This is that time of the year when we experience a highly profitable fiasco — the BCS Championship Series which culminates in a so-called national championship game in big-time intercollegiate football. Alabama, the winner of last year's indecisive BCS championship game, was rewarded mightily for its participation, with a dramatic increase in athletic-related revenue to well over $100 million, while its fellow conference member schools shared in the bounty and now boast revenues in excess of $1 billion for the year.
Participants in this farce are better at counting dollars than they are at counting the cost to student-athletes. Concussions, which are poorly reported, exceed 1,000 in any given year of big-time football and knee and other serious, even debilitating injuries, are so numerous they are not even reported.
Despite the fact that Congress is beginning to investigate the proliferation of injuries in athletics, with a focus on head injuries in sports like football, the members of BCS conferences have turned ostrich on us and refuse to address the cost to the student-athletes who do so much to generate the revenues coveted by conference members.
The NCAA has wisely refused to pay the student-athletes who generate this income, asserting that graduation is worth much more. College graduates on the average make about $1 million more in a lifetime than non-graduates. Graduation rates for student-athletes participating in big-time intercollegiate athletics have improved due to academic progress requirements imposed on programs, but the rate is still 10 percent lower than the overall graduation rate for student-athletes. Sadly, Auburn and Oregon, the two schools who will compete in the Jan. 10 BCS "championship game," both under-perform those averages. A bowl ring will not compensate for the failure of so many big-time programs to keep their implied promise of an education and degree, and that promise is hard to keep when football players spend so much time practicing and preparing for games.
Lengthier seasons of 12 to 14 games in big-time football may translate into more revenue for conferences and schools, but they also translate into more games and practices, which result in more opportunities for injuries and time away from study and the classroom for their athletes. On the other hand, the average number of games played by small college (Division III) football teams, where athletes are students, is nine.
It is time for the curtain to close on this charade. It can be interred easily and in a manner that will please the public and take better account of the health and study needs of student-athletes. The simple solution is a real national championship, involving 16 or perhaps even 32 schools, and a reduction in regular-season games played.
Under this proposal, the number of non-playoff games in a season would be limited to 9, with seasons ending before Thanksgiving, significantly reducing injuries and increasing the time for students to study. Teams winning their conferences or otherwise selected for the championship would go on to play for a true national championship. If the bowls were also eliminated over time, by avoiding the bowl middlemen, revenues could flow directly to the schools, compensating for the shortened seasons. Revenue would be increased and widely dispersed, creating more parity, with a portion of the new revenue being allocated to student advising and academic support.
In a true national championship, the winners would be the public, who would have a true national champion, and the student-athletes, who would generally have shorter seasons, fewer injuries and more time and support to study. The loser, perhaps, would be the BCS conferences and schools that have benefited from their monopoly in propagating a system that harms students and leaves the public asking, "Will the real national champion please step forward?"
Rodney K. Smith is president of Southern Virginia University, visiting professor of sports law at Washington and Lee College of Law, and a former member of the NCAA Division I Infractions Appeals Committee.