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My view: Big-time college football: End it, or reform it now

By Rodney K. Smith

Published: Thursday, Nov. 17 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

With ever increasing commercialization in big-time college football and the scandal that is embroiling Penn State and their legendary coach, Joe Paterno, it is clear that football at this level has lost its bearings. For the first time in my life, as a former college president, I am on the verge of urging Congress to investigate big-time college football to determine whether it should be eliminated or regulated in significant ways.

I know that such a recommendation is less likely to be taken seriously than proposals calling for the elimination of Social Security. Nevertheless it is time for the NCAA, and perhaps Congress, to acknowledge that big-time college football is in serious need of reform, if universities can argue with any credibility that it has a place on a college campus.

We faced a similar crisis early in the 20th century based on a series of deaths suffered by football players. Then-President Theodore Roosevelt responded by calling for a White House conference to address the crisis. Maybe it is time for President Obama or Congress to make it clear, again, to the powers that be in big-time college football that change must come.

Penn State was largely viewed as a rather pristine program, but the problems in Penn State's acclaimed football program run deep and are evidence of the tragic state of big-time college football. A recent Sports Illustrated/CBS study by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian revealed that 16 players at Penn State had police records, which tied Penn State with Boise State for an unrespectable fourth place among all of the top 25 ranked football teams for football players with police records. Only Pittsburgh with 22 and Iowa and Arkansas with 18 each had more student-athletes on their squads with police records.

One of every 14 football players at top 25 teams had been charged with or cited for a crime while adults. Of the 250 or more incidents reported, 40 percent involved very serious offenses including assault and battery, domestic violence, robbery and sex offenses. It should be noted that the police records are not related to race, and Stanford had only one and TCU had 0 students with police records.

Only two of the top 25 college football powerhouses do criminal background checks for their incoming players, believing no doubt that what one doesn't know will not hurt him. It can hurt others, however, as we learn each season as players regularly are involved in very serious offenses. Each offense has its victim, and given the capacity of big-time college football to cover its tracks, as was almost the case at Penn State, it is clear that many serious offenses go undisclosed leaving unnamed victims strewn along the way.

Ironically, I opened my amateur sports law class this fall with the question, "Do any of you know the name of the president at Penn State?" No student knew the president's name. I then asked, "Do any of you know the name of the head football coach at Penn State?" Each arm was quickly raised. Football coaches are often the most recognized individual in their respective states. Today, because he and his administration failed to respond forcefully to the crisis that gripped their campus, President Spanier's name is now well known.

These problems are compounded by low graduation rates, resulting in failed academic promises to student-athletes. The willingness to play an increasing number of games each year also results in rising numbers of injuries suffered by players. This is not education, it is excess with roots in commercialization not academics. We are paying a high price for the right to unbridled viewing of student-gladiators led by coaches and university administrators who sometimes are as effective at hiding problems as they are at solving them as they pursue the accolades and dollars of an adoring public.

It is my hope that college presidents will not collectively follow in the footsteps of their colleague at Penn State, but will use this tragedy to deal directly with the commercialization and reification of big-time college football, which often makes the football coach the most powerful person on campus. That imbalance of power with its roots in a highly commercialized spectacle must be addressed. If the presidents and the NCAA cannot muster the will to do it, then Congress should intervene.

Rodney K. Smith is a distinguished professor of law and director of the Sports Law and Policy Center at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

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