The misplaced priorities of college football

| December 26, 2013
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By the time you read this, we'll know whether the East Carolina University Pirates tamed the Ohio University Bobcats in the big Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Still ahead: UNC versus Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl and Duke against Texas A&M in the Chick fil-A Bowl. These are just three of the holiday season's 35 lucrative football classics for fans who may overlook the scandal unfolding in front of them.

I bought Gregg Easterbrook's new book, The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America, as a present for my nephew, Branch. He is a 6-foot, 175-pound senior and the middle linebacker on his high school team in Spartanburg, S.C. After the first week of the season, Branch was named the defensive player of the week in the Upstate of South Carolina. He's a hitter who makes big plays. As defensive captain, he's responsible for setting the formations and making sure his teammates are where they're supposed to be before every play. It's a leadership role he's learned to value as much as a sack.

Branch loves football for the same reasons Easterbrook calls it the king of sports in America—though nowhere else. Football is fast, physical, brutal, the quintessential male sport. It's also complex, demanding teamwork. Played well, it's beautiful to watch. And, of course, American football, with its huge squads, stadiums and pageantry—up to and including military flyovers— is a spectacle beyond the means of any country that isn't completely out of its mind.

"Football games can be fantastic: exciting, complicated, constantly changing and completely spontaneous," Easterbrook writes. "If you attend a football game, you have no idea what's going to happen."

It's so exciting, it's easy to forget that too many athletes are used up and discarded with little regard for their sacrifices, which are great. They're under constant pressure to "get big," and these days even 300 pounds isn't big enough. Debilitating health problems follow. There's an epidemic of concussions—traumatic brain injuries—in the pros, college and high school. Addiction to painkillers is a growing problem.

Easterbrook, a brilliant environmental author, is also a former football player who, in season, writes the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column for ESPN.com. In King of Sports, he analyzes the many things that are wrong with football, from the dangers of lightly supervised youth teams to the scandal of a tax-exempt National Football League that counts its profits in the tens of billions.

He reserves his worst disdain, though, for big-time college football and the NCAA, which, as we've seen with UNC's sports scandals, cracks down on a player for accepting small gifts but could not care less when wildly overpaid coaches steer their athletes into fake "independent study" courses that have no requirements.

Big-time college football generates enormous revenues. Auburn's 2010 national championship team took in $76 million with operating expenses of just $39 million—because the players aren't paid. But Easterbrook isn't asking that college players be paid. He's asking that they be allowed to—and actually helped to—earn their degrees. Most now do not. "The fatal flaw of American college football," he writes, "is not the lack of pay but the lack of diplomas."

Easterbrook is intent on saving college football. He lavishes attention on Virginia Tech and its football coach, Frank Beamer, who runs his program the right way, caring first about his players' academic progress and their development as young adults—while also winning.

Beamer's players graduate at a higher rate (77 percent) than Virginia Tech students overall. Like most big-time teams, his players are predominantly African-American and from low-income backgrounds. They graduate at nearly the same rate as his white players.

Easterbrook proposes to revamp college football in Beamer's image, making graduation rates a major factor in bowl selections, giving athletes six-year scholarships with the sixth year for academics only (and weight loss, if needed). Unfortunately, college football—a few Beamers aside—is run by self-interested "leaders" who are making out like bandits, with no sheriff to put them in jail.

I think Division I college football is almost irredeemably crooked, and high school is going the same way, though it's hard not to watch as the players give it their all. Branch did. But his playing days may be over. He's not big enough to play Division I ball, which was his dream. The good news is he's top 20 in a graduating class of about 500—and the leadership, determination and teamwork he's learned playing football are what will make him a leader in whatever he does next.

The best news is no concussions, only a shoulder injury that will heal. Branch got the good out of football. As his fan, so did I.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pass deflected."

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And an update on Branch -- this week, he was named to the All-Area team of the SC Upstate by the Herald-Journal. He's also on the All-Region team for the 4-AA division (biggest schools) as selected by the coaches. And his 4.5 GPA put him on the H-J's All-Academic team, the ONLY player in the Upstate to make the All-Area AND the All-Academic teams. On top of all that, he's a great kid -- thoughtful, generous, genuinely nice and fun to be around. Not that I'm bragging.…

Only downside: He still can't lift that left shoulder straight up over his head. It's healing, but slowly. Did I mention he basically played half the year with one arm?

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Posted by Bob Geary, INDY Opinion Columnist on 12/28/2013 at 11:14 AM
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