Jim Tressel resigns. USC is stripped of a national championship. Terrelle Pryor leaves Ohio State in disgrace and shame — assuming that he has a conscience.
Given the headlines of the past two weeks, these are dark, dark times at two of college football’s marquee programs.
Throw in a scandal at the Fiesta Bowl, and a push from Congress in favor of a playoff, and the lingering stench from Cam Newton’s recruitment to Auburn — and the sun isn’t exactly shining on the sport as a whole.
Heck, you half-expect Touchdown Jesus to lower his arms out of embarrassment.
Yet through all of the teeth-gnashing and all of the pontificating, nobody is asking the most pertinent question about the state of big-time college sports: Why are colleges the de facto minor leagues for the NFL and the NBA?
Think about it. Many of America’s colleges, purportedly founded for the purposes of education and enlightenment, are best-known as a training ground for billion-dollar industries that have nothing to do with learning. They’re high-profile vocational schools.
How does this make sense?
In a search for the answer, we talked to Andrew Zimbalist, who might have the best job in the world. Zimbalist is a professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and he gets to spend much of his time thinking and writing about sports. Kind of like what I do — except that Zimbalist is smart.
“College football and college basketball started long before professional football and basketball,” Zimbalist explains. “They were established.”
This is different from baseball, in which the first professional league was established in 1871 and the National League came along in 1876 — long before well-established college sports.
So there you have it: The system for college football, the one that begets the scandals and the cheating and the corruption, is largely an accident of birth.
And the problems with that are endemic. With colleges able to make big money off football, you wind up with some students who have no business being in college; some athletes who are there because that’s their only avenue to the pros; a big-money system masquerading as amateurism; an NCAA that is ill-equipped to be an enforcement division; and the never-settled question of whether athletes should be paid.
So why not have minor leagues in football and basketball?
Shouldn’t athletes such as Pryor have options coming out of high school? If they want to eventually be an NFL player, shouldn’t there be more than one avenue to that goal, rather than pretending to be interested in studying for a Shakespeare 101 final?
“Athletes who want to go to the NFL or the NBA wouldn’t have to go to college and pretend that they’re students and go through the rigmarole of college,” Zimbalist said.
Yes, he said, “rigmarole.” Told you he was smart.
“The under-the-table stuff that happens is because they’re not allowed to pay the athletes what they’re worth,” Zimbalist said. “If it was an open market, there wouldn’t be very much incentive to do that.”
A minor-league system would help create that market. Players could get paid coming out of high school, if that’s what they wanted, and the colleges could more easily adhere to the rules of the NCAA.
In this regard, baseball has the right idea. Major-league hopefuls can go to the minor leagues straight out of high school, or they can attend college. Two different paths, same destination in mind.
There are problems with this plan, of course. The first one is that it will never happen. Years ago, the colleges opened a Pandora’s Box with football and basketball, and the sports are too popular and lucrative for that box to ever be closed. The system is too beneficial to the professional leagues, who have a ready-made labor pool without any of the expense.
But the biggest roadblock to the establishment of real minor leagues for football and basketball is that the fans don’t want them. The fans don’t care about the corruption. The fans aren’t bothered by the fact that Jim Tressel has merely a passing acquaintance with the NCAA rule book — as long as the Buckeyes win on Saturday.
This is human nature.
But if you do care about such things, if you are bothered by the epidemic of corruption in college football and believe that all the highly successful programs are cheating, then understand this: You can talk about punishing coaches or paying athletes or overhauling the system, but the only meaningful change would come with the establishment of a minor-league system.