Amid bowl game hoopla: What about education?

College football teams have become valuable brand names that promote their universities. But do they offer players a real education in return?

Vasha Hunt/AP
University of Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough works through drills during football practice Dec. 21. Alabama is one of four schools in the running for the national championship.

Major college football takes a step this bowl season toward what many fans want: an elaborate playoff system to determine a national champion – something akin to the one used in the professional National Football League that produces a Super Bowl champion.

This year a first-ever college football tournament involves four teams (Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, and Oregon) playing against each other in two semifinal games that will lead to a national championship game Jan. 12.

College football teams have become valuable brand names that promote their universities. Just as professional race car drivers display advertising logos on their cars or suits, the televised logos of college football teams are highly visible ways to promote a university to prospective students and to boost alumni interest.

What's lost in this, of course, is the welfare of the athletes themselves. In the most competitive programs true football scholar-athletes are a rare breed.

More likely they see their college playing career as a training ground and as exposure that will lead to a pro career. As an Ohio State quarterback tweeted injudiciously in 2012: "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS."

Yes, student athletes can be found participating in other sports or when playing football in a less-demanding program in a lower division. But most football players at the highest college level have little time for or interest in academics.

One scholar studying trends among college athletes puts it bluntly: Some athletes are only involved in academics because it is a requirement for playing football; they are "basically majoring in eligibility and little else."

A survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that in the tug-of-war between academics and athletics in college sports, athletics is winning hands down. At the University of Oregon and Florida State University, which meet Jan. 1 in a semifinal playoff game, about a third of the players study "social sciences," a catch-all generic liberal arts major. Yet among the general student body only about 3 percent  graduate with that degree.  

Some players undoubtedly are pushed toward these majors by academic counselors whose aim is to keep academic workloads as light as possible to ensure that grades remain high enough to keep athletes academically eligible to play.

“I think we’ve sold out,” veteran Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder has observed. “The concept of college football no longer has any bearing on the quality of the person, the quality of students…. It’s no longer about education.”

Which may suit many fans just fine: They want no more than an exciting football game to watch. Whether the players are getting an education is irrelevant.

Yet universities continue to emphasize the value of an athletic scholarship as a benefit to the athletes, a form of "pay for play."

Here's a radical solution, some version of which has been suggested by at least one observer. Players could chose to play football full-time, taking a light load of classes – or perhaps none at all. After their playing days are over they would be given a full scholarship toward completing a degree at that university, a chance to be a real full-time student.

Play first, study for free later. Might that be a winning play?

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