Is it Possible to Meaningfully Reform College Athletics?

Not Unless Our Movement Becomes More Broad-Based

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I. Introduction

Is reform of college football, and college athletics more broadly, possible? For the first time in the history of the broad reform movement there is speculation that the answer might be “yes” after the upheaval of 2020. When you have even college coaches questioning whether it makes sense to be playing right now, reformers like myself seem tentatively optimistic that we might be at some sort of tipping point. Add to this impending Supreme Court cases challenging various aspects of the system, as well as possible new federal legislation aimed at meaningful reform, and we may see a strikingly new system begin to emerge in 2021.

Whether that happens though depends a lot on whether reformers can agree on just what it is that we want a new system to look like. In Daniel Libit’s deep dive into the history of the reform movement, he gives us both cause for optimism and pessimism for the future of the movement. As to the former, Libit notes how the past few decades have produced a consensus of sorts in the reform community. Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, we used to have disagreements about whether big-time athletics should even be attached to higher education, this is no longer the case. Instead, reformers have coalesced around limiting/ending player exploitation as opposed to ending the whole system of college athletics itself. It is this new consensus against player exploitation which we are all now advocating for and which the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare.

However, at the same time, Libit and others like Matt Brown give us cause for concern about the future. Brown, in replying to Libit’s piece, argues that even if we all agree that we’re working to end player exploitation, we can’t agree on how best to do it—or even what step one in reform should be. Additionally, as Libit’s historical look at the college reform movement shows, we really haven’t been all that successful in our attempts at reform which stretch all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century. If anything, the system has gotten worse and worse leading to its nadir in our current era as billions in revenues in an unequal system have given rise to some of the worst exploitation in the history of college athletics.

Why is this the case? Why have reformers been so unsuccessful in achieving positive change or even in mitigating the worst aspects of the system laid bare for everyone to see in the pandemic? I think Matt Brown is correct that it is because we don’t agree on what reforms should come first, but I think there is another aspect at play as well. Reading Daniel Libit’s history of the reform movement, it also seems to me that there have been key constituencies missing from the broad movement which limit its ability to achieve any meaningful gains. As Libit outlines the movement it has basically consisted of lawyers, academics, legislators and nonprofits. This is all well and good, but where are the college presidents, athletics directors and coaches? Even more importantly, where are the players and their parents? It seems to me that if we ever want to see real success in a reform movement for college athletics—and specifically college football—these five constituencies will have to be involved in a meaningful way and in a way they haven’t been thus far. In short, we need a more complete movement at the elite level and sustained effort to organize players and parents at the grass roots if we are ever going to succeed in reform.

II. College Presidents, Athletic Directors and Coaches

In general, when we think about a “reform community” for college athletics, and college football specifically, I don’t think anyone thinks to include even the possibility of college presidents, athletic directors (ADs) and coaches being involved. If reformers think of these groups of people at all we default to seeing them as “the enemy”—those who, along with the NCAA, enforce the status quo for their own gain.

Even before the pandemic, college presidents, ADs and coaches were noteworthy for their fealty to the same exploitative playbook no matter the institution. Indeed, it is striking the degree to which no institution seems capable of thinking beyond the same tired model for running college football and college athletics more broadly. The model goes like this. Reap tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars from football and men’s basketball ticket sales and TV revenues. Hire an AD for around a million dollars and then he (it’s usually a he) will use at least $20 million of that to hire other athletics administrators. Use many more tens of millions of dollars to hire football and basketball coaches. Since you can’t pay players directly for the money they bring in, sink many more tens of millions into often absurd facilities upgrades—thus creating a “facilities arms race” with other institutions. If your particular football or basketball coach isn’t working out, buy him out for an absurd amount of money and then hire another coach for the same amount or more and pray he does better. Use the leftover money to sustain other non-revenue-generating sports.

It seems like there has to be a better way than this yet the groupthink on this model is so entrenched it seems that none of our higher education “leaders” can even begin to think of what it might be. This is all the more striking given that athletics departments everywhere, because of huge budgetary holes caused by the pandemic, are now coming hat in hand asking for bailouts to continue the same way of doing things. Instead of going this bailout/status quo route, I wish one university president would team up with one AD somewhere in the country and try a new way of doing things. If they were even marginally successful, they would be hailed as reformers and could set up a model for other presidents, ADs and coaches to enter the reform community.

What might an alternative model look like? It would have to start with an AD who was qualified but would do the job for less money. At many institutions, like the University of Minnesota where I used to teach, the AD makes more than the university president and so you would think this wouldn’t be hard to find someone to do it for less. At the University of Minnesota AD Mark Coyle makes just shy of $1 million a year with another $225,000 in possible incentives and a 2.5% annually mandated raise. He also has a personal university travel budget of at least $25,000. Even if this overall AD compensation was cut in half, Minnesota’s AD would still be in the top one percent of income earners in the state of Minnesota. My guess is that you could find some qualified reformer to do the job for a minimum of half the cost. This person would then have to be committed to first cutting the administrative bloat which undoubtedly exists in their athletics department. For instance, at Minnesota, there are 300 athletics staff for 700 student-athletes and the top 100 earners in athletics take home $22.5 million in base salaries. There is room to cut.

The reform AD, if hired, would then immediately tackle the beast that is college football at their institution. First and foremost, a new coaching model should be tried with the question of what makes a good coach being interrogated anew. Right now, in the standard broken model, experience coaching at multiple levels seems to be what is valued most. The assumption here, I gather, is that experience coaching produces a good “leader.” But what if this gets the question of leadership all wrong? What if we instead see leadership within individuals as largely an unlearned gift rather than something that can be learned through experience or taught? If this is the case, as I believe it is, we should consider a different type of coach altogether: someone who is much younger; someone who played for the institution he was being hired at and who was an unquestioned team leader while playing; and someone who has not been broken by a long climb through the coaching ranks which would then lead him to, in turn, break the young men under his charge.

