To Clean Up Football, Give Alumni the Ball


The ignominious end to the previously illustrious career ofCoach Don James at the University of Washington has once again kindled flaming outrage over the corruption of intercollegiate sports in general, and intercollegiate football in particular. The outrage will no doubt die down again, as it has before, until the next major scandal.

Such efforts as have been made in the past to remedy the problem have largely served only to make it worse. Perhaps the time has come to consider a drastic but viable solution. There is no doubt that big-time intercollegiate football is both popular and useful. It provides enjoyable public entertainment and offers particular excitement and satisfaction to alumni of the participating colleges and universities. It also represents an effective training program for professional football, which draws almost all its players -- and also coaches -- from intercollegiate football.

It is also alleged that football scholarships to appropriately talented young men provide many of them with their best -- if indeed not only -- opportunity to obtain an undergraduate education. This allegation is debatable, but not negligible.

A solution to the corruption which results from the inevitable temptation to make illegal payments to intercollegiate athletes -- and to overpay their coaches -- should be designed to preserve the public entertainment as well as the training of players for professional football, and also to preserve the opportunity for intercollegiate football players to obtain an undergraduate education.

The drastically simple solution is to require universities and colleges engaged in big-time intercollegiate football -- at least those in NCAA Division I and IA -- to transfer the ownership of their football programs to their alumni associations. The alumni would be authorized to operate the football program in the name of their college or university and would also have permission to pay their athletes and coaches at whatever level of compensation the market would dictate. It would not be required that athletes playing for the alumni-operated football programs be students, but the alumni would be obligated to pay the full tuition of any athlete who wishes to study at the college or university in whose name he plays.

If the objection is raised that colleges and universities would lose substantial revenue by ceding their football program to their alumni associations, the fact must first be recognized that this is largely a fiction. The transfer of the football program to the alumni would also involve alumni ownership of the stadium in which the team plays and of all the related training facilities. The maintenance of the facilities serving big-time intercollegiate football -- and the extensive travel involved -- in fact devours most of the revenue produced.

Beyond that, the alumni associations would operate big-time intercollegiate football programs for profit, which means they would also pay taxes. As a result, they would have a significant

incentive to make charitable contri butions to their college or university so as to reduce their tax burden. If it is indeed possible for alumni associations to make significant after-tax profits from intercollegiate football, then a college or university could also consider charging the alumni a fee for the use of the institution's name, or perhaps charge rent for the use of the land on campus on which the related facilities are located.

The virtue of this solution is that it would replace hypocrisy and corruption with honesty and fairness. Big-time intercollegiate football would honestly become what -- despite all pretense -- it already is, namely the minor-league component of professional football. Because winning teams require outstanding athletes, alumni associations could openly and decently bid for the best available players, as the institutions now do already, albeit covertly. It would even be possible for alumni associations to establish financial arrangements with professional teams and thereby become legitimate farm clubs for professional franchises.

Players motivated to be student-athletes would have the full opportunity to attend the institution in whose name they play without paying tuition; and they would certainly be sufficiently well compensated to afford a satisfactory lifestyle while playing for the alumni.

As for the alumni themselves, they would no longer chafe under all the present restrictions which prevent them from hiring the best coaches and players they can afford, and they would have only themselves to blame if their best efforts did not produce a bowl-bound team year after year after year.

The present situation has disgraced American higher education for too long. The proposed solution will allow colleges and universities not committed to the big time to operate intercollegiate football programs without corruption and with genuine student athletes. Such genuine intercollegiate football competition would remain the province of the NCAA, but the NCAA would have no jurisdiction over the alumni-owned minor-league professional teams operating only in the name of colleges and universities.

Such rules as would be required for the operation of alumni-owned big-time football would be within the jurisdiction of professional football, where they belong. A final virtue of this solution to the repugnant corruption of big-time intercollegiate football in its present form would be that its successful adoption might well be extended in due course to big-time intercollegiate basketball as well.

Big-time intercollegiate athletics are sufficiently entertaining and useful to be preserved. What is needed is a simple and effective way to preserve them in all their glory while ridding them of the thoroughly unacademic vices of pretense and corruption. Not only the universities and colleges but the players, coaches, alumni and the American public deserve better.

Steven Muller is president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University.

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