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No More Free Rides

What If American Colleges Abolished Football?

by DAVID MACARAY

Hard as it may be to believe, in 1939, the University of Chicago abruptly dropped its football program, citing as its reason the astonishing fact that (according to school president, the uber-intellectual Robert Maynard Hutchins) the sport had evolved to the point where it was becoming a distraction to both students and faculty.  In Hutchins’ view, the game of football was now detracting from the noble ideals the university had set for itself.

And this was no empty, purely symbolic gesture made by an otherwise ignored and lackluster football school.  This was not the case of some homely, unpopular high school student meaninglessly announcing to the world their intention to boycott the senior prom.  Far from it.

In 1939, the University of Chicago was a Big Ten Conference football power, formerly coached (until 1932) by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg, and the school’s decision to abandon its football program sent shock waves reverberating across the country.  Indeed, the very first winner of the prestigious Heisman Trophy, in 1935, was Jay Berwanger, the University of Chicago’s star running back.

Take a moment and imagine this happening today at, say, the University of Alabama, or the University of Texas, or USC.  Of course, such a thought is beyond ludicrous; it’s insane.  Not only would any university president suggesting such a thing be instantly canned, but these big-time football schools would make it abundantly clear that they would willingly set fire to the Physics Lab (and, if need be, to the Physics faculty) rather than see their beloved football program eliminated.

But as farfetched as this hypothesis is, what might the fallout be?  What would be the ramifications?  Well, for one thing, you would rarely see any no-neck, 6’ 4”, 320-pound men walking around campus.  Those guys would more or less vanish.  For another, you might notice a slight increase in on-campus interest in other fall sports, such as volleyball and cross-country.  Most significantly, you’d see a staggering drop in the school’s treasury.   It’s a fact.  TV revenue at big-time football schools (and big-time football conferences) is monstrous.

Take Notre Dame for example.  It is, unquestionably, a good college, a highly respected academic school.  It’s a religious school as well, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.  Most importantly, it’s a big-time football program.  Notre Dame has been a football powerhouse since way back in the 1920s, when Knute Rockne was its head coach. (Fun fact:  The Norwegian-born Rockne graduated from Notre Dame in 1914, with a degree in pharmacy).

How much revenue has football brought the University of Notre Dame?  While no one can answer that question with certainty, the figure has to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The Fighting Irish have made a fortune from football.  On April 13, 2013, ESPN announced that Notre Dame and NBC had agreed to a 10-contract extension, running from 2016 to 2025, at a reported $15 million per season.

But there would be another ramification to this, one that is both startling and sobering.  If America’s colleges and universities—for whatever reason—decided to abandon football, the National Football League (NFL) would find itself shit out of luck.  Think about that.  Without college football, the NFL would have no players from which to choose.

Unlike major league baseball, which spends a great amount of money maintaining its minor leagues, the NFL, relying on college football for its sustenance, has been getting a free ride.  Arguably, if this constant and reliable supply of college players were cut off, the League would have to invent some sort of semi-pro developmental league, which could be logistical nightmare.

That’s why the NFL should be required to donate to college football.  Subsidize it the way major league baseball subsidizes the minor leagues.  No more free rides.  Not only should the NFL be required to subsidize college football, but those colleges should be required to apply that money to lowering the tuition of its “regular” students—the 99.9-percent who don’t play football.  It’s only fair.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net