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Alexander: The meat market of National Signing Day

Alexander: The meat market of National Signing Day

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Editorial Page Editor

Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times

It's a weird mix of beatification and Mississippi circa 1840. It's college football's National Signing Day. And, after watching a few minutes of last week's hype, I can't wash off the stench.

Non-stop football defined this past week, with the lead-up to the National Football League's championship on Sunday night. The grime of the gritty defensive struggle, however, pales to Wednesday's media frenzy. 

Yes, on Wednesday, those "blue chip" high school kids signed with the big time college of their choice. ESPN, "the self-described worldwide leader in sports," spent hours detailing each child in cold metrics and subjective observations. His size. His speed. Whether he's a "good kid," whatever that means. 

No SAT or ACT scores were mentioned. Preferred majors were a non-issue. This is about how big and fast some 17- or 18-year-old runs. It's about how much he bench presses. It's a meat market, a particularly off-putting reality when college recruits are overwhelmingly black. 

You rarely hear about college baseball. That's because, while baseball is a major American sport, it has its own developmental leagues. Players are typically drafted right out of high school and live the "Bull Durham" life of long bus rides and low pay, all for the hopes of getting a shot in the bigs. The NFL and the National Basketball Association, however, have co-opted public universities for their taxpayer and student-subsidized minor leagues. And it's costing billions.

The vast majority of major collegiate athletic programs hemorrhage money, typically millions, says data compiled by the Knight Foundation. At the public schools, taxpayers and students alike tend to make up the difference. New football stadiums are built with continually spiking student fees. Faculty gripes about majors designed for big time athletes -- the literal equivalents of basket weaving -- continually degrading the academic mission. One University of North Carolina professor caused a stir in 2014 when she released data showing that a immense number of players on that school's vaunted men's basketball team were functionally illiterate. Again, this was at UNC, a highly respected research university. 


To be fair, athletic departments at University of Iowa and Iowa State receive fewer subsidies than much of the opposition. Iowa's athletic budget ranks eighth in the Big Ten, according to USA Today. But it's still a $90 million annual expense. Neither department brings in as much as it spends. And, like almost all Division I programs, football consumes a massive amount of the annual appropriation. 

Like anything else, it's about money. The conferences sign multi-billion television contracts. Yet the cash remains siloed within the athletic departments. Regardless of what the NCAA claims, big time college sports take away from a school's academic mission. All the while, coaches are more often than not a state's highest paid employee. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, and his $4.1 million wage, far surpasses anyone else on the public dole. 

These guys are paid to recruit, after all. They're paid to target those blue chips teenagers that sports media describes like race horses. University of Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh reportedly went so far as to invite himself to a sleep over at a particularly talented kicker's home. The kid felt weird because, well, he had Penn State schwag all over his walls. Creepy Harbaugh was praised for his "tenacity." 

These guys are voracious. And that voracity, if done right, earns them immortal status and ever larger contracts. They get statues and stadiums bearing their names. The hype-machine heaps praise on their recruiting skills, as if impressing a teenager is somehow on par with fusing atoms.

The players themselves are little more than easily quantified thoroughbreds. And the public schools are just the state subsidized stables, constantly feeding new animals to billion-dollar professional leagues. 

Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at


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Editorial Page Editor

Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times

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