Slate: You would abolish collegiate football but accept NFL football completely as is?
Bissinger: Yes. That’s because football has absolutely nothing to do with the academic experience. In fact, it’s antithetical to the academic experience. People think that football programs make money, but NCAA studies have shown that maybe 20 schools earn money from football. Two-thirds lose money. And how can you justify keeping around a football program that’s losing money at a time when all sorts of other cuts are being made and programs killed? You can’t!
Plus, football has no social impact, except that, in school, it creates a dangerous athletic culture. Players don’t mingle with the other students. They have a completely different status.
Slate: Jason Whitlock would say that being on the football team teaches players about diversity. He’d claim football instills tolerance, not elitism.
Bissinger: I don’t know how much diversity you see on a football team. Most are minority heavy. And Jason applauds this idea that relaxed academic standards for athletes result in more diversity—well, I don’t support relaxing academic standards. There are no academic standards for a lot of these kids. Schools can improve graduation rates all they want. They can do it like Auburn University, which had a professor offer independent study programs to dozens of football players, for which they were assigned no work and all got As.
And so what if it is great socialization for the football team? That’s 65 players out of a school of thousands. Football should help the student body. And the money schools make from football goes to support nonrevenue sports, not back into the general funds. Some people say athletics spur alumni contributions: Untrue. Studies have shown they make no difference whatsoever. Then, of course, you have benefactors like Phil Knight who decide to give hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Oregon for the sake of football. Great—that doesn’t help the average student. Oregon faces the same crunch that many other state schools face and is cutting all sorts of academic programs.
Basically, colleges are building the best teams that money can buy. Players are being used. They should be paid. It is—I don’t want to say slavery, but it is almost a form of slavery. The demands placed on these kids are enormous; they make enormous money for the program, particularly the Cam Newtons and Tim Tebows. They generate millions of dollars in merchandise sales. And they don’t get a cent. The whole goal is to get to the pros, and it’s a very false dream because the odds there are infinitesimal. Even if you do make it, the average shelf life of a football player is roughly three years. And then what do you do? No one cares about you when you’re done. No one’s going to give you a break. You don’t have an education. You’re a nobody.
Slate: These NFL players don’t make enough money to retire in comfort?
Bissinger: Not if they’re only playing for three years. And even if you retire with a million dollars, you don’t have a job and you don’t know anything. Some NFL alums don’t even know you have to pay taxes. Look at basketball: Studies have shown that 50 percent of all former NBA players have gone bankrupt.
If we’re going to have these sports, let’s be honest about what’s in store for the players. Let’s offer them courses in what to do with their money. All the basics: How to invest, how to find a financial advisor, what makes a good agent. What the tax system is. These guys don’t know.
Another thing: There is no other Western society that offers sports scholarships to the extent to which they’re offered in the United States. South Africa recruits in rugby. We recruit in everything. And you have cheating. You have violations. It’s rampant. You have football coaches who are making five or six million dollars a year—how could a football coach be making twice as much as the president of a school? And if you’re a faculty member, what do you say to yourself? You say, well, they don’t really care about me.
Slate: Do you support separating the sports programs from the schools?
Bissinger: That’s a tricky plan, subject to all sorts of problems—especially Title IX and gender equality, which is obviously important. But yes, some people have suggested that you get these teams out of the academic setting. They’d basically become minor league teams. The colleges would negotiate a set fee that the teams would pay them and then, they’re out of it. I definitely advocate that.
Slate: But if players aren’t university students—just mercenaries hired by the colleges—wouldn’t that affect school spirit and alumni support? Or are there ways around that?
Bissinger: The team would still have the name of USC or Penn or Harvard. In terms of school spirit, I think it’s fine for kids to go paint their faces on a Sunday. Of course, there are other ways to have school spirit—and that’s not why you’re going to college, anyway. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but we pay far too much attention to whether Johnny and Judy are having fun, and not enough to whether they’re being pushed academically. The world’s more competitive than ever. There is no time to waste.
As for alumni, they can root for something else. They can root for a pro team.
Slate: You’ve written that “the overemphasis on sports is a leading cause of America losing its competitive edge.” Is the problem that serious?
Bissinger: Absolutely. Football creates what William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton, called a dangerous “athletic culture.” There have even been studies showing that, when the football team is good, the average student GPA goes down, because there’s more partying. And I think football is one of the biggest reasons for our decline because it’s become such a massive part of our education system. So much time and money is spent on it. People still want to think that sports are a toy department and not injurious—that’s completely wrong.
The University of Maryland, in order to support a football program that is losing money, just cut eight nonrevenue sports. And I know from other research that these are sports that actually produce good students. Kids in track and swimming are quite disciplined. They do well, and their programs get slashed.
Slate: If football and basketball were to disappear on college campuses, would another sport come in to fill the void?
Bissinger: Probably not. Whether they liked it or not, schools would likely go back to the core emphasis of what, presumably, they’re there for, which is to teach. Football and basketball lovers could watch the pros. I really do think we would live without it.
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