Two Misconceptions in College Sports

Gregg Easterbrook

football nerd

Charlie Weis and Bobby Bowden had to go—Notre Dame and Florida State weren’t winning every game! Get rid of the bums! All we heard from sports commentators, and from alums and boosters, was get rid of the bums, we gotta win, win, win. Sorry to interject, but why? Why does Notre Dame or Florida State or any university need to win every game? Is it now official that big colleges care more about sports than education?

If an NFL team, which is strictly a commercial enterprise in the business or providing entertainment, doesn’t win, get rid of the bums. But a university exists to educate; winning football games is a secondary concern. Don’t get me wrong. I attend way too many college football games, and I always like it when the school I’m rooting for wins. But I am not so misguided as to think that a college’s winning games means more than a college’s educating students, including athletes. Why is this distinction practically absent from sports commentary?

Maybe the sports artificial universe won’t face the uncomfortable reality that the NCAA system uses football and men’s basketball players to generate revenue and great games—then tosses way too many of these players aside uneducated. It’s a lot more fun to talk about winning and losing than to talk about education.

Perhaps you’re thinking, first, football players at big colleges are not being taken advantage of because they are being prepped for the NFL; and second, academics-oriented “smart schools” don’t do well in sports, so if a college wants to win, standards must be low. Both of those assumptions are wrong.

Prepped for the NFL? Each year, roughly 2,500 Division I football players leave college because they have exhausted their athletic eligibility, or are leaving early, or have graduated. Each year, about 200 rookie players make NFL rosters. Thus, more than 90 percent of Division I football players never play a down in the NFL. Take into account that some of the NFL rookies are Division II, Division III or NAIA players, and it’s closer to 95 percent. Watch any top college football team—the players are fast, muscular, and obviously devote tremendous amounts of time and energy to football. Ninety-five percent of them won’t play in the NFL. If they don’t study and don’t go to class, they walk away from college football practically empty-handed.

Is it different at the very top? Lisa Brooks and Matt Willis of ESPN Stats & Information looked at the national championship teams of 2000, 2001 and 2002—the best football colleges of those years, with enough time passed to determine what kind of NFL outcomes the teams produced.

Oklahoma, the 2000 national champion, sent two players into the NFL for five or more years (that’s a “career” in sports terms), six players for two to four years, and one player for one year. Of the 85 scholarship holders on that team, 11 percent advanced to the NFL. The rest went away empty-handed in football terms. Remember, this was the best team of 2000.

Miami, the 2001 national champion, was among the most talented collegiate squads ever, with a roster that included Andre Johnson, Vince Wilfork, Clinton Portis, Ed Reed, Bryant McKinnie, Jonathan Vilma, Sean Taylor and Jeremy Shockey. That team sent 20 players to the NFL for at least five years, 12 for two to four years, and four for one year. This was one of the most talented college football teams ever assembled, and almost two-thirds of its players never played a down in the NFL.

Ohio State won the 2002 crown, and produced 11 players who were in the NFL for five years or more, 16 who played two to four years, and seven who played for one season. Again, this was the year’s best college football team, and almost two-thirds of its players never played an NFL down.

Brooks and Willis looked at USC between 2002 and 2004—a period of very strong teams, including the 2004 squad, which won the BCS championship. In those three seasons, USC produced 12 players who were in the NFL five years or more, 15 players who were in the NFL for two to four years, and 13 who had single-season stints. Approximately 120 individuals had football scholarships at USC during that period; again, about two-thirds never played an NFL down.

Brooks and Willis also checked out Nick Saban’s 2002-2004 LSU teams, including the 2003 team that won the BCS title. (Saban has not been at Alabama long enough to assess how his recruits there will do in the pros.) From those LSU years, 11 players played at least five seasons in the NFL, 10 played two to four years, and three played one year. That means 80 percent never played an NFL down.

It’s simply not true that playing football at a big-deal college grooms you for the NFL. Coaches sometimes encourage this illusion—which lures players into giving their all to the team, only to discover, too late, that college is over, the NFL didn’t call, they didn’t attend class and are not prepared for success in life. A couple of weeks ago, Saban told reporters he got the Crimson Tide fired up for its game against mega-underdog Chattanooga by warning players, “You would someday be an NFL player in a Mercedes-Benz and roll your window down to talk to a pretty girl and she’d say, ’You lost to Chattanooga when you played at Alabama.’” The overwhelming majority of the players on the current Alabama roster will never be an NFL player in a Mercedes-Benz. Encouraging that illusion improves Alabama’s football results, while potentially distracting players from studying. Yet studying means a lot more to the typical Crimson Tide player’s future than football.

One reason the system is so skewed is that big-college football coaches aren’t rewarded for player graduations, they are rewarded for wins. Boosters don’t care if the players graduate, they only care about victories—and most football-factory coaches are in effect employees of the boosters, not of the university. If Saban creates a pleasant fantasy for his players that they are headed to the NFL, Saban’s income rises. Future incomes for the majority of players decline if they fall for the fantasy and don’t study.

