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Phillip Marshall: Unfolding dramas in college football

Feb. 23, 2014

The growing opinion is that – with a huge assist from Bret Bielema’s remarkably insensitive and ill-informed comments –the proposed rule to slow down college football isn’t likely to get through the NCAA oversight committee if it gets there at all.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn quietly had his say about the proposal last week. So have others. Except for Bielema and Alabama’s Nick Saban, prominent coaches have been virtually unanimous in their disdain for the idea.

But while the rules controversy has raged, dramas that could change the very fabric of college athletics in general and college football in particular have unfolded. Out west, a federal judge has given the green light for former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA to move forward. If the lawsuit is successful, college football won’t ever be the same. And I don’t mean that in a good way. Back east, Northwestern football players are trying to convince the NLRB that they are employees and should be able to form a union.

O’Bannon has been outspoken in his belief that college athletes should be paid, that they should be able to sell their likenesses, sell their autographs and the like. O’Bannon says his agenda is helping college athletes. My guess is his agenda is making money, but that’s a question for another time.

Nobody – or at least almost nobody – involved with big-time college sports argues that full-cost of attendance scholarships are coming and should come. Most believe that would result in a stipend of about $2,000 for athletes at Auburn, Alabama and others in the fast lane of college athletics. That is a good thing. The ridiculous rule that limits how much food a university can provide an athlete needs to go away, too.



On the surface, it sounds good to say players should get a cut of the money being taken in by college athletics programs and should be able to get what they can. But, like a lot of things, beneath the surface it’s not such a good thing.

I will start out west.

If players are allowed to sell their autographs and endorse produce, regardless of whether the money is available immediately or put in a trust for after they graduate, how long will it be before schools start to tell recruits that they have boosters who will make sure they get the max of all those things? Will Oregon be able to tell a star athlete that he can count on being called on to endorse Nike products?

And what about equality on a college football team, which we should remember is not an NFL team. Nick Marshall and Tre Mason would, no doubt, have been hot properties last season. But what about Greg Robinson and Jay Prosch, who it could be argued had as much to do with all those yards and touchdowns as they did?

As for the union idea, that’s just ridiculous. Some Northwestern players – 97 percent of whom the school says graduate – whine that they had to spend too much time on football. One said he wanted to go to medical school but couldn’t because the demands of football were too great. The old “exploitation” argument has come out again.

I know lots of former college football players who are physicians. You don’t even have to leave the city limits of Auburn to find that.

You can make a case that college coaches make too much money. You can make a case that going to college football games at the highest level is getting so expensive many can’t afford it. You can make a case for a lot of ills in college athletics.

But the opportunity to get an education, get in the best physical condition of your life and, if you are good enough, prepare yourself to go to the NFL and make millions, isn’t such a bad deal. If you aren’t good enough for the NFL, the college football experience will still make you more valuable to employers, particularly those who might happen to be alumni of your school.

The comparison to the Olympic model is completely bogus. Olympians are professionals who are the world’s best in their sports. College athletes are neither professionals nor the best in the world

In the end, college football is immensely popular not because of feats of great athleticism, but because it’s unique. Auburn fans or Alabama fans or Florida fans or Ohio State fans don’t go to games because they expect to see football played at the highest level. They go to watch young men (or women) play for their schools and to offer their support.

If college players become professionals, if they become “employees” represented by a union, then what you will have is second-rate pro football. Nothing more. Who wants to watch that?

I don’t even care that much about watching the real thing.


Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for Follow Marshall on Twitter:


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