Such a coach could hire other assistants in the same mold and all be employed at a fraction of current coaching salaries. For example, as I discussed in this piece, football-related salaries at the University of Minnesota currently total $11 million a year, not including possible incentives. The head football coach makes $4.6 million a year and the next closest assistant coach makes $625,000. Under my model, you could surely hire a head coach for the top assistant coach salary and then have all assistants making a quarter to a third of that amount. This might seem absurd, but it only does because the whole system is so absurd when it comes to coaching salaries. Don’t believe me? It wasn’t that long ago that national champion Michigan head football coach Bo Schembechler made the equivalent of $400,000 a year in today’s dollars and was the highest paid coach in college football. What’s more absurd – this or current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh’s $8 million a year salary? What I’m advocating is merely going back to what head coaches used to make before the whole system got so out of whack.

A reform-minded AD and football coaching staff could also rein in out-of-control football spending on facilities and other non-essentials. Most schools have facilities which are plenty good enough to attract recruits if you build a winning, humane culture and so there is no reason to continue to dump money into the football facilities sinkhole. If that winning, humane culture was built by the new younger coaching staff who had institutional loyalty from their playing days, they would likely stay loyal to the institution for many years. Contrast this with current head and assistant coaches who are always on the lookout for pay raise from another institution. Current head coaches and athletics directors largely have no institutional loyalty whatsoever but the system I’m advocating is much more likely to cultivate such loyalty and keep coaches and ADs around for years if not decades.

Finally, this mythical AD and football coaching staff could cut football rosters. For instance, right now the football team at Minnesota has a total of 115 players, of which only 85 are on scholarship. This encourages abuse of players given that the labor pool coaches are working from is so large. At least some of the 30 non-scholarship spots should be on the chopping block given that very few of these players will eventually move into a scholarship position and are much more likely to simply be beaten up on the practice squad. This means a decrease in the overall number of male athletes on campus which, as this piece suggests, should solve any Title IX gender balance issues the institution might be having. Finally, all of this money you save from the new athletic director and football model would be more than enough to support other non-revenue sports instead of cutting them.

In the current environment, what would a reform-minded university president and AD—one with a middling athletics program—have to lose? If there were ever a time to try an innovative new model, this would be it given university budgetary holes nationwide. Those holes are only likely to get worse as TV contracts become more tenuous and as older conservative alumni givers become less central to athletics budgets. Additionally, such a model would allow a president and AD who implemented it to actually live up to the social justice rhetoric they espouse. True leaders could see this crisis as an opportunity to try something different. It remains to be seen whether this type of leadership exists anywhere in the country. If it does, three new necessary pillars could be added to the reform movement—presidents, ADs and coaches.

III. Players and Parents

Whereas many in the reform movement might see my adding of university presidents, ADs and coaches to the reform movement as pollyannish, they would be more inclined to agree that players and player parents should definitely be part of the movement. However, when reform is discussed, players and their parents are often oddly absent from the conversation. While they might testify over impending legislation or have a case brought forward on their behalf, their voices are otherwise not centered in the reform movement conversation. This is a problem as any good reform movement, to be successful, must have both a top-down and a bottom-up component to them. Right now we have the elites—the lawyers, academics, legislators, nonprofits and hopefully one day the university presidents, ADs and coaches. But, we also need a grassroots movement of players and parents or else the whole project is destined for continued failure as we’ve seen in years past.

This is why I continue to write about the possibility of the creation of a College Football Players Association (CFBPA) which players began demanding this past summer. I wrote about it first here, then here, then here as I think it is so essential to the success of any attempt at the reform of college athletics. Why do I say this? Because any attempt at reforming the system, however concerned it is with player welfare, is not going to have legitimacy or a chance at real enforcement if the players themselves are not represented in the conversation. A CFBPA can give them this voice and the third-party oversight that will make any implementation of reform an absolute necessity.

This point is what I think the reform community as it is currently constituted misses. Let’s say tomorrow we get our dream state and federal legislation and our dream Supreme Court rulings. These will mean nothing without a mechanism for enforcement and third-party oversight. Do we trust athletics departments and coaching staffs as they are currently constituted to bring about this enforcement and oversight? Of course not. This is where CFBPA player representatives would play an absolutely crucial role. They could enforce and oversee any new reforms which might be implemented. Given what college football players went through to play this year, it is incumbent upon us in the reform community to help them revive the idea of a CFBPA and make it a reality. Only then will possible reforms have any possibility of real enforcement on the ground.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the parents of college football players and the way in which they need to be integrated into the reform movement. I’m in roughly my fifth month of publishing this newsletter and the support I’ve received over email from the parents of players has been one of the most important unexpected type of support that I’ve received. But it makes sense. It is the parents who deal with the fallout if their son is a casualty of college football. It is the parents that are very often saddled with the long-term medical bills from injuries and with the after effects from multiple concussions. They are the ones who know how quickly their son’s school and coaching staff abandons you once your body is no longer useful to the institution. They are the ones who are able to fully understand just how hard it was for players to play in the midst of a pandemic. This is why, this past summer, parents started the group College Football Parents 24/7 to try to organize their power to create change. This effort, like a CFBPA, will need to be revived if the college football reform movement is ever to be successful.

In the end, such success will depend upon the extent to which the movement is top-down and bottom-up. Yes, all of us academics, lawyers, legislators and nonprofits are needed. But, we are nothing but a paper tiger if those most directly affected by the exploitation inherent in the system are not firmly part of our movement as well.