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Herb Friedman

Herb Friedman

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act establishing the land-grant college system, which gave federal land to the states to provide public education for citizens.

In 1869, the University of Nebraska was chartered as a land-grant college. Its charter states its purpose was education “to afford to the inhabitants of this State, the means of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the various branches of literature, science and the arts.”

The Nebraska Constitution provides: “The Legislature shall provide for the free instruction in the common schools of this state of all persons between the ages of five and twenty-one years” (Article VII, Sec. 1).

Nebraska assumed the obligation to educate its citizens. The controlling word is "educate," which is the lifeblood of a democratic society.

In the middle of the last century, a secondary public (high school) education, would at least gain a young person entrance into the labor force, to a job that allowed access to the middle class. That is no longer true. Post-secondary education, of one form or another, is now a requirement in many, if not all, occupations.

And we have shifted the burden of financing that education onto the backs of the students, who can least afford it. The rise of student loans and for-profit colleges is staggering. The average graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln now has student loan debt of about $21,500 upon graduation. There were about $59 million in outstanding student loans in Nebraska in 2017, according to collegefactual.com.

UNL and other similar public institutions have shifted from their core function from education to another E-word: “entertainment.”

College football began in the late 19th century, as an American version of the field sports played on the “playing fields of Eton” -- English “public schools" that were not public. The game became popular but also brutal.

Poor safety equipment, relaxed rules and plays such as the “flying wedge” resulted in frequent fatalities and injuries, causing public outrage. In 1905, 19 football players died from injuries suffered on the field. Harvard's president considered banning the sport, when President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent football fan and Harvard alum, stepped in and formed a committee, the forerunner of the NCAA, which made the game safer by changing the rules and requiring basic safety features such as helmets. It lived to fight another day.

The United States is the only country in the world where colleges are in the sports entertainment business.

The University of Nebraska system has a $2.7 billion budget for 2018-19; UNL is about $1.3 billion of that amount. The Athletic Department budget is separate and, for the same period, is about $139 million. The current Nebraska football coach is paid $5 million a year, while the athletic director makes about $1 million.

The following comparisons are interesting: Roger Ailes, late head of Fox, was paid $5 million in 2013, when Fox profits were $27.8 billion. Meanwhile, the president of the NU system makes $540,000, while the chancellor of UNL makes about $472,000; combined, they make only about 20 percent of the salary of the football coach.

There is something wrong with this picture. Why does the coach of an amateur sports team earn about five times the combined salaries of the leaders of its sponsoring institution?

For one thing, in college sports, labor does not get paid. It’s like having a business and not paying the help. Football players are deemed amateurs who cannot get paid because they are “student-athletes.” This misleading term means that “labor gets the broken bones and brain injuries and management gets the money.” Several years ago, Sen. Ernie Chambers blew past that nonsense by introducing a bill that would pay injured football players workers’ compensation because, he argued, they are workers in one of the most dangerous industries in the country.

Professional athletes are well represented by professionals and can take care of themselves. But college athletes, many of whom come from humble backgrounds, have no such assistance. Efforts to unionize have failed.

It is time for the Board of Regents to examine the real mission of the flagship university it is charged with governing. Is it a major academic institution, or simply a name to tag on a professional athletic team that does not need to pay the help?

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Herb Friedman is a Lincoln attorney and former president of the Lincoln Library Board.

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