Big Changes Coming in College Football
College football’s response to the coronavirus pandemic over the past few months has been, in a word, appalling.
The non-stop buffoonery, chaos and uncertainty have exposed the hypocritical underbelly of the sport and the sad truth that no one is in charge.
As administrators stumbled and fumbled and equivocated while trying to find a way to play the fall 2020 season, it became increasingly obvious that what matters most to these "leaders" is dollar signs. Not the well-being of the athletes. Not education. Not tradition or rivalries or fans. No, what matters most is money.
That’s because the revenues generated by football media rights, sponsorships and ticket sales typically account for over half of all athletic income. Football pays for the absurd coaches’ salaries, recruiting budgets, state-of-the art facilities and bloated administrative staffs, and it sustains the other sports.
The dysfunction of the last few months also has made it painfully obvious that some kind of centralized leadership structure is needed in college football. Right now it is a rudderless ship with no single voice of authority. Instead, we have the commissioners of the five major conferences making decisions—sometimes in concert, sometimes individually—while the NCAA remains silent and ineffectual.
Into that leadership breach stepped the college football workforce, unleashing the newfound power of the players.
After players in the Pac-12 and Big Ten demanded reforms and safety initiatives as a condition to play, both conferences cancelled their fall seasons. Meanwhile, after players in the ACC and SEC pushed to play, their conferences (along with the Big 12) made plans to forge ahead.
But even if some conferences play a full or partial season, the college football landscape has been changed forever.
A sleeping giant has been awakened. Going forward, players' voices will have increased power, and they will be better compensated for essentially laying their bodies on the line every week to generate billions in revenues for schools and conferences.
Three of the players' demands relative to COVID were met by the NCAA: players who opt out can keep their scholarships; players who play can’t be required to sign liability waivers; and schools will pay all expenses related to the coronavirus.
Soon, college athletes will receive compensation for the use of their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL). And a group of U.S. Senators led by former Stanford tight end Cory Booker of New Jersey, Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal and VP Nominee Kamala Harris is pushing for a new Athlete's Bill of Rights that would include revenue-sharing (also demanded by the Pac-12’s #WeAreUnited players), new safety standards, an end to the one-year penalty for transferring, and lifetime scholarships to finish a degree.
Another big change must be made, and soon: the leadership structure of college football must be altered to provide for a centralized voice that will offer more uniformity and consistency, with or without the NCAA. The best solution would be a football czar with the authority to set the course, make the final decisions, and keep the conferences in lockstep.
It would also be nice if the new normal would include some financial responsibility, i.e. a “reset” that would result in substantial cuts in college football’s skyrocketing salaries and arms race.
But that probably won’t happen unless the players walk.
NCAA Loses Again: Last week the NCAA approved emergency legislation allowing athletes to receive “unlimited” payment for academic-related benefits after the Supreme Court declined to intervene in an ongoing appeals court battle between the NCAA and U.S. District Courts.
This frees the way for schools to provide athletes with computers, science equipment, and other items not included in cost of attendance, as well as scholarships to continue their education after completing athletic eligibility, paid internships, and study abroad.
Stanford economist Roger Noll, who’s been fighting this war on behalf of student-athletes for decades, and whose testimony at various hearings is reflected in the wording of the legislation, was ecstatic at the news.
“The world just stopped spinning,” he told me.
Spring Fantasy: Those who believe the fall cancellation is merely a postponement until the spring may be in for a big disappointment. Most of the plans I’ve seen call for resuming football practice in January and holding a season from February through April.
There are two obvious problems with any such plan.
First, there is no guarantee that COVID will be any more under control in January than it is today.
Second, how do you postpone a season for health reasons and then turn around and ask 17-22 year olds to play two seasons in one year? To me, this is borderline insanity, and I’m not alone in that view.
Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer recently was asked about a spring season and replied: “No chance. You can’t ask a player to play two seasons in a calendar year. I don’t see that happening. The body, in my very strong opinion, is not made to play two seasons in a calendar year. That’s 2,000 reps and football’s a physical, tough sport. So I don’t, really don’t, see that happening.”
Go Bears: Unlike Stanford AD Bernard Muir, who cut 11 varsity sports but continued to add to his bloated administrative team, Cal's Jim Knowlton has maintained his commitment to keeping 30 varsity sports and his position that cutting any sport is “an absolute last resort.”
Why Newspapers are Dying: My Sunday morning Chronicle Sporting Green front page included a fascinating recap of the Giants' ninth inning collapse against the A's...on Friday night! Also a story with 25 predictions on the 49ers season...the same exact story that had appeared in Saturday’s edition. Monday morning’s 28-page paper brought Scott Ostler’s Sunday Punch.
I live less than an hour from San Francisco, but for some reason, we get an edition that has a 5:40 p.m. deadline.
And that's crazy.