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BOOK REVIEW: 'The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America'
I first read Chapter Three of the book as an excerpt published in the October 2013 edition of The Atlantic. It was an exposé on how the NFL pretends to be a non-profit organization and that the American taxpayer is essentially subsidizing professional football. Easterbrook writes that “The NFL is about two things: producing high-quality sports entertainment, which it does very well, and exploiting taxpayers, which it also does very well.”
Easterbook’s extensive research covers every aspect of the game from Pop Warner youth leagues through high school and college to the NFL. He writes about the tremendous popularity of football and the positive and negative impact it has had on American society and how players at all levels are used up and thrown away.
In one chapter he profiles Virginia Tech and its coach, Frank Beamer, the winningest active coach in Division I. The author writes that Beamer gave him unrestricted access for a year to practices, be in the locker room and on the sidelines, travel with the team and attend players’ and coaches’ meetings unannounced.
“I wanted to see what high-level college football looks like from the inside,” says Easterbrook. By contrast, “The NFL cancelled my interview with Commissioner Roger Goodell when it learned I planned to ask about the health effects and financial structure of football.”
I applaud Easterbook’s conclusions and recommendations and so should the Knight Commission, the NCAA, and college and university presidents and governing boards. Some include the following:
* Scholarships should be for six years so when an athlete exhausts his eligibility and the NFL does not call, he has two to three paid semesters to graduate. Most colleges award scholarships on a year-to-year basis so if a player doesn’t perform to the coach’s expectations he can lose the scholarship. He notes that the six-year rule would only cost colleges about $700,000 annually if all players stayed for six years. “There are no words strong enough to express how little the NCAA cares about whether the football or men’s basketball players who generate economic returns also receive an education.”
* All colleges and universities should be required to present clear, prominent disclosures of the portion of tuition costs or “activity fees” that goes to the athletic department. Publicly funded colleges should be required to disclose detailed athletic budgets and coaches’ pay and perks. Tuition bills should itemize the amounts diverted to sports. “Such disclosures might be required by the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” he notes, and “alternatively, the U.S. Department of Education could mandate this. Tying federal aid to public-interest reform has worked before.”
I believe there would be a revolt if graduate students and those in professional schools, including law and medicine, knew what they were being charged to support athletic programs. My cousin’s son spent four years at the University of Kentucky, paying such a fee, but was never able to see a basketball game. Virginia Tech does it right by setting aside 19,000 seats -- one third of its football stadium -- for its students, the most of any major college program.
* NCAA Sanctions and penalties should follow a head coach. One reason coaches break rules is that the reward is great, leading to multimillion dollar contracts and endorsements and the risk is low. If head coaches knew they couldn’t work for the number of years a former school is penalized they would have self-interest in running clean programs. “There are so few college-powerhouse programs that are not tainted,” he writes. “When colleges break NCAA rules in rare cases the NCAA takes substantive action. It delays as long as possible. The NCAA knows that the longer it drags its heels, the more money flows into the bank at big universities.”
* Coaches should receive bonuses only for academic results and not for victories, conference titles or bowl invitations. Graduation rates should be factored into football rankings to determine playoffs and bowl invitations. He believes there should be a one-year suspension of the head coach of any football program whose players graduate below the rate of the student body as a whole, adjusted for players who transfer or depart early for the NFL, and the suspension follows the coach.
* The NFL should lose its nonprofit status. He notes that in 2010 the NFL shielded $35 million from taxes and donated $850,000 to charity.
* Advanced helmets and mouthguards should be mandatory from high school football up. Many NFL and NCAA teams already use only advanced helmets and mouthguards; all should. Should a school system’s budget troubles ever justify exposing its students to brain damage?
*Year-round high school football should end and tackle football should not be played until age 13 or the eighth grade. Throughout the book he cites case after case of high school stars that never made it in college or college stars that never made it in the NFL.
* Bowl committees, athletic-booster funds and stadium-construction funds should lose their nonprofit and tax-deductible status. “A study by Bloomberg News found in 2010 that colleges and universities received $998 million in athletic donations and much for luxury boxes and insider privileges from high-income donors, a $300 million federal and state deduction subsidy to college sports already rolling in money,” says Easterbrook. “Of major football programs only LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas and Texas A&M operate without subsidies from the general university funds. Rutgers drew $29 million from the school’s general fund as it raised tuition and cut classes.”
Any parent who has a son playing football or who wants to play football should read this book. The author writes that 67,000 or more concussions happen in high school every year and two or more can lead to long-term neurological problems. Only in recent years has it come to light about what happens to former NFL players who have had concussions.
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Rene A. Henry, a native of Charleston, WV, and a resident of Seattle, has authored nine books -- three of them on football. His experience in sports spans five decades and at all levels from college and recreational sports to Olympic, international and professional sports. Many of his opinion pieces and reviews are posted on his website at www.renehenry.com.