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Ban College Football? The Debate is On


Some people see college football programs' millions in profits as exploitation rather than a celebration of amateur sport.

Tonight, Slate magazine and Intelligence Squared Debates -- an association based in New York that hosts Oxford style debates on current events -- will host a debate on whether or not college football should be banned. John Donvan of ABC's (DIS) News Nightline will moderate the discussion, former NFL Defensive End Tim Green and columnist Jason Whitlock will argue against the ban, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Buzz Bissinger and New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell will argue in support. (I'll be reporting live for Minyanville on Twitter from the debate; follow @Minyanville to see my updates and send me questions.)

Without a doubt, three topics are going to dominate the discussion: corporate sponsorship, team corruption, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disorder caused by repeated trauma to the head.

The Business of Football

What do the Dish Network (DISH), Ford (F), Verizon (VZ), Adidas, and Coca-Cola (K) have in common? The University of Tennessee Volunteers Football team. They're all corporate sponsors. And according to the university's associate athletics director Chris Fuller, they spend in excess of $750,000 per year on the team.

It's not a donation; it's an investment. OK, technically it's a donation: The corporations allocate funds to the schools without any expectation of a substantial return, which means that the funds are tax-exempt. But there's a trade taking place. When the 2012 AT&T (T) Cotton Bowl aired in January, 7.86 million viewers tuned into Fox. Sure, they obviously weren't screaming and stomping for the new U-verse services bundle, but could they really have ignored it? Probably not. It was the best free advertising money could buy.

Is money changing the game?

On the one hand, these corporations have the money, the schools need the money, the corporations give the money, and the public gets the football. It shouldn't be a big deal. Except for those who see football as something pure and wholesome, like milk, and this new influx of cash as the vinegar that curdles it.

High Stakes

Reagan would be proud: College football offers a model of trickle-down economics doing what it does best. What starts as billions of dollars in corporate donations trickles down to a hundreds-of-millions of dollars in profit for the NCAA., millions of dollars in salary for the coaches, hundreds of thousands of dollars for the boosters, and a lot of ethically questionable perks for the players, including television sets and nightclub outings. (According to the rules, players can't accept cash).

Many believe that to be the problem -- the absence of any salaries for college players. In order to qualify for the NFL, players must have training beyond high school. But there is no minor league football, which means anyone interested in playing professional football has to go to college. And during those four years of earning unlimited advertising for the companies and generating billions of dollars in revenue, according to NCAA rules, the players must maintain amateur status and therefore cannot see a dime. All that money floating around and after all that hard work? I'd be a little corruptible myself.

In one sense, it's what makes football so fundamentally American: It offers young men from any walk in life the chance to make it big, provided they play fair. But is it worth the risk?

Brain Injuries

On May 2, 2011 the New York Times reported that Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson had developed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain, before shooting himself in the chest. He famously requested that his brain be donated to science for research. Exactly one year after the Times released this information, NFL Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau was found dead in his apartment, also shot in the chest. The police suspect suicide.

Dr. Ann C. McKee of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has performed biopsies on many deceased NFL players who during the course of their lifetimes suffered from drug abuse, erratic behavior, depression, disorientation, and dementia. When Duerson requested his brain be donated, it was McKee's lab he named to receive it. During the course of his career, he had been concussed again and again and again. Duerson suspected that these concussions had permanently damaged his brain, and he wanted a scientist to prove it. Did Junior Seau want the same thing?

College football is an American institution, but you'd have to be blind not to see how deeply the sport has changed. So do we let it evolve with the times, try and go back, or stop it dead in its tracks? These are just some of the big questions that will be discussed tonight. The debate is officially sold out, but live streaming will be available here, and below.

If you have a question you'd like answered, or just to comment, send a tweet to @Minyanville. I'd love to hear some opinions on this one.

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