NCAA puts players at disadvantage with early start times

Getty Images File PhotoLate flights and early playing times may take a toll on NCAA players.

Have you ever flown east for work?

It takes at least eight hours from the time you leave your house to when you pull up to your hotel. Once you’re checked in, you’re already wiped out. And then you have to be up at 3 a.m. Pacific time to make a 9 a.m. meeting on Eastern time.

Now imagine what it would be like if you had to play a college football game.

This is sort of what it’s like for a lot of Pac-12 Conference football teams that travel east for nonconference matchups this time of year. But it won’t be true for Cal when it kicks off against Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday at 9 a.m. Pacific.

Instead, the Bears will miss an extra day of school and fly out Thursday so they aren’t playing under the conditions they faced in Maryland on Sept. 13, 2008.

The Bears arrived on the East Coast at 4 p.m. on Friday for that game (which also had a 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff), and they looked jet-lagged as they fell behind 28-6 after three quarters.

Coach Jeff Tedford is making the right call this year. These kids are unpaid student athletes. We can at least let them shake off the jet lag before we make them play the most physically demanding sport on the planet for our entertainment.

Here’s the problem: kickoff times are determined by TV networks and ratings, so high-profile clashes occur in prime time, which was the case when Tennessee visited Berkeley in 2007. But the undercards, like Cal-Ohio State this year, are pushed to the fringes of the slate.

It’s just another example of the NCAA’s hypocritical stance toward student-athletes. The organization refuses to allow a playoff because the games would supposedly interfere with classes, but when it comes to formulating a TV schedule perfect for squeezing every last dollar out of college football, the challenges of student life are completely ignored.

Think about the Duke players who played Stanford last Saturday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. They probably had to stay up late last week to condition their bodies to be game-ready at midnight. The contest didn’t end until 1:53 a.m. Eastern and the team flew back to North Carolina soon after the game. What happened to the body clocks of the kids who had to be up for 8:30 a.m. classes on Monday

If the NCAA is really concerned about the academic mission, it shouldn’t allow cross-coast games to kick off before noon Pacific or after 5 p.m. The odd-hour games only make it harder for players to juggle school and sports, and football should work around the student-athletes’ schedules, not the other way around.

Don’t expect players and coaches to complain too loudly, though. Football is about fighting through pain, smashing adversity in the mouth. If you’re tripping over start times, you might be too soft for this sport.

But as conferences like the Pac-12 launch their own TV networks, the revenue pie will continue to grow. If the NCAA isn’t going to give these kids their fair slice, it can at least help them better succeed on the field and in the classroom.

Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @PGackle.

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