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Can college football survive? After a summer of scandal, the questions are mounting

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America's love affair with college football is getting complicated. While Labor Day weekend once promised another season of crisp Saturday afternoons, tailgating and cheering on campuses across the country, the clouds on the horizon are difficult to ignore.

The embarrassing failures of the Butch Davis era at UNC, as well as the recent lurid revelations about the University of Miami football program, have made clear that corruption isn't just for those other purportedly lesser schools. UNC and Miami both face certain NCAA sanction, which will place them in the penalty box with Georgia Tech and Florida State, two other ACC football programs currently under NCAA probation.

While there is a tendency to interpret major college football scandals as evidence of a society in decline—losing touch with its innocent origins—it's simply not so. For as long as there has been intercollegiate college football, there has been scandal. By the turn of the 20th century, colleges were already raising alarms about paid "ringers" suiting up for games while pretending to be students. The NCAA was formed in 1910 to clean up the game and to establish the standards of amateurism that the organization is still tragically consumed with today.

Modern sports competition dates to Victorian England and its leisure class: The gentlemen of Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, competed in games as a character-building exercise that would prepare them for a lifetime of imperial domination. It was believed that athletics should never be tarnished with money, which would bring the wrong sort of people into the competition. (It was this exaltation of amateurism that undergirded the modern Olympics, which began in 1896. But the Olympics gave up the fiction of amateurism years ago.)

English soccer began in the 1870s as an amateur gentlemen's endeavor, but the sport was too popular to be contained. The common rabble were willing to pay to watch quality players, who, in turn, demanded to be paid for the time they were missing in the coal mines and steel mills. By the turn of the century, the English gentlemen had given up on the notion of amateur soccer, although amateur cricket and rugby survived much longer.

But in America, anglophilia was alive and well as rugby was adapted into football. Intercollegiate football was a huge hit from the first organized games in the 1880s, and almost immediately, the early powers of the game, like Harvard and Yale, were fielding players with questionable academic accomplishments.

After surviving an effort to ban the game in response to the shocking number of crippling injuries and fatalities in those days of the flying wedge, college football came into its own with the Notre Dame teams coached by Knute Rockne, while the Rose Bowl was constructed in 1922. By the 1940s, college boosters, often with the full knowledge of coaches and academic administrators, were offering cash and—especially appealing for young men—cars, in exchange for players' football services.

By the early 1950s, the NCAA (and its first full-time director, Walter Byers, whose innovations include the basketball tournament and the noxious euphemism "student-athlete") was negotiating its first national television contract over the efforts of Notre Dame and the University of Pennsylvania to establish their own lucrative TV deals. Even then there was huge money to be made in the college football business.

As the years passed, scandal after scandal fell as predictably as the rain. More investigations, more sanctions, more outrage, more resolve to change. By the time Byers wrapped up his nearly four decades at the helm of the NCAA, he was exhausted and demoralized by fighting, among others, a particularly corrupt program at Southern Methodist University (that was, in part, enabled by the governor of Texas). He began to question the very values of the NCAA, and a decade into retirement, he published a book whose very title laid out the picture: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.

In his book, Byers excoriated college athletics as a hypocritical sham designed to keep money in the pockets of coaches and universities, with takings so enormous that the occasional sanction by an overmatched NCAA staff is just part of the cost of doing business. Byers, a crusty, not-well-liked conservative Republican, nonetheless trots out the extreme epithets: The colleges are plantations, coaches are overseers. Guess where that leaves the players.

With each outbreak of scandal come inevitable cries for reform. One complaint among coaches is that there are too many niggling rules, and thus more opportunities to commit (unwitting) violations. Indeed, the rules amount to an enforcement of a classic cartel, in the words of Andrew Zimbalist, an economist who has closely studied college sports. Athletes are meagerly compensated with tuition, room and board (and are forced to work two full-time jobs as a result: student and athlete). They can't negotiate for better compensation, they are not permitted to supplement their income with outside jobs and they are not permitted to freely transfer to other schools in search of better playing conditions. Such work conditions are, in fact, unlawful everywhere else in the legal economy. It's the rare athlete, like quarterback Russell Wilson, formerly of N.C. State and now in Wisconsin to better his professional prospects, who has the intellectual and athletic gifts to exploit this system above the board, rather than accepting under-the-table remunerations.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned college coaches to enact safety rules that would avert the threatened abolition of football. We're not likely to get that sort of leadership today, although President Obama has said he supports a college football playoff. In the end, it may fall to Congress to scrutinize NCAA sports for labor and antitrust violations, and to question the tax-exempt status of booster organizations.

Or college football may be reformed from the top, when the existing business model no longer makes sense. This could be the result of the mad race to consolidate super-conferences (as we go to press, it seems that Texas A&M will join the Southeastern Conference, with ripple effects likely for the ACC). When the big football schools become aligned in a couple of massive conferences, the NCAA's rules, and its slice of the TV pie, are going to be more unnecessary, annoying and disposable.

This season of scandal has besmirched two dignified university heads in the ACC. Miami president Donna Shalala, a former member of the Clinton administration and humiliated by her association with the Ponzi schemer who supplied prostitutes and other pleasures to her school's football players, faces loud calls to shut down the football program.

For UNC chancellor Holden Thorp, it remains to be seen whether firing Davis will herald an era of meaningful retreat from the pursuit of football glory in Chapel Hill. Given that the young chemist used up about all of his leadership capital firing the coach, and that boosters have just finished constructing a $70 million luxury addition to Kenan Memorial Stadium, the betting here is that after some noises about contrition and chastity, the business of football in Chapel Hill will continue.

And perhaps that's how it should be. College sports, like so many other things in American life, are rife with contradictions. We want to believe, and so we do, even as we know better.

In this issue, we look at the college football beast from a variety of angles: Thad Williamson considers the economic benefits of big-time college sports, according to Duke professor Charles Clotfelter, while Joe Schwartz interviews William C. Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina and longtime advocate for reform. Meanwhile, Forrest Norman explains the passion and agonies of true big-time college football.

And we didn't neglect to look at what the area teams will offer this year. Mike Potter gazes into his crystal ball and tells us what UNC, N.C. State and Duke can expect, while Donal Ware gives us the rundown on the area's three historically black colleges.

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