It’s Time To Start Considering a College Football Tier System

South Carolina Football, SEC Football

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The latest high-profile former Division I football player to admit to taking cash under the table while in school is current Houston Texans star running back and former Tennessee Volunteers star, Arian Foster. Multiple reports today have corroborated that Foster accepted cash while in Knoxville and outline in detail the other conditions he and his fellow “student-athletes” endured while those around them wallowed in the lap of luxury.

The old argument that a scholarship is payment enough for those gifted and lucky enough to be able to play football at the Division I level is short-sighted and antiquated. It’s no longer the Jim Thorpe area of the amateur ideal, where student-athletes played for this oft fabled “love of the game” and were happy to work jobs on the side and beg for money just to scratch by in their classes without a single dollar given to them to help.

By anyone.

It’s the era of multi-million dollar athletic departments that are structured like and operate under the same business conditions as Fortune 500 companies. There are accountants. Business managers. Marketing managers. Public relations managers. Sports information directors. Media directors. New media directors.

All working under the same roof, and I promise you, from personal experience working in one of the largest athletic departments in the country, these folks don’t know each other from Adam any more than I know the guy working across the parking lot in my own corporate hellscape.

It’s time to let the money talk and the bull-crap walk. It’s time to tier big-time college sports– especially college football into a developmental league for those teams who want to compete under the high conditions driven by money and economics, and a less-competitive, more “amateur like” tier for those teams either without the resources, or will to try and constantly run the rat race of trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Tier 1- Pro Football Developmental League

Teams a part of Tier 1 of the college football system would be who we see as the traditional Joneses — Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, the SEC and so on and so forth. Schools at this level would operate with loose ties to the university which they represent on their uniforms from one week to the next — perhaps only by name affiliation alone — and would operate as the big-money entertainment option on their campus without having to play along with the guise and charade of the student-athlete construct.

If these teams wanted to pay their players, they would pay their players. In fact, it would probably become the status quo and expectation to due so in order to compete once the nominal restrictions placed on these programs by the NCAA — which few of them even give a damn about anymore anyway — would be lifted and become a thing of the past.

The NFL would love this league for several reasons, the most obvious being the isolation of talent in the league among the country’s best teams. Players that have no intention of getting a college education (and let’s be honest, this may already be the majoritywould orient themselves toward these programs and the Tier 2 programs could alter their recruiting efforts towards those who do care, who have a different attitude about their education so the students they attract share a similar vision.

It’s a classic win-win.

Obviously, this system would need its own controls to prevent total anarchy, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Tier 2: Happy to Be a Student-Athlete

Does anyone really believe that every single school currently a part of big money college conferences (see Vanderbilt, Northwestern) has a deep desire to constantly churn against the wind in an effort to recruit athletes with the ability of their conference’s stronger programs, and the ability to read and write beyond a 6th grade level?

I highly doubt it. I bet you, if there was another option, an alternative, that schools like these two, and plenty of others would be happy to throttle things down a notch and play against programs who still have an academic focus — and yes, before you laugh to hard, there are some left — and a secondary focus on the gridiron.

These schools could compete recruiting-wise for kids that want an education first-and-foremost with the chance to continue playing their sport as a nice side benefit. Maybe this sounds a little like the current Division III structure in the NCAA — by intent — where players arrive on campus without an expectation of athletic scholarships, and maybe a little academic money to help with costs.

If the NCAA survives, and they really want to put their money where their high ideals are (no matter how pie-in-the-sky) this is the only construct that makes sense.

Separate the big boys from those who could care less about trying to swim upstream and let each program live in the sphere best suited for them. No more hand-wringing over illegal tacos. No more crying about university water being used for car washes.

Just football. Just classes.

It’s time.


Kris Hughes is a Senior Writer for Rant Sports. 

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  • Aggiemyers

    What is discussed here is basically a minor league system for the NFL. If you were to take this route it would destroy college athletics. There is no realistic reason to implement this sort of program. A better idea would be to waive the 2 year rule and operate like the MLB, set up minor league teams and recruit out of high school. College football would suffer from a lack of talent, but if it came down to it I would rather see less talented college teams rather than NFL puppet teams.

    • Kris Hughes

      It would in no way “destroy” the system, it would just adapt it to reality. The large programs already operate on a different plane than the programs that don’t have the resources to compete anyhow, so why not recognize that formally and allow things to evolve?

      • Aggiemyers

        The system would not adapt it would be completely different.
        The only way to make the tier one programs fair is to either hold a draft or set salary caps. A draft program would be the most even l, but would destroy recruiting as a whole, other than to convinces tier two athletes to enter the draft. Players would also lose the ability to choose their schools and the team that best suits their needs. The only other way is a free agent market. Players would be recruited and signed just like the NFL, the only difference would be that schools with the most capital and booster support would get most of the elite recruits because they could offer higher salaries. Salary caps and luxury taxes would have to come into effect to combat this and make the playing field even again. Schools and boosters would try to get around the rules by offering money off the books and one again you have to same problem as before. Then there is the problem of ranking the tier one and two schools, how would they be determined and is there room for movement. No one would have thought Oregon and not USC would be king of the PAC five years ago. You mentioned Texas as a tier one school but they are losing ground to an emerging A&M. Lastly do you think giving twenty year old kids a bunch of cash help solve discipline problems? Most players are broke but some players still end up in jail. Even older more mature NFL players can’t seem to shake discipline problems. Your proposed system wouldn’t work with anything that even resembles today’s college football.