College football is a moneymaking sham

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Last month, Josh Rosen, star quarterback of UCLA’s football team, ignited a controversy when he said in an interview that “football and school just don’t go together.” His point was simple enough: College football has become a business. It’s like a full-time job for players, and the demands of work outweigh the demands of school.

What Rosen said shouldn’t be controversial at all. It made headlines because college football players aren’t supposed to say things like that. College football fans, university administrators, and especially players are obliged to affirm the collective delusion that this is about sportsmanship and school — and not about money.

But it’s all about money.

The NCAA, the nonprofit association that runs college athletics, takes in close to $8 billion a year. According to a Business Insider report, there are now 24 schools that make at least $100 million annually from their athletic departments. In 2015, the most profitable athletic department in the country was at Texas A&M, raking in over $192 million. The University of Texas wasn’t far behind with $183 million.

Champions Way, a new book by New York Times reporter Mike McIntire, is the latest inquiry into the seedy underbelly of college sports. The “corporate-athletics complex,” as he calls it, corrupts universities, skirts federal tax laws, bullies the IRS, relies heavily on private donors, and sets players up to fail after their sports careers are over by pushing them into academically vapid curriculums.

I sat down with McIntire to talk about his new book and the state of college athletics. He told me that college football has become “too big to fail.” Too many people are making too much money, and the system has evolved into a profit-driven enterprise that has very little to do with college.

Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.


Sean Illing

I should say at the beginning that I’m a fan of college football and I watch in spite of what the sport has become. But I don’t feel particularly good about that.

Mike McIntire

I appreciate that. And to be honest, I’m in the same boat.

Sean Illing

Now that we’ve owned our hypocrisy, let me start with this: the NCAA says college football is about sportsmanship and a well-rounded education for student athletes. Is that narrative a sham in your opinion?

Mike McIntire

Yes, to be perfectly blunt. It’s really never been set up as an honest educational enterprise. Critics of big-time college sports like to say the system is broken. I look at it and actually conclude the system is working just as intended.

This really is a giant multibillion dollar commercial entertainment platform functioning under the guise of a tax-exempt educational pursuit. The whole notion that the athletes are there to get a meaningful education, for the most part, is a joke. And the NCAA knows that, but they’re too compromised by the system they’ve created to enact any kind of real reforms.

Sean Illing

You’re an investigative reporter, not a sports writer. How did you get pulled into covering college football?

Mike McIntire

I was drawn into this by a colleague at the New York Times who was covering the Jameis Winston rape allegation. [Author’s note: Winston is a former Florida State quarterback who was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in December 2012.] I ended up doing some broader stories looking at similar cases of Florida State University athletes accused of wrongdoing, and how the police and the universities grossly mishandled those cases. So that was sort of my introduction to the world of college football.

Sean Illing

And what was it about this world that shocked or surprised you?

Mike McIntire

One of the things that struck me as I started looking at it as an investigative reporter was the mind-boggling financial stakes involved. Again, we’re talking about a multibillion dollar business here, and we’re talking about universities that are generating hundreds of millions of dollars on the backs of these athletes. That kind of money skews and warps everything, and it has led to all these moral and legal compromises in the name of trying to keep the money rolling.

Sean Illing

Tell me about what you discovered at Florida State.

Mike McIntire

Florida State University wound up being a good vehicle to tell this larger story. As I said, our interest in it here at the New York Times originally was the Jameis Winston case. Winston was the quarterback for the team who had been accused of, but never charged with, sexual assault. I discovered that there were other cases that occurred at Florida State that were equally suspicious but not nearly as well known. What I found was a culture around the football program that permitted these things to occur, that covered them up when they did.

But this isn’t just a Florida State problem. This is a college football problem. Florida State is a good example because it’s a top-flight sports program. It generates over 100 million dollars in revenue every year. Their football coach is the highest-paid public employee in the state of Florida, making $5 million a year.

They have tremendous name recognition, a huge fan base, one of the biggest sports stadiums in the United States. And they have all the scandals and the loss of integrity and credibility that goes with that.

And so, in this one microcosm, you've got a really good case study of the absolute best and the absolute worst of big-time college sports.

Jameis Winston reacts on the sideline during the Camping World Kickoff game between the Florida State Seminoles and the Mississippi Rebels at Camping World Stadium on September 5, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Sean Illing

What do you think actually happened in the Winston case? This was a star player, a Heisman Trophy winner, a national champion. He was accused of rape but nothing came of it. Did the university cover it up? Did local law enforcement sweep it under the rug?

Mike McIntire

We'll never know exactly what occurred between Jameis Winston and Erica Kinsman, who was the young woman who accused him of rape. And I’m using her name because she herself came forward and went public with it.

We don’t know what transpired between them. But the time to figure that out was when she went to the police and said that she was raped. And the police did almost nothing to properly investigate her complaint.

And so one of the things that is really disturbing and surprising is when you see the complete lack of investigative energy by the detectives involved in her case. One of whom we found out later was doing side jobs for the Seminole Boosters, the private organization that funds, partially controls, and props up the football program.

And when this was finally brought to the attention of the University athletic department, there was a similar lack of follow-up. There was no accountability, either at the university level or among local law enforcement. Every responsible institution involved did what they could to make this go away. It’s truly a disgrace.

