Beneath the bowl game glamour

The holidays are festooned with televised college football. But the sport needs to care more for its players.

Chris O'Meara/AP
Marshall quarterback Isaiah Green throws a pass against South Florida during the first half of the Gasparilla Bowl college football game Dec. 20 in Tampa, Fla.

The sponsor names attached to college football’s holiday bowl games have long been a source of amusement. This year’s batch includes the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and the Cheez-It Bowl. The Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl may raise the most puzzled eyebrows: It promotes an industrial park in Elk Grove Village, a Chicago suburb.

For US football fans, watching college bowl games has become part of the holiday season, sweet treats to gobble at the end of the year (though the biggest bowl games that lead to crowning a national champion now linger long past New Year’s Day).

Sponsorships are one reminder of how college football in the United States has become a gigantic industry, but one with a dark underside. 

Cities can gain millions of dollars in television exposure by hosting games. Sponsors see their names and products put before captive viewers. And the universities themselves benefit: Alumni pride in the alma mater’s athletic success can generate stronger ties and more donations. Potential students may see successful schools as desirable places to enroll: Consider the so-called Flutie effect, named after Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie who in 1984 led his team to an improbable win that resulted in a bump in student enrollment at the school.

In major college football the pressure to win means money is calling the plays. In 31 states a football coach at a state university is the highest-paid public employee, often earning many times what the state governor does. University of Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst, for example, earned $3.2 million in 2018, while Gov. Scott Walker received $147,328; University of Texas head coach Tom Herman was paid $5.5 million, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott $150,000. And so on.

On top of that, many coaches receive bonuses for winning, including for playing in or winning bowl games. But overemphasis on “performance” can lead to abuses. Earlier this year University of Maryland head coach DJ Durkin was fired after a player died during practice. An investigation by ESPN reported that players had been bullied, intimidated, humiliated, and abused by coaches and staff. 

Concussions are another source of deep concern at all levels of football, including colleges. This year the NCAA instituted new rules on kickoffs that aim to lower the numbers of these injuries, a step of progress.

But racial inequities remain. Black college football players still graduate at a much lower rate than white players. While the gap has been closing, it’s been at a glacial pace. Since fewer than 2 percent of college players ever play professionally, students on college football scholarships need to be sure they receive a good education.

This year, the graduation rate for all players on bowl-bound teams is 79 percent, up from 77 percent last year. But the gap between white and black players widened to a 90 percent rate for white players and 73 percent for black players, says Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.  

Some of the gap results from the uneven quality of education players receive before attending the university, Mr. Lapchick allows, which speaks to educational inequalities at the grade and high school levels. 

At universities, “I like to think academics is listed ahead of athletics for emphasis,” Lapchick says, but for “coaches who value winning at all costs, the student in the student-athlete can often be shortchanged.” 

Fans who love all that’s attractive about college football – the glamour, excitement, and athletic excellence on display – need to care equally for the lives of the young men who are playing it.

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