Slate: What about separating teams from schools?
Green: I don’t think that will ever happen. I certainly agree that college football and college basketball are farm teams for the NBA and the NFL. What you have, though, is tradition and a connection between student-athletes and the other students and the alumni that’s very powerful. You could argue that most athletes are there for the sole purpose of their sport rather than their education—although I think we’ve come quite a ways in the last 25 years, since I was in college. Graduation rates have improved. NCAA academic standards have gotten more stringent. Practice times have been reduced, all with an eye to educating student athletes.
Slate: The shortened practice times and firmed-up academic standards—are these good things?
Green: In some instances, yes. In others, athletes are being denied an opportunity. Because the NCAA has a monopoly on these pre-professional sports, it’s wrong to deprive people of the chance to make a lucrative athletic career just because they don’t have certain academic credentials.
It’s a paradox. As I said, there’s an unfairness to young athletes who are denied the opportunity to play in farm leagues because of their lack of academic success. But if colleges are not going to relinquish control of these leagues, which they’re not, it only makes sense that they should do their best to foster this idea that athletes should be students as well. That means getting their degrees and being a legitimate part of the student body. And the NCAA has done that. You see, they have stiffened the requirements for players coming out of high school. They’ve tightened them during a player’s college career. And they’ve also reduced, by mandate, the amount of time that an athlete can spend with his coaches and on the practice field. All those things equate to a higher probability that an athlete is also going to be a student—that he’ll leave with a college diploma. And I think that’s good, if only because I can’t see the NCAA or colleges ever saying, you know what, we’re just going to relinquish this multibillion-dollar revenue stream because it doesn’t have a place in our institutions of higher learning.
Slate: Some people complain that football players at major programs can get away with academic problems that normal students would be punished for. On the other hand, fans and coaches say that players’ relative prominence means they’re on the hook for the most minor infractions. What do you think happens more—athletes being held to higher or lower standards than the general student population?
Green: It’s a bell curve: On one edge, players get away with things because they’re players. On the other edge, players’ celebrity puts them under heightened scrutiny. I think the majority lies right in the middle with the rest of the students. That’s my perception of it. Of course, whenever a player does get away with something that he shouldn’t, that excites the attention of the media and gossip and Facebook and Twitter.
Slate: You’re playing defense at this debate. When Buzz Bissinger and Malcolm Gladwell attack college football, what will you say redeems it? In what sense does the good outweigh the bad?
Green: I am thankful for my great experience as a college athlete and I would hate to see other athletes denied that opportunity. There are a lot of good things about college sports. They’re not without their flaws, just like anything else. But on the whole, football was something that I dreamed of as a kid—something that I was and am very grateful that I was able to do. To me, the notion that people would be denied that opportunity is unthinkable.
Finally, a word of caution: I know the game has evolved to become more safe than it was before. I think there’s a fine line between safety and diluting the excitement and intensity of the contest.