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Porto: Disposable Athletes

The football season has ended for most colleges, and the annual feast of bowl games, topped off by the national championship game in January, will soon command the attention of fans nationwide. Here in northern New England, none of our colleges participate in the much-anticipated Bowl Championship Series, so we should have enough perspective to forget the games momentarily and consider the damage that commercialized college football can do to the young lives it ensnares.

The damage I refer to occurs when a college casts aside, like worn-out office furniture, athletes who, because of an injury or insufficient talent, are deemed unnecessary to its athletic success.

Nowhere, in recent years, have football players been treated more like worn-out office furniture than at Oklahoma State University. A ten-month investigation of the Cowboys’ football program by Sports Illustrated revealed, besides numerous violations of National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, a callous disregard for players whose services the OSU coaches no longer needed. Between 2002 and 2010, a staggering 43.5 percent of the football players who enrolled at OSU left school before exhausting their athletic eligibility. That number excludes one player who died and several who left school early to play pro football. Among the discarded are quite a few who are, or have been, incarcerated, homeless, unemployed, or plagued by substance abuse.

Much blame for this human tragedy lies with the NCAA, which long ago made athletic scholarships annually renewable, thereby all but inviting coaches to effectively “fire” players who do not perform up to the coaches’ expectations. The players deserve a share of the blame, of course, because many were dismissed for engaging in criminal behavior. But those most likely to be dismissed were the marginal players, whose offenses were usually overlooked when committed by players who were more talented.

Indeed, a familiar refrain among the former Cowboy athletes who spoke to Sports Illustrated was, “I wasn’t playing much, and I wasn’t helping out the team much, so it was easy for them to let me go.” A former assistant to current Head Coach Mike Gundy echoed that refrain, saying of OSU football players, “They’re basically being used. Once they’re no longer of any use, they’re gone.”

As an educator, I find such behavior by college coaches disgusting. College should be about long-term human development, not short-term revenue streams. But greed makes young lives disposable in modern college football. So I plan to watch less college football this holiday season - and to walk, snowshoe, or ski instead. I’ll feel better for it, in more ways than one.

Brian Porto is Professor of Law and Director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School, and author of "The Supreme Court and the NCAA: The Case for Less Commercialism and More Due Process in College Sports."
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