The hottest college football controversy right now isn't a debate over who's the preseason No. 1 team, or who has an inside track to the Heisman Trophy. No, the latest buzz is whether the term "student athlete" is real, or just a cruel punchline.
UCLA star quarterback Josh Rosen ignited this controversy Tuesday in a Q & A session with the popular fan website Bleacher Report. Here's the sentence that set things off:
"Look, football and school don't go together. They just don't. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs."
Rosen's comment cuts to the core of the supposed trade-off college athletes make when they agree to play for very profitable sports programs, but for no actual pay: They get a free education in return for sacrificing their time and bodies to bring in fans, as well as merchandising money.
But if the "education" part of that deal is a sham, or at least impossible to attain even if college football players make a decent effort to study and play, then that deal is a fraudulent one.
Over the course of the four decades that I've covered college football as a writer and radio commentator, academic controversies have ebbed and flowed. The nadir came in the late 1980s, when a college and then-NFL star player named Dexter Manley revealed he had remained eligible to play all four years at Oklahoma State — without being able to functionally read or write.
The zenith was when one of the captains of Nebraska's back-to-back national championship football teams in 1994-95 was Rob Zatechka, a biology major who went on to become an anesthesiologist in West Omaha. Yet it's been a generally accepted fact, long before Rosen made his comments this week, that major college football players can easily play their entire careers without taking a serious class.
"College administrators need to work hard to adjust class schedules and create serious course offerings to give more serious student athletes a chance to get a real education."
Now that reality means a lot more than it ever has before, because of the growing call to pay college athletes in major college football programs. That pressure led to an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by some players and Northwestern University to form a college football players union.
Still, that effort did put certain damning facts into the public record. National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr noted that the players "spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three- or four-month football season."
Then they were expected to go to class and study? Come on.
Of course it's one thing when an obscure NLRB director makes those comments. It has more impact, however, when a gifted player like Rosen — who's destined to play in the NFL —essentially says the same thing.
One of the reasons why it means more is that Rosen is a lock to at least be drafted into the NFL. His dreams of going pro are very realistic. But for the rest of the players, even in big-time programs, the odds are a lot worse. The NCAA itself recently released data showing that of the 73,660 young men playing major Division I college football, just 1.5% will ever play in the NFL.
Given those numbers, the smart thing for even the best college athlete to do is to put as much emphasis as possible on academics, in order to ensure some form of employment and economic success after school. What Rosen is saying, and with the numbers to prove it, is that is virtually impossible at major college programs.
Rosen should know that there are alternatives to programs where studying and playing decent football are mutually exclusive. He was recruited by enough Ivy League teams to know that players in that league are held to strict academic standards and every program has, or at least recently had, at least one graduate playing in the NFL.
Still, not every athlete who wants to be a serious student wants to play in the Ivy League, especially since there are no athletic scholarships and financial aid depends on family income. Rosen's point holds up for the most part. because the Ivies and schools like them are the exception, not the rule.
So, with just about three weeks to go before the big college football programs kickoff their 2017 seasons, where does that leave us?
First, college administrators need to work hard to adjust class schedules and create serious course offerings to give more serious student athletes a chance to get a real education. The NCAA overall and the individual conferences, especially the powerhouse Big Ten and the SEC, must agree to and impose more serious sanctions on schools that don't expand academic seriousness for all athletes.
However, we all know that's going to be a stretch. It's time to admit a lot of this problem is our own fault. By saying "our," I mean the fans who support the illusion of the scholar-athlete while never even bothering to care whether that athlete is getting anything out of the deal. Nothing is going to change until the fans take their money elsewhere, in some form of protest against the college sports programs that have no real college education attached to them.
That too seems like a stretch, but that effort can see lots of individual successes that would make the effort worth it. A group of concerned alumni donors at any given school may not be able to change the entire NCAA or SEC, but they could succeed in getting a few more classes and opportunities created for a handful of players at a time. That's a good place to start.
Until then, the lie will tell ourselves every time we look at major college football players, and think of them as real students, will go on. And in a very big sense, we as fans will remain culpable in an arrangement that makes it impossible for the players we supposedly love to succeed after the games are over.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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