Well Boilermakers, a miserable season is over.
Our football team here at Purdue went 1-11, losing the final ten games in a row by an average of almost 25 points and going 0-8 in Big Ten play, including a 20 point blowout to arch-rival Indiana. The lone victory on the season came through a nail-biting 20-14 performance against Indiana State... an FCS school... who themselves went 1-11. If beating the doormat team of the Missouri Valley Conference is the highlight of your season, it's perhaps time for a reevaluation of priorities. After ranking 122nd in points scored a game and 114th in points against a game, making a legitimate case for being the worst team in FBS football, the campus is buzzing about how long a rebuild will require and whether first-year coach Darrell Hazzell is the man to lead it. With the season's "One Brick Higher" slogan now seeming like a sad joke, my message to the Purdue community is simple: don't rebuild. Retreat. The best path forward for Purdue University is to dismantle its football program altogether.
This argument is in no way meant as an insult to our student football players. On the contrary: I am making this argument in large measure because they are the biggest victims of the whole edifice of college football. Purdue football players are asked to devote countless hours to the sport, to give up a great deal of time and personal autonomy. I wasn't naive about major college athletics before I came to Purdue, but I have been surprised by the extent to which the lives of our college athletes are dominated by their athletic programs. Speaking privately to athletes who I have taught, I've been amazed at how regimented their lives are. Their coaches and programs dictate their schedules, their diets, their exercise regimes, sometimes even what clothes they are allowed to wear. For the bigger programs, the control doesn't stop when the season ends. All of this in addition to the regular college lives that they need and want to live, classes and clubs and fun. They have to try to balance these aspects of their lives with hundreds of hours of practice, games, and travel.
For this, they are not just unpaid, but explicitly banned from receiving any form of direct compensation. Coaches, athletic directors, journalists, television and radio networks, and a large number of ancillary players in the college football world get paid— but not the players. (In fact, I believe we're still paying our last head coach hundreds of thousands of dollars to not coach our team, while most of our graduate students are paid less than $20,000 a year for their teaching and research efforts.) Yes, a full scholarship to college is a valuable commodity, particularly in a world with ballooning tuition. But a scholarship, ultimately, is indirect compensation, built on the promise of future earnings increases from the value of the degree. I believe very strongly in that value, but the connection between immediate work and eventual reward is too tenuous, especially considering that not all who start our undergraduate programs finish them. (One of the simplest and most necessary reforms to college sports would be to allow former athletes to return and finish school for free, regardless of how long ago their athletic eligibility expired.)
Major college football programs are an incredible financial drain on the American university system as a whole. Despite their reputation as big money makers, college athletics programs cost far more than they take in. At the top level, the Football Bowl Subdivision of which the Big Ten conference is a part, schools pay on the order of $14,000 per student— and $92,000 per athlete. Yes, there is much money being made, in ticket sales and TV contracts and merchandise. But in the vast majority of schools, this is not resulting in a net profit for the schools themselves. On the contrary: in 2012, only 23 out of 228 schools in the NCAA stayed out of the red. It is important to point out that Purdue is one of those schools, and we should maintain a commitment to not spending out of pocket for sports that are such a nexus of money. But it's essential that we recognize the cost of the system we are part of, and also that we recognize the opportunity costs represented, costs in terms of money and resources and manpower and facilities and attention. This is all assuming that our calculations of profitability have really untangled the thicket of subsidies that contribute to college athletics, subsidies on the institutional and local and state and federal level. And that's not ever to consider the perverse reality that success is often more expensive than failure.
No evidence for ending our football program is more important or pressing than our growing understanding of the medical costs of playing football. I couldn't do the evidence justice myself, but you can find extensive coverage of these dangers elsewhere. The PBS Frontline special about the medical risks of playing football is a disturbing overview. Though journalists tend to focus on concussions and the danger of big hits in football, research indicates that chronic brain injuries can result from the routine collisions that happen on every football play— even when there's no concussion. Some of that evidence comes from our own Purdue Neurotrauma Group. From within our own institution comes evidence that football poses an unacceptable danger to our athletes. Even beside brain injury, there are risks, risks of paralysis, of permanent disability, of chronic pain. The moral equation for professional football players is complex; if adults are informed of the dangers and still make the choice to pursue millions of dollars playing in the NFL, they have that right. But for those who are unpaid, like our NCAA athletes, the moral question couldn't be more stark. Scholarships and school spirit are not remotely incentive enough to excuse the long term danger, particularly for those who made the initial choice to play as teenagers.
Big-time college football threatens the reason why we've all gathered here in West Lafayette, higher education. The ways in which college athletics directly threaten the educational integrity of universities are well known. With such incredible attention paid to sports like NCAA football and basketball, and with such vast sums of money being traded in ticket sales, broadcasting, journalism, and analysis, academics can often seem like a minor detail. Work as a college instructor long enough, and you're sure to hear of others at various institutions who have been pressured both explicitly and implicitly to lower standards for athletes or otherwise participate in academic fraud. I'm happy to say that, though many of my friends and peers have taught athletes in major sports at Purdue, I have not heard about similar pressures here. But that doesn't mean that such pressures don't exist here, and the broader world of college sports is filled with petty corruption. Last month, Deadspin's Adam Weinstein published a lengthy expose on what it's like to function as a writing instructor within football-crazed Florida State University. It's an immensely sad read, one that describes a fundamentally broken system, an unsalvageable system. What's remarkable is how damning the piece is without being unfair. It's not a hatchet job; Weinstein writes with equanimity, even sympathy. And yet it's a devastating indictment.
Purdue cannot reform this system on its own. But it can refuse to participate. The costs of college football as a system, moral and practical, are enormous. I find that, in context with other major programs, Purdue football is actually quite healthy, in terms of graduation rates for athletes, financial costs to the school, and challenges to academics. But there is little glory in being among the healthiest in a sick system. And given the depth of our on-field failure, what exactly is the benefit of participating at all? I doubt even the most optimistic Boilermaker fan predicts real success in the future. Can we expect to compete in the Big Ten conference against perennial powerhouses like Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State? I doubt it, and the Big Ten conference is widely perceived as no longer a national powerhouse, at least in contrast to the SEC schools whose identity have become totally dominated by football. If Purdue football is unusually healthy on the field and unusually unhealthy on it, we should ask ourselves: does the former cause the latter? Can we compete with the football factories of the world if we refuse to make the same choices they have?
I am not against sports. In fact I love them, although I find it increasingly hard to watch football, knowing its costs. But people who work should be paid for their work, if there's money being made, and there is most certainly money being made in college football, by television networks and coaches if not by schools. In my opinion, the long-term future of the NCAA should be to spin off its football and basketball operations, so that they can function as the minor leagues they already are, ones which will have to find a way to pay their athletes a fair market value or lose their labor. Student athletes will be able to make the choice as to whether they want to be the former or the latter. Those who want to be professional athletes will no longer be forced to participate in their own exploitation in order to do so.
Recent rumors of the demise of the American university have been greatly exaggerated. The university system, for all of its faults, is remarkably resilient and adaptable. While we are in a period of many challenges, in the future some universities will thrive. One of the questions that individual institutions have to ask is, what races do we want to run? In what ways do we have to compete? Because the attempt to compete in all arenas has proven disastrous for countless colleges and universities. I have already asked that Purdue get out of the destructive competition to build the most expensive gyms, dining halls, and dorms. I am now asking that we let others risk their money and legitimacy on college football, while the future of the sport writ large is so unclear. Purdue University should honor the scholarships of all current football players and recruits, thank former players and coaches for all the memories, and dismantle our football program for good.