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Counterpoint: A Gilded Age for College Football — and the Rest of Us

For an alternate viewpoint, see “Point: In a Sport Driven by Tradition, a Revolution Looms.”

The richest men in college football, as in the rest of the economy, are getting richer.

In 1982, the legendary Bear Bryant made $450,000 coaching football at Alabama, or $1.4 million in today’s dollars. Alabama’s current coach pulls down $11.4 million, over 10 times what Bryant pocketed.

Five college football coaches this year are collecting more than $10 million in compensation. Five more collect at least $9 million.

Looking at figures like that, it’s only natural to feel out of sorts when grad assistants who teach college classes are averaging just $18,661 a year. Meanwhile, student debt is ballooning and the administration’s efforts to provide relief have faltered.

Here’s why the rest of us — especially college football fans — should care about fixing this.

Let’s start with the fan perspective: This is a golden age for college football. On any given Saturday, fans can catch dozens of games on TV. But today’s televised games have become interminable slogs, with long and frequent commercial breaks that can disrupt the ebb and flow of the action on the field. While viewers at home can switch the channel when a three-minute commercial break begins, fans in the stands can only sit on their hands and watch players mill around on the sidelines.

To make matters worse, far too many college football games have essentially become “glorified scrimmages” that pit big-time football powers against vastly overmatched out-of-conference opponents. These games happen because the TV networks need ever more content they can sell to advertisers to justify the mega-deals they’ve signed with college football’s biggest conferences.

That same network pressure has steadily lengthened the college football season. In 1947, Notre Dame won the national championship after going undefeated in just nine games. Since 2006, college football powers have been playing regular seasons that run 12 games long, plus playoffs and bowl games.

Last year, the national champion Georgia Bulldogs ended up playing 15 games.

These longer seasons — combined with the bigger, faster bodies of college football players who work out year-round in top-tier training facilities — mean more opportunities for horrible injuries. According to a 2016 academic study of one four-year period, 50.7 percent of players on teams in college football’s top division sustained at least one injury.

How many players make it past this injury obstacle course and make a living playing pro football? The NFL notes that just 1.6 percent of the young men in college football’s top division “ever make it to the professional level.”

And those who do don’t stay long. The average pro career lasts just over three years.

Meanwhile, college football’s top coaches have much more lucrative staying power. One stalwart in those ranks, Jimbo Fisher, signed a 10-year deal with Texas A&M two years ago that fully guaranteed him $9 million per year. The university fired Fisher this year after his A&M teams only won 64 percent of their games. A&M now owes Fisher the remaining $76 million on his contract.

Payoffs this huge encourage up-and-coming coaches to cut corners — to play players who ought to be recuperating or to look the other way when rich alumni slide bribes to potential recruits.

We need to take on this excessive compensation to start fashioning a healthier college football future. College coaches rate as the highest-paid public officials in 43 states.

To rein in this excess, we could take the lead in the growing movement to curb excessive CEO pay at corporations. One reform proposal now before Congress would levy a new excise tax on corporations with CEOs who make more than 50 times their typical worker pay. Another proposal would help denygovernment contracts to firms with wide pay gaps between top executives and workers.

We could adapt either of these approaches to college sports. Does your university want to keep getting federal aid? Then, don’t make your coaches super-rich at the expense of your staff and students.

We can do something about inequality in this country. And it would make for better football, too.