College football’s best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that it’s simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate its students. Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why don’t they pay their employees?. . .
But between buyer and seller sits the National Collegiate Athletic Association, to ensure that the universities it polices keep all the money for themselves — to make sure that the rich white folk do not slip so much as a free chicken sandwich under the table to the poor black kids. The poor black kids put up with it because they find it all but impossible to pursue N.F.L. careers unless they play at least three years in college. Less than one percent actually sign professional football contracts and, of those, an infinitesimal fraction ever make serious money. But their hope is eternal, and their ignorance exploitable. . . .
The lie at the bottom of the fantasy goes something like this: serious college football players go to college for some reason other than to play football. These marvelous athletes who take the field on Saturdays and generate millions for their colleges are students first, and football players second. They are like Franciscan monks set down in the gold mine. Yes, they play football, but they have no interest in the money. What they’re really living for is that degree in criminology. . . .
Of course, no honest person who has glimpsed the inside of a big-time college football program could actually believe this. Even from the outside the college end of things seems suspiciously secondary. If serious college football players are students first, why — even after a huge N.C.A.A. push to raise their graduation rates — do they so alarmingly fail to graduate? Why must the N.C.A.A. create incentives for football coaches to encourage their players even to attend classes? Why do we never hear of a great high school football player choosing a college for the quality of its professors? Why, when college football coaches sell their programs to high school studs, do they stress the smoothness of the path they offer to the N.F.L.? . . .
Lewis' ultimate argument falters because he fails to address two fundamental points. First, a minority of FBS schools have profitable football programs. The immense profits at programs such as Notre Dame, Texas, and Ohio state represent the exceptions that prove the rule. Paying players would thus create an ever greater gap between the haves, who could afford it, and the have nots who are in some cases struggling with mountains of debt. The end result would be an escalation in the college football arms race. Second, if paying players were allowed, the NCAA, and Division I athletic programs would no longer be able to maintain their not for profit status, and the well of money which has enabled the the current profanity in intercollegiate athletics would dry up.