Can big-time football thrive in empty stadium?

Frank CagleFrank Talk

I don’t really care for professional sports, rich mercenaries playing for even richer old men. Loyal to the team with the biggest checkbook. But when it comes to college football, I practice what they call in the theater “the willing suspension of disbelief.” I pretend it is the sport of my youth when schools ran the sport instead of television networks, agents and shoe companies.

But I choose not to look at the seamy side of the sport and just try and enjoy the games, ignoring the concussions and knees that blow out and blow up a career.

Frank Cagle

What I’m wondering these days is whether we can ever return to college football as we know it. When two major conferences cancel the fall season the playoffs and a national championship will be a farce, if the remaining conferences play. If a conference like the Big Ten or the PAC12 plays football in the spring, how in the world do they turn around and play a regular season in the fall of next year? This out of sync college football world will be hard to put back together.

Then there is the matter of small schools without rich opponents to play going bankrupt and closing the football program, which likely funds all the non-revenue sports. And even at big-time football programs canceling games and losing revenue is a threat to baseball, swimming, track and even women’s basketball.

The only thing you can be sure of is that football coaches’ salaries will be “held harmless.”

The revenue hits come at a time when states are supporting the idea of paying players. It started in California, the home of future trends, from affordable backyard swimming pools to McDonald’s to pot smoking.

Under no circumstances should universities start paying players anything beyond room and board and a free education. But it has never been fair for universities and video game producers to use a student athlete’s image to make money while the athlete is forbidden to do so. How many Peyton Manning football jerseys do you suppose Vol fans purchased while he led the Vols? Or, maybe it was just a coincidence that most of the orange jerseys had the number 16 on them.

Football video games have avatars with popular players’ numbers.

The NCAA Board of Governors has agreed that student athletes should be compensated for use of their image. They say it will take a while to figure out the details of how it would work and no timeline has been forthcoming.

Year-round conditioning drills and practice make it impossible for players to hold down a regular job for some spending money. They can’t be a TV spokesman for a local car dealership for some coin. If an athlete’s family isn’t wealthy, how are they supposed to live? It is an invitation for some booster to slip them money under the table. Or an agent or a shoe company betting on the future by making a down payment now. There was the tradition of the $100 handshake when a player had a good game.

It needs to be above board and transparent, but the NCAA should move quickly to allow the athlete to control his or her image and reap the benefits now being ripped off. What’s difficult is deciding what’s fair. The quarterback may get a nice fee, but what about the second-string defensive tackle?

The cynical response might be the second-string tackle would have an incentive to get better. But let the market decided. The quarterback might endorse Coke or Pepsi and maybe lesser known players could give testimonials for a construction company. It works for the UT athletic director.

If a college player is willing to risk his professional future to drive around with dope and a gun or to beat up a woman (two recent thugs thrown off the UT team) perhaps he will have second thoughts if such behavior costs him an endorsement deal.

There is the problem of the no-show job. I worked my way through college with the GI Bill and as a carpenter’s assistant, a bus driver and one summer I got hired to lay sod for the football practice field. Two football players were assigned to my crew. We would go out and lift 70-pound water-soaked rolls of sod and load them on a truck. It made for a good conditioning program. The two football players would go over to the air-conditioned field house and drink free Gatorade all day. They allegedly lifted weights at times.

But this may all be moot. The issue may get lost in the crisis of how to continue to have big time college football programs with bowl games and national championships and college bands and empty 100,000 seat stadiums.

Backflips for Harris: If you are wondering why Silicon Valley and Wall Street seem very happy about Joe Biden picking Kamala Harris as his vice-president nominee there is a simple explanation. She isn’t Elizabeth Warren.

If they only knew: TVA says it has to pay the guy who runs the place $8 million a year in order to be competitive in the utility industry. Before they started having a part-time group of rubber stampers, TVA was run by the chair of a three-member board. Anybody remember Chili Dean, the KUB general manager who Howard Baker nominated to be the chair of TVA? Bill Baxter, CEO of Holston Gas, had the same job running TVA. You think either of them got paid $8 million?

At it again: Former Knoxville mayor and Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe has kept busy since he “retired.” He was on the board overseeing the Voice of America where he uncovered pay disparities and shook the place up, demanding transparency. Then he was on the Tennessee Museum Board where he questioned the bonus of a long-time director and a lack of transparency for board actions.

Right now, he is making a bid to join the Yale Corporation board, which governs Yale University, Ashe’s alma mater. Looming over this year’s selection is the turmoil surrounding calls to rename the prestigious school. It is named after a slave trader, Eli Yale, who contributed money to found the school.

Yale alums would not like to be graduates of a future school renamed Connecticut Community College in the name of political correctness. The school normally sends out names of candidates who will be a rubber stamp for the administration, and the alumni dutifully vote for them. They make it very difficult for an alternative pick. Ashe is advocating transparency and requiring candidates for the board to declare their positions on issues before being elected. To run as an outsider requires a petition drive with 4,394 signatures and Ashe is in the process of securing them. Stay tuned or go to

I wish there were some way to get Ashe on the TVA board.

Frank Cagle is a veteran newspaper editor and columnist.

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