Published October 16, 2012 - 11:47am
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In 1954, University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins wrote in Sports Illustrated that college football’s days were numbered, and rightly so. “To anybody seriously interested in education intercollegiate football presents itself as an infernal nuisance,” Hutchins wrote, speaking for a school that itself abandoned football 15 years earlier. Hutchins believed there were no conditions under which football could be considered “an asset” to academia, and that the marketplace would eventually recognize that as fans abandoned the college game in droves for professional football, which was then still viewed as a minor sport:
If the colleges and universities had had the courage to take the money out of football by admitting all comers free, they could have made it a game instead of a business and removed the temptations that the money has made inevitable and irresistible. Professional football is destined to perform this service to higher education. Not enough people will pay enough money to support big-time intercollegiate football in the style to which it has become accustomed when for the same price they can see real professionals, their minds unconfused by thoughts of education, play the game with true professional polish.
When professional football has reached this point, we shall be able to disentangle sport and higher education. Students can play (or not play) as they wish: their friends may attend and applaud if they like. It will be clear that this is relaxation from higher education, not the main purpose of it. Students will come to college to study. Alumni will believe that this is something a normal, red-blooded, young American can properly do. Donors will understand that they are asked to support the institution, not because it has succeeded in attracting a few boys who are huskier and faster than those representing another college, but because when they give it, their money will be well spent in improving education and advancing knowledge. The colleges and universities will be set free to be as good as they know how to be.
Obviously, Hutchins’s dream never came to pass. While professional football did grow as he predicted, there was no concurrent decrease in demand for college football. Hutchins assumed, incorrectly, that the market for football necessarily constituted a zero-sum game: one grows and the other declines. What he failed to account for was the symbiotic relationship between the pro and college games.
First and foremost, Hutchins was apparently ignorant of the fact that professional players had to come from somewhere. The NFL never had a minor league developmental system like baseball, where players could bypass college and amateur leagues entirely. And for a variety of economic, legal and political reasons, it has never been viable for the NFL to build such a system from scratch. That leaves the college system.
The other thing Hutchins failed to account for was the role of television. Even when Hutchins wrote in the early 1950s, the potential impact of television was understood, albeit as a threat. In 1951, the NCAA imposed strict controls on the televising of college football because of the belief it would reduce revenues from live attendance. Hutchins likely assumed the NCAA would continue to restrict televised college football indefinitely, thus preventing the emergence of a mass commercial market for the sport.
Television also strengthened the bond between college football and the NFL by making football a year-round sport, specifically turning recruiting and the NFL Draft into major public celebrations. There’s now a seamless promotional pipeline from the day a player enrolls in college to the day he takes his first NFL snap. This is not something Hutchins could have fully understood or appreciated a quarter-century before the invention of ESPN.
As for the notion that customers wouldn’t keep paying for college football when they can get “professional polish” for the same price, this failed to account for the evolution of stadium economics over the past half century. Hutchins was only looking at the relative experience level of the players. He wasn’t taking into account other aspects of the game-day experience. Thanks to the distorting effects of tax subsidies and other political interventions, professional stadiums are often overbuilt, inaccessible monstrosities that cater primary to luxury-seat holders. The average customer usually fares much better in a college stadium, which is generally tied to a well-developed campus with a resident student fanbase.
Nor is the professional game as “polished” as it once was. The NFL is mired in a bureaucratic malaise due to decades of mismanagement, overscheduling and increased litigation from former players over the long-term health effects of playing the game. Only the league’s massive television contracts–and an uncritical media–mask these problems.
If anything, we may be heading into an era where, to the late President Hutchins’s horror, college football is back on the ascendancy relative to the professional game. The concussion problem may be the turning point. As more and more players come to understand the long-term risks of football, and as professional teams are forced to be more cautious in treating and returning players to the field after brain injuries, the career window for players will continue to shorten. This obviously benefits the college game, as they get the players before the NFL.
Imagine a future where the NCAA–or a successor organization comprised of the SEC and other major football schools–makes two simple changes to the present system: First, while players will not become salaried employees, they will be allowed to earn unlimited outside income like Olympic athletes; and second, player eligibility is extended from four to six years. In this world, many players could effectively spend their entire careers as college players and forego the NFL altogether–especially if the NFL continues down its present path of bureaucratic imperialism under Roger Goodell. Remember, the commonly cited average career length for an NFL player is four seasons. If you convert two of those seasons into additional years of collegiate eligibility, that leaves an average of two seasons.
The thing is, the sport isn’t getting any safer. The only real move towards safety would be to reduce or eliminate protective equipment–i.e., take away helmets that are used as weapons–and for political reasons that’s never going to happen. Instead, the NFL treats safety as a pretext to pick bureaucratic fights with the players–see the New Orleans Saints–while simultaneously figuring new ways to overschedule the league.
College football faces the same safety questions, but the sport is in a stronger position to make adjustments due to the relatively decentralized organization, not to mention the institutional resistance to the type of excessive scheduling now plaguing the NFL. Put another way, product quality is likely to improve at the college level while declining at the professional level for the forseeable future. It’s not inconceivable that by 2024, the professional game is reduced to being a second-tier event, much like it was in 1954.