Sean Illing

How did college football become this pit of money and corruption? Was it always this way or did it shapeshift into whatever it is today?

Mike McIntire

There was a president of Duke University who once wrote an essay complaining about all the things that we’ve just been talking about — that there was too much commercialism creeping into college sports, that it was corroding academic standards, and basically that money was becoming a serious problem and skewing everybody’s perception of right and wrong. He wrote that in 1906.

You can see that this has been a continuing issue ever since the birth of college football in particular. It’s just gotten more pronounced because of the amount of money involved. With the advent of televised games, and especially ESPN, what once might’ve been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in terms of broadcast rights per season is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

When you have that much money and that much invested in it, and you have universities who’ve basically pegged their reputations and their marketing around their sports programs, I guess you’d call it another example of too big to fail.

Sean Illing

I used to teach at a university with a major Division 1 football program. I encountered some of the things you’re talking about in my own classroom. A lot of these players are ushered through a system without much regard for their academic development. The goal is to keep them academically eligible so they can produce on the field. But for the players who don’t make it to the NFL, who leave these institutions with broken dreams and few prospects, what becomes of them?

Mike McIntire

A lot of them have very sad stories to tell after that. Some end up in dire straits or in trouble with the law. Very few of them wind up in a good place because they’ve basically wasted several years of their lives in a pursuit that was never going to lead them anywhere good, and they don’t have a meaningful degree.

This is something that university presidents and boards of trustees, especially at public universities, really need to look at closely and ask themselves, what kind of environment are they fostering here? Are they really living up to the mission statement of their institutions?

To get back to Florida State University for a second, the mission statement for that school says nothing about athletics, not one word. That’s not to say they shouldn’t have an athletic program, but my point is that if they claim to uphold all these lofty values of liberal arts and public education, they’re failing if they don’t take into account that many of these athletes are not being well served during their time at what is a public university supported by taxpayers.

Again, it’s really a disgrace.

Sean Illing

How long can this go on? What you’re exposing here is awful but not surprising. The fact is, people love college football and they keep watching. The NCAA keeps making money. Coaches are making money. Advertisers are making money. Everyone but the players is making money. Will anything change so long as that’s the case?

Mike McIntire

It’s hard to see where and how and who the agent of change would be. One place that has potential is in the courts. There are a continuing series of lawsuits that have come up by former players who make the argument that they should be paid for their services while they’re in school. To varying degrees, there’s been some sympathy in some of the opinions that have been handed down by courts on this matter, so I think that is one thing that may be chipped away at over time through the legal process.

Ultimately, I think it would literally take an act of Congress to change the tax-exempt nature of college athletics. If you think about it, there are billions of dollars every year that would be taken out of that system if you removed the tax-exempt status for college athletics. I think that if you removed some of the financial incentives for the bad behavior, you might see some change.

Sean Illing

Why are these football programs tax-exempt in the first place? Is it about the bogus “amateur” status of the players, or is it simply their association with public universities?

Mike McIntire

There’s the fallacy that these are all amateurs, and so they’re not professionals and therefore not eligible to be paid. But that’s an extension of a larger issue, which is that these athletic programs are part of universities and colleges which are themselves nonprofits. By remaining under the umbrella of tax-exempt institutions, they too remain tax-exempt.

Sean Illing

It sounds like we’ve created a Frankenstein where even the schools can’t do much to rein in these massive programs. There’s just too much money on the table. Everyone is invested in the status quo. And the fans of these teams, the citizens of these communities, are too attached to the product to see it transformed.

Mike McIntire

That’s true. Look at what happened at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently. They had a football program that they decided to get rid of several years ago just to save money. It was a losing proposition. They wanted to take the savings and plow it into academics. There was basically a community-wide revolt. The university president had his car attacked by fans leaving a board meeting one day. Within a year or so, the program was reinstated.

Even when you do have a rare case of the university bowing to hard fiscal realities, it doesn’t last. It’s hard to overcome it. There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of cultural issues at play. There are many communities, especially in the South, where the local college team takes the place of not having an NFL team to cheer for. So you’ve got a committed fan base to contend with in addition to all the financial incentives in place.

Sean Illing

The argument I often hear is that while players aren’t being paid for their services, they’re being treated like kings — given a free education and enjoying a host of privileges that regular students don’t. Are you not persuaded by that?

Mike McIntire

I think you could look at that and argue the opposite. Yes, these players are often put on a pedestal and granted perks and privileges that other students are not. But I would ask: What is good about that? Why do we want that to be the case? Why do we want to instill a false sense of entitlement in these young men? Why do we accept or encourage the bad behaviors that that produces?

I don’t see anything good about a situation in which athletes are held in higher regard than any other student on campus. The consequences of this are terrible, and we can see it everywhere. When’s the last time you heard of a promising biology student getting let off from a DUI stop by the cops? When has the dean of a college bent the rules to recruit a promising physics student? It doesn’t happen, but these things and more happen when you’re talking about elite athletes. It does them a disservice, and it does the wider institution a disservice to give them preferred status on campus. It’s because the schools care so little about the lives of the players that these conversations are so rarely had.

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