In the past two decades, there’s been a race to the bottom, in which many football-factory schools have lowered academic standards for football and men’s basketball, dropping any pretense of education in pursuit of wins. (NCAA strictures govern whether a player can become a college athlete; colleges or conferences generally impose their own rules about whether athletes, once admitted, remain eligible; some big universities now define a football player taking a half-load of courses pass/fail as a “college student.”) “Outside the Lines” details how, at Florida State, a suspiciously high percentage of football players have been classified as learning disabled, which creates exemptions from already lax academic requirements. The lowering of standards in pursuit of wins is incredibly cynical on the part of big universities—not only do hardly any of the players at colleges that don’t focus on educating athletes advance to careers in the NFL, the recruiting pitch could be, “Come here and we’ll never make you go to class.”

Notre Dame was among the few prominent holdouts, insisting its football players be students too. This generated a recruiting disadvantage—and a recruiting disadvantage caused by high standards, not Weis suddenly forgetting how to coach, is the reason for the recent records of Notre Dame football. Notre Dame alums and boosters should have been proud that high standards keep the school from going 12-0!

What about the other commonly heard claim—that “smart schools” can’t win in football and men’s basketball? Cal, Georgia Tech, Navy, Nebraska, Northwestern, Stanford and TCU—all academics-first colleges where football players are more likely to attend class—are on their way to bowl games. Most of them have been in the top 20 nationally this season, and Georgia Tech and TCU even made BCS bowls. Notre Dame would be headed for a bowl game too, if it weren’t for athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s bizarre notion that winning “only” six games is something to be embarrassed about. Villanova and William & Mary just met in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, while Coe, Illinois Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins made the Division III playoffs. Penn and Amherst also would have advanced to the playoffs, if the Ivy League and the New England Small College Athletic Conference did not prohibit member schools from sending their football teams to the postseason. It is simply not true that colleges where football players study hard and go to class can’t have winning seasons.

Reader Natasha Lettis of Oakland, Calif., provides this troika of stories about academics being enforced in the Cal football program: One player gave up his starting position because a class he requires for graduation conflicts with practice; another was suspended for a game for missing class; this article assesses Cal’s overall commitment to blending academics and football. Cal’s example shows that a football-factory school can enforce academic rules and still have a great season—Cal finished 8-4 and will face Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Is this autumn some kind of fluke? No. Last year, Boston College, Cal, Georgia Tech, Navy, North Carolina, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Rice, TCU, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest made bowls. Colgate, Villanova and Wofford made the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, while Case Western, Occidental and Wheaton of Illinois made the Division III postseason. Harvard and Trinity (Conn.) would have made the playoffs, except for Ivy League and NESCAC rules. All these are academics-come-first schools.

The field for last season’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament included Boston College, Butler, Cal, Cornell, Duke, North Carolina, Purdue, UCLA, Villanova and Wake Forest. In the women’s tournament, Cal, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgia Tech, Lehigh, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Stanford, TCU, Villanova and Vanderbilt made it. Brackets for the men’s Division III basketball playoffs included Amherst, Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury, MIT, RIT and Washington in St. Louis (which repeated as champion). In Division III women’s basketball, Amherst, Bowdoin, Brandeis, Rochester and Washington-St. Louis all made it. All of these schools enforce academic standards for athletes.

Smart schools dominate the Directors’ Cup standings of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. For Division I sports, Stanford has won the Cup 14 times; in Division III, Williams has won 11 times. North Carolina, Penn State, Princeton, UCLA and Virginia are other smart schools that perennially finish high in the Cup standings for Division I; Amherst, Bowdoin and Middlebury perennially finish high in Division III. The Directors’ Cup honors overall athletic success, across the spectrum of collegiate sports. And smart schools do really well—in many cases better than sports-factory colleges that channel far more money into athletics than the smart schools.

A college can field winning football teams and still have strict academic standards for players; in turn, because the overwhelming majority of players (even at football-factory schools) will never advance to the NFL, they must go to class! Why does the sports universe shy away from discussing these core points?

In fact, athletics can even help improve academics. Studies have shown that in high school, male members of sports teams have better grades than male students as a whole. Some critics have suggested this outcome is deceptive, owing to “self-selection”—the sort of boys with the work habits to be on time for sports practices are also the ones likely to do their homework. Over the last generation, girls and women have entered organized sports in large numbers. If athletic activity improves grades, female academic performance would be expected to rise. And that’s exactly what has happened. Girls’ GPAs in high school, and women’s graduation numbers in college, are way up.

One important study by Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania tests the relationship between Title IX, which led to an increase in girls’ and women’s sports, and female academic and professional outcomes. She found that every 10 percent increase in participation in girls’ high school athletics leads to a 1 percent increase in girls’ college attendance and a 2 percent increase in women’s workforce presence. Further, Stevenson finds that “greater opportunities to play sports leads to greater female participation in previously male-dominated occupations, particularly for high-skill occupations.” It wasn’t just that girls who were likely to be good students also tried out for the field hockey team. The same fraction of girls likely to be good students always existed—becoming athletes improved their college and career prospects. Sports made them better students and more successful in the workplace.

Stevenson’s findings have not made a major splash—maybe her work has simply gone unnoticed. But evidence that athletics actually improve academic performance makes the lack of academic focus in much of big-deal college sports all the more wrong. This won’t change until college and university boards and regents stop shirking their duties—and until the sports media stop covering college sports as though the sole thing that mattered was winning.

Easterbrook, Gregg. “Two Misconceptions in College Sports.” ESPN, 15 Dec. 2009, Accessed 27 Dec. 2021.