A UNC football player keeps cool during a preseason workout.

College sports are not going to be abolished, they are not going to be turned into an Ivy League model and they are not likely anytime soon to be converted into freestanding professional teams. For better or worse, the unique system of big-time sports attached to universities is here to stay.

Too many parties (TV networks, advertisers, universities, alums) are invested in the current system and too many people (fans, participants, alums) derive too much pleasure from big-time college sports for revolutionary reform or abolition of the current model to be a realistic possibility, even if those goals were judged desirable.

But that doesn’t mean significant improvements can’t be made to the current college sports model. In fact, a range of reforms addressing all aspects of big-time college sports can be specified. Taken together, they could have the impact of re-balancing big-time sports in ways that enhance the power and reduce the exploitation of student-athletes while lowering the tension between sports and the academic mission of universities. They also reduce the power of the almighty dollar over college sports, and dramatically increase the incentives of coaches and schools to avoid rules violations and other systemic problems.

In this two-part column, I will present six ideas that take us a long way in this direction.

1. Reduce the number of scholarships in FBS football from 85 to 65.
Why does a college football team need 85 guys on scholarship when NFL teams get by with just 55 players? The extraordinarily large size of football teams has several negative effects. First, it is expensive. Second, it crowds out other men’s sports, and also obliges schools to operate a larger athletic program overall than they might otherwise because of the Title IX obligation to provide equal athletic opportunities for women.

Third, and more critical, the size of the current football programs makes it difficult to manage. Coaches are under pressure to bring in large quantities of bodies, meaning they can’t be as selective about character and academic fit as would be ideal. The large size of the program makes the football team a culture unto itself within the university.

The current model is also bad for the players—it makes them more expendable. Coaches now operate on a model of bringing in 20 or more players a year in hopes that 10 or 12 will pan out as productive, starter-quality players. The rest will ride the pine, risk their necks on special teams or magically disappear before graduation. With a smaller squad, the contribution—and value—of every player would become magnified.

Moving to smaller squads would have another benefit as well: It would spread the talent around and make it more likely that good coaches outside the established power schools and conferences could be successful. Yes, Duke football could be relevant again!

2. Stop the conference expansion madness by instituting a national football playoff.
At a time in which many editorialists have tried to focus attention on the need for reform in the wake of the string of football scandals dotting the national landscape, universities in the Big 12 and elsewhere are contemplating setting in motion yet another round of conference expansion and conference-hopping, with seismic consequences that could well reach the ACC. This scramble is driven by one thing—the chase for football and Bowl Championship Series dollars.

The NCAA could put an end to it tomorrow by announcing a 16-team national playoff tournament, with automatic representation for every conference of at least eight schools, and no conference championship games.

Such a system is already in place at the Football Championship Series (FCS, the new name for the old I-AA) level, with no adverse academic effects. Doing the same for the top tier would abolish the hierarchy between BCS and non-BCS conferences and end the incentive to create super-conferences. It would create a huge new pool of revenue for the NCAA. And it would put the NCAA back in charge of matters rather than a clique of larger football schools. There is nothing noble about the attachment to the bowl system, let alone the BCS: It’s a failure to govern on the NCAA’s part, pure and simple, anchored in an unwillingness to stand up to the vested interests that support the status quo.

To be sure, it would be an epic fight to overturn the BCS. What the BCS does is allow a handful of conferences to monopolize the revenue from the big bowls and de facto national title game without yielding any control to the NCAA. Creating a tournament in the short term could lead to a loss of annual revenue for the bigger schools (though this could be just a short-term loss, if the tournament proves to be immensely popular—as I suspect it would be).

Possibly some of the bigger schools will make noises about wanting to break away from the NCAA and create their own system in response. But at the end of the day, I seriously doubt schools will want to undertake the massive effort of creating a new organization to replace the NCAA—and remember, under Title IX, if you have football, you’re going to be having women’s sports too. Moreover, political pressure from pro-playoff forces can be exerted on many of the more important football-playing public universities. If the U.S. Congress can pass a national health care bill after 70 years of trying, the NCAA can get a football playoff implemented.

3. Make all athletic scholarships four and a half years, guaranteed.
The biggest threat to athletes putting the proper priority on their schoolwork in college is the demands made by their own coaches. The current system of scholarships, which are renewed on a year-to-year basis, gives coaches defining control over student-athletes’ lives. Simply put, the coach can run you off if you are not contributing enough. In some non-revenue sports, it’s actually worse than this: Many non-revenue athletes are on partial scholarships whose value can be adjusted year to year as the coach sees fit.

College is supposed to be about developing the capacities of individuals to think for themselves so they can be worthy members of a free society. The power handed college coaches opens the door to a form of tyranny. The antidote is straightforward: Change the system so that when student-athletes sign for a school, their scholarship money is guaranteed for nine semesters so long as they continue participation in the sport. The only exception would be that of gross misconduct (i.e. breaking university rules).

Further, players who quit their sport should be guaranteed a further two semesters of scholarship benefits and be allowed to remain at the institution (at their own expense) thereafter until graduation.
Both those rules would change the nature of the relationship between college coaches and players. It would make it more difficult for coaches to operate on the basis of fear and threats, and force them to develop healthier methods of eliciting commitment and effort from their players. And it would allow players to escape abusive coaches by quitting the team without having to quit school altogether.