In more than 20 years I've spent studying the issue, I have yet to hear a convincing argument that college football has anything do with what is presumably the primary purpose of higher education: academics.
College football is a time-honored American tradition. Even Jack Kerouac, the famous Beat Generation writer of On the Road and The Dharma Bums, played football at Columbia University, before dropping out. Many college football players go on to join the NFL, and football provides a way for students, staff, and alumni, to express their school pride, and to connect with the campus community.
Despite this long-standing tradition, some people are opposed to college football, and think it should be banned. Amidst rising concern about player safety and the recent spate of scandals, these voices seem to be getting stronger by the day.
The arguments in favor of banning football are widely varied, but they came to light after several college football related scandals, including the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. Then-assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused in 2011 of having sexually abused several young boys. Although this incident might not have been directly related to college football in general, it brought the media’s attention to the existence of college football programs, and created space to discuss the pros and cons of these programs.
One of the scandalous elements of the Penn State affair was the role of head coach Joe Paterno. Some people accused Paterno of sheltering Sandusky from punishment, claiming that he and other high-level university officials knew about the illicit behavior, and did nothing. Paterno was fired and died of lung cancer soon after. This incident caused some people to question the large amount of power football coaches have at many American universities. Some people say that, in schools with large football programs, coaches are overpaid, and have too much influence over what goes on at the schools. This is one argument in favor of banning college football.
The issue of money extends beyond just the salaries of college football coaches. For many universities, football is an important source of revenue, and helps them maintain state-of-the-art facilities, updated buildings, and well-kept grounds. Universities promote their football programs in order to protect this revenue source—so much so, that some colleges are known more for their football programs than for their academic programs. Some people argue that this is counter to the purpose and intent of the university system. Universities should be focusing on academics and education, instead of sports, some say.
Many of the arguments supporting the abolition of college football could also be applied to other sports at the college level. Some athletic programs are relatively small, and do not have a large impact on how universities function. They serve mainly as extracurricular activities for students, and foster healthy intercollegiate competition. Bigger sports, like football and basketball, seem to be in a league of their own. They have gone beyond extracurricular, and have become a sort of secondary function of their own. If these sports programs can’t be scaled back to a more appropriate level, perhaps they should be eliminated altogether.
Of course, banning college football is probably not a very popular idea among the general public. Even people with no ties to universities are interested in college football, and consider it a favorite pastime. That’s why, the sport is so popular at the college level, which is why it is such a big money-maker for universities. Millions of people would be sorely disappointed if college football went away. Additionally, young athletes might have to go directly to the professional level, rather than attending college and earning degrees. This would probably not be an improvement in the lives of professional football players.
Overall, it seems unlikely that college football is going away any time soon, but the issue might force us to think about the ways that college athletic departments could be improved.