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The 'Big 5' and everyone else [Commentary]

So the big programs of college football have gotten together as the Big 5 conferences. Like political separatists, they are loosening their ties with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, dissociating themselves from their smaller, less showy brethren. Presidents of some of the less powerful football schools are protesting, but if they truly care about the academic missions of their schools, they should welcome the change.

Tired of sharing their profits with schools where education is still primary, member schools of the Big 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) will make a lot more money. They'll build ever-more luxurious facilities, and the salaries of coaches will even more greatly outstrip those of the governors of their states and even that of the president of the United States. The base salary of Coach Nick Saban of Alabama already has reached $6.9 million a year. And even the exploited players will share in the jackpot, getting paid more than just the costs of attending college.

The 65 Big 5 schools, including the University of Maryland, will field teams whose players are more desirable and who will be better cared for than will players at excluded schools. As so-called student-athletes, they will still have to be deemed academically eligible, even though most Big 5 players will have little interest in furthering their education. Having been chosen to play on a Big 5 team, the players will have taken a major step toward catching the eye of NFL recruiters.

Big 5 players' lives will not be much different from those of professional football players. Football will take up a full work week, and players will not look forward to being bored stiff in lecture halls. From season to season, more games will be added to schedules. The pressure to win games will be even more intense for players who are already burdened with full weeks of meetings, practices, body-building sessions, travel and games. With the coming of the final-four championship series, players will be asked to squeeze in even more football, both during the season and in the off-season.

The academic support systems at these schools will be harder pressed to get players with minimal interest in learning to pass their courses and remain eligible. Even though most of the players will be steered to courses that will be the least demanding, most will not care unless the subject matter is directly related to athletics.

Academic support people won't be able to hold their jobs if the players assigned to them fail to maintain their eligibility. For years now there have been questions about who has really done the work on papers and projects turned in to professors by football players. The recent scandals at the University of North Carolina have blemished the reputation of a highly respected university.

But the increasing emphasis on football at the Big 5 schools can have benefits for excluded colleges and universities. Without the constant pressure to field top teams, they can become more faithful to their true missions by de-emphasizing the importance of winning football games.

The "student-athletes" of the excluded can become more like true students as well as being athletes. With a decreased emphasis on winning, the focus can be shifted from the importance of satisfying spectators to the importance of making football beneficial to the players. While winning may be the result, schools that have been excluded can be more focused on assuring that their football players learn lessons in teamwork and discipline, perseverance and leadership. And that everyone on the team, not only the most skilled, has a chance to learn those lessons.

Schools should make exclusion from the Big 5 a source of pride by no longer giving special status and privileges to football players. All applicants for admission should be given equal consideration without making the football recruits favorites with different admission standards. Housing and support services should be just as available to ordinary students as they are to football players.

The University of Chicago was one of the founding schools of the Big 10 Conference. However, in 1939, the president of the university, Robert M. Hutchins, abolished football. Football, he believed, was undermining the main purpose of the university. Hutchins regarded education "as a serious occupation for serious people, and not as recreation and punishment for the immature."

Hutchins was probably too stern. Today, U of C happily plays inter-collegiate football, not in the Big 10, but in Division III, where games while not bringing in money do not distract from the university's primary mission.

Paul Marx lives in Towson and is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven. His email is pppmarx@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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