year-to-year scholarship, so that once your football days are over, you get two or three semesters to fix your grades and graduate. And finally, the NFL should lose its tax subsidies.
SIEGEL: And should be treated as the profitable institution that it is.
EASTERBROOK: Yes, exactly.
SIEGEL: That's a lot more than three. Gregg Easterbrook, thanks for talking with us.
EASTERBROOK: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Gregg Easterbrook's book is called "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.