• Mark Schipper

Greed Comes for College Football: Knight Commission Recommends the FBS Leave the N.C.A.A.

The Landscape

In looking out over the strip-mining operations dotting the landscape of college football and wondering what had happened, it’s easy to imagine yourself as J.J. Gittes, the slick private investigator from Chinatown.

Near the end of a disturbing case, Gittes managed to force himself into an audience with the Final Authority, a money-man driven by an ineffable greed for more. Gittes looks him straight in the eye and asks: “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat, what can you buy that you can't already afford? "

And the human greed, now well represented by the money men of college football and those they own, looks down and responds: “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future.”

The ship has left the dock

It won’t be long before the Olde Sport of college football won’t be visible on the far horizon. Within the next decade the game they play on Saturdays could bear only a passing resemblance to the game they played, with only temperate changes to its structure, for the first 129 years of its existence.

A new sport does seem to be emerging, like a mature larva wiggling and shucking free of a pupa stage, but what crawls out of that cracked case won’t likely be beautiful, but instead some freakish beast with dollar signs seared on its wings and greed beating in its heart. The new sport will be something that can only be described as minor-league professional football, a winner-take-all Super League with tenuous umbilicals to the universities its teams represent.

As the blighted pandemic year of 2020 draws to an unmerciful end, something called the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has stepped forward to read their own prospective death warrant on the Olde Game. It wasn’t so much a shock-verdict dropped on the heads of a stunned nation, because the writing had been on the wall in day-glow paint for many years, but more of an obvious conclusion for anyone who had been paying attention. It may finally be time for college football to pay the piper.

The Knights of the Commission have recommended the entire Football Bowl Sub-Division (F.B.S. or 1A) detach itself from the N.C.A.A. and govern the new property as a separate entity. This would mean setting eligibility standards, compensation scales for athletes, deciding on mutually agreeable rules, locking in safety protocols, and organizing a national championship competition—either with or without the bowl games. It would seem the new playoff would be worth less without historic bowl tie-ins, but the descendants of the Madison Avenue sharks will get to decide that—in consultation with the member programs, of course. After that it won’t be long before a player’s union of some kind forms to negotiate their share of the presumably fattened purse, and the metamorphosis will be complete.

What role, in this scenario, the football team would play in the life of the university its ostensibly representing was not broached, either. Some might say a a diminished connection to the university would tear a hole in the sport that could not be patched, while others still would say it won't be much of a problem. The rest of a given university's slate of varsity teams would remain under N.C.A.A. governance for now, per the Commission’s plan.

"Change is coming," Arne Duncan, one of the prominent commission members, told ESPN. ”Whether that's at the state level or federal level, change is coming to college athletics. It's absolutely in the N.C.A.A.’s interest to control their own fate and to lead. I don't want to say this is their last opportunity to do that, but I will say they are running out of time.”

Arne’s got a real point.

If the N.C.A.A. does not find a way to control what is now an imminent crash landing, the loss of major college football could destroy what’s left of its 116-year-old association, or save it, depending on your perspective. The association, which was created in 1905 with the help of President Teddy Roosevelt in order to control college football, must get out in front of its membership and demonstrate how unique its case remains, and why the sport deserves a very-special treatment. 'King Football' is the absolute monarch in this realm, and nothing else can stand up to it. Men’s LaCrosse would go extinct if it struck for a comparable deal, and so would every other ‘penny-ante’ game in the N.C.A.A.’s suddenly-shaky portfolio.

The Fateful Decision

The fall of 1998 was the beginning of the long countdown to this moment, whether anyone at the time truly knew it or not. It was the year the Bowl Championship Series went live, the portentous season when the keepers of the sacred flame decided that crowning one true champion at the end of each campaign was more important than the unique circumstances and traditions that made college football what it was. They may have been right, and in those days it felt like it had to happen for the sport to grow, but there would be consequences for the decision.

The B.C.S. was not overtly destructive to sport's culture or structure because the post-season bowl system was kept intact—but the way the B.C.S. was built pointed to an obvious future condition: The N.C.A.A. would be supervising a game that could no longer be described as an integral part of a university’s mission, or a sport for amateurs at all. The key fact is that the N.C.A.A. does not own or administer the college-football regular or post-season, which is kept and operated by the conferences in partnership with various media properties, and can only sit back and wait to sanction schools they believe have broken other association rules. What does a school with a football team worth $150 million a year care what the N.C.A.A.'s bureaucrats say about how they do business?

More and more, as the football powers look around the room at their big cocktail parties, the question has become: What is the N.C.A.A. still doing here?

