College football over the course of 40 years has morphed from family station wagon (comfortable, dependable, affordable) to European roadster (stylish, fast, pricey). The influx of money and its inequitable distribution are the wellspring of the sport’s current problems. Take NIL income: If that is an issue of athletes’ rights and not about the money, then why did no one clamor for those rights 20 years ago? Once schools began paying coaches millions, it became imperative for players to share in the wealth.
Money has distorted the entire intercollegiate athletic model. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s capitalism, the rule of the marketplace, and unless you’re the NFL, there always will be an inherent competitive tension between the haves and the have-nots. The NFL agreed many billions ago that little Green Bay gets a share of the pot equal to big Dallas.
In that sense, the NCAA’s job always has been impossible. Pass all the bylaws you want, but Ohio State and Ohio University never will play on a level field. Until the 1980s, the NCAA administered football by demanding control of a school’s TV rights as a condition of membership. The money flowed to, and through, the NCAA before it went to the schools. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the NCAA’s methods illegal and ruled that universities should control their media rights.
The schools assigned their media rights to their conferences, conferences wanted more money from the networks, and here came realignment. The money made the biggest conferences the most powerful entities in the sport. In 1994, as the public grew frustrated with shared national championships, the NCAA began a study of a college football playoff. The group met once and disbanded. The NCAA member schools made it clear they didn’t want the NCAA running the postseason and controlling the income.
The conferences created the postseason national championship and the money that came with it. We didn’t get a two-team BCS until the conference commissioners agreed on the format. Ditto for the four-team College Football Playoff, and after an elephantine gestation period, the 12-team CFP that will begin in the 2024 season.
The money flowed into the sport, and the schools spent it on Taj Mahal locker rooms and enormous coaching contracts with decadent buyouts – 52 public FBS institutions paid $84.7 million in buyouts in 2021 alone, according to the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics Database.
NCAA currently pays the bills for college football
The NCAA became the back office of college football. The member schools managed to have the football income flow to them while saddling the NCAA with the bills to run the sport – $65 million for insurance, administration, enforcement, eligibility, legal, health and safety, drug-testing and other expenses, former NCAA chief financial officer Kathleen McNeely estimated at a meeting of FBS athletic directors last September.
The more money that flowed into college athletics, the less effective the enforcement powers of the NCAA. That may be less causation than correlation, but I don’t think so. As money changed the sport, the NCAA clung to its belief in amateurism as a defense. Every tea leaf in the world shouted that change was nigh, but the NCAA refused to plan for it.
The NCAA’s myopic refusal to create enforceable rules for athletes to earn NIL income left a vacuum filled by more than 30 different state laws. Too many laws proved to be no law at all. Athletic programs and their boosters have been all but unpoliced over the past 18 months.
So amateurism is dead, and nearly took down the NCAA with it. Certainly, its pulpit is no longer bully.
“The NCAA’s authority to apply consistent rules to schools across the country has been thoroughly strained,” University of Georgia president Jere Morehead, the chair of the Division I Board of Governors, wrote last month to introduce the report of the Transformation Committee. That was a 12-month study that developed a plan to provide more benefits to athletes and streamline Division I to make it more quickly responsive to what’s going on in the world.
But when it came to making changes to the FBS, the Transformation Committee suggested that a new committee should begin a new study, punting worthy of the Ray Guy Award. College football, like a powerful computer with glitchy software, needs a better operating system.
Should the sport be run by different group, like the CFP?
Lead1, which is what the FBS athletic directors association calls itself, has proposed a 14-person board of governors and the creation of a chief operating officer, both within the NCAA framework. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has proposed moving the sport out of the NCAA and under the aegis of a different entity such as the College Football Playoff, the generator of so much of the money that flows into the sport.
“The role of FBS football and its being kind of halfway in the NCAA – more out of the NCAA but using the NCAA as a legal shield – has been frustrating to all of us,” Knight Commission CEO Amy Perko said. “We understand it because the Power 5 and the FBS have a good deal right now, with the NCAA being the legal shield and the CFP money being outside the system.”
If the CFP began paying the $65 million annual bill to run college football, that’s $65 million that could flow through to the rest of the NCAA. What the Knight Commission sees as common-sense management, the schools see as $65 million out of their pocket. You can guess how that goes over.
CFP executive director Bill Hancock spent 16 years working for the NCAA. He understands its faults. He sides with the athletic directors. “The FBS schools would like to have more say in how FBS football is run,” Hancock said. “I think and hope that can be accomplished within the NCAA.”
Reformers promote change that discomforts people, especially the powerful. Throw money into the equation – in the case of the Power 5 conferences, a lot of money – and there is even more reluctance. No one gives up power willingly, except for George Washington and, maybe, Chris Petersen.
Maybe new NCAA president Charlie Baker will make the magic happen. There’s always the blind hope that college football will continue to succeed in spite of itself. In the midst of the current upheaval, 45 games attracted at least four million television viewers in 2022, four more than in 2021. But blind hope is for fools and Rutgers fans. The rest of us will depend on the lure of money being overcome by good management. And hope we can get the European roadster out of the repair shop.