Groucho Knew How to Solve UConn’s Football Problem

Chris Powell


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Having just been appointed president of Huxley College in the Marx Brothers’ 1932 movie “Horse Feathers,” Groucho’s Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff quickly diagnoses the institution’s failure. “The trouble is,” he tells the faculty, “we’re neglecting football for education.”

Lately the same might be said about the University of Connecticut, whose football program has just sunk from disaster to catastrophe. Since nearly everyone knows the history, there would be no need to review it here except to try to exact some accountability at UConn, and accountability at UConn remains illegal, what with the university paying three presidential salaries even as it has only one president, and no one in state government cares.

What’s the football solution?

Maybe the university’s ineffectual trustees and executives should watch “Horse Feathers” again, for Groucho knew what to do.

That is, he set off to hire some players better than those produced by the college’s ordinary recruiting.

Such a course of action is more or less legal now. National college athletics rules have been changed to permit athletes to earn money by selling rights to commercial use of their “name, image, and likeness” — to let athletes be paid for endorsements and for licensing merchandise celebrating themselves.

So all UConn needs is a company that will pay maybe a million dollars a year for rights to the name, image, and likeness of maybe 20 football players at $50,000 each, put those names and images on some T-shirts and sweatshirts, and sell them to football fans.

Then everyone might want to play at UConn.

Under the new rules, the university cannot arrange this. But the university has many rich friends who have made big donations for particular projects and might jump at the chance to get into the endorsement and licensing business. Such a company might make money for itself as well as the players.

When, seven years ago, the university wanted to ingratiate itself with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who seemed likely to become the country’s next president, the UConn Foundation picked up the phone and from just one donor collected the $250,000 Clinton outrageously demanded as an honorarium for visiting the Storrs campus and having an insipid conversation on stage with the university’s nearly as egotistical president.

Pledging a million-dollar contribution in 1987, the philanthropist Harry A. Gampel got his name on what was to become UConn’s basketball arena.

Wealthy friends of the university are still around. But quite apart from them UConn also has thousands of supporters of ordinary means who might pay $100 or so each year to a company that sent them a T-shirt or sweatshirt with a football player’s name and face on it.

Such a company would have to be completely independent of the university, as it would resemble a booster club. Such clubs have gotten in trouble for providing impermissible benefits to college athletes.

But now that direct cash payments to college athletes for mere endorsements are not only authorized but glorified as social justice, policing them will be difficult. Presumably an athlete might be paid tens of thousands of dollars just for an autographed photo, and who will be qualified to judge its true value to the purchaser other than the purchaser himself? Baseball cards of stars from long ago sell for spectacular prices.

Exploiting the new rules like this may smell like corruption. But the purpose of the old rules was to prevent corruption, even if their letting colleges and media companies get rich off the labor of unpaid “student athletes” came to be seen as grossly unfair.

In any case the new rules will smash what is left of the old ideal of “student athletes,” noble young people who played for their love of their game and their school. But that ideal long has been disintegrating anyway as college athletics has become the minor leagues for professional sports and many players have left college early for lucrative pro contracts, playing not for love at all but for a shot at big bucks.

The conclusive reform will be to let colleges hire their players outright, without requiring them to be students at all. The romance of the “student athlete” will be gone but so will the hypocrisy — and that white elephant of a stadium in East Hartford might be filled again.


Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.