When the B.C.S. went online a new corporate superstructure effectively took control of an established entertainment commodity, and found it was indeed worth a fortune. During the series' fifteen-year run the participating conferences found waiting at the end of each season a stack worth around $230 million dollars to split between themselves.

With a payout that immense coming from a one-game national championship, it was only a matter of time until the College Football Playoff sprung to life to arrange the product into an even bigger portfolio. The timeline turned out to be sixteen seasons, which brought the sport to year 2014, when the new C.F.P. staged its first post season. 'Whatever it can bear,' was the underlying market idea during its creation.

In 2018, the C.F.P's fourth year of existence, the three-game final paid out an astonishing $550 million dollars, nearly double the mega-lode produced by the B.C.S. in its 15th and final edition. For perspective, all 33 remaining bowl games paid out around $100 million dollars. It was the difference between the atomic blast of the B.C.S. and the hydrogen bomb unleashed by the C.F.P.

ESPN, the behemoth sports network under the umbrella of the Disney Corporation, invested $7.3 billion dollars to own C.F.P. property rights for its first 12-years.

The C.F.P. was the coup de grace for anything resembling 'traditional' college football, a sport that finally became, instantly and forever, a playoff-or-bust proposition. The magnitude of that change cannot be overstated in a sport that had favored a prestige bowl-exhibition post-season, and a quasi-mythical national champion, for more than a century.

From the outset a group of six of the most esteemed legacy bowls jockeyed to host the C.F.P. games in a rotating cycle. The bowl cartels, like rival gangsters agreeing to sit down for an unarmed summit, found a way to work out the money and extend their own lives. If the bowls as they used to be known could be described today as zombies, they are the wealthiest zombies in world's history.

The C.F.P., in the same fashion as the B.C.S., made a smart and lucrative play to keep the most historic bowl games involved with the championship. But for many elite-tier programs the importance of the other bowl games, what used to be the joyful holiday season for the sport, have been irrevocably diminished.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban, the most clout-heavy chief in the sport, has stated that for certain programs, like his Crimson Tide, to not make the final-four playoff would render any remaining bowl trip next-to irrelevant. Instead of another fun-fall campaign, with a holiday trip to end the year, or ring in a new one, it would be a lost season. That is a reality that many college-football fans will have trouble adjusting to.

If the commission’s recommendations come to fruition and football does break away from the N.C.A.A., then the championship playoffs, which will expand as a first order of business , will play out like five or seven mini-Super Bowls events as far as advertisers are concerned. The games will last four or five tedious hours, with the on-field action coming in short bursts between long blocks of ultra-expensive product hawking that will feel as much like the point as the actual playoff.

At that point college football will have turned pro. The sport will transform into a high-stakes minor league for the N.F.L.—something fans of the professional game have wanted for years—while at the same time marking the end, in many cases, of a lifetime of passionate participation for the college set. The serious college football fan loves his sport for its differences from the professional game, and tolerates the similarities. The two cultures are as distinct as Olympic boxing is from prize fighting. Nearly every move that brings college football closer to an N.F.L. experience is anathema for the serious fan.

That almost mystical connection to the life of the university, to the landscape of America and your place in it, will have gone over for good to the corporate-rights dealers. The ways in which the culture of the game will change are so vast there’s no point in trying to list them—it will be a new sport with a resemblance to something old you once loved.

But Why Change Must Come

There was a time when college coaches taught physical education classes in the off-season, their salaries were within a reasonable range of other top employees at the university, and their team appeared on television a few times every year, with a prestige bowl game at the end for a handful of the best squads. The school made most of its money off of ticket sales and the only apparel contracts were for team-practice gear. Those were somewhat simpler days.

The advent of wide-open television policies, and the coming of dedicated conference networks, brought an incredible quality-of-life increase to fans of the sport. Being able to watch every game a team played throughout the season was unimaginable even into the early 1990’s, but it was also the beginning of something else. In addition to the lucrative new post-season, the revenue each conference began to haul in from league media rights led to what has been called the “the gold-plating era" of college athletics. It was another massive step in the direction of the professional.

In that old world before the flood, a grant-in-aid scholarship to attend college, and the privileges that came as a product of playing big-time football, could be justified as a fair-enough trade for the athlete. After all, less than two-percent of college players have a legitimate shot at the N.F.L., and college football was an end in itself. Just playing a game with the traditions and intense pageantry and passion of college football, often times in front of larger crowds than professional venues can hold, was a big deal, and the experience of a lifetime. The fact you could take a free college education from those years as well was regarded as a deal no teenager could be in a position to turn down, or complain about.

That argument can’t be made in good faith anymore. This is a country where talents are monetized as quickly as possible, with 15-year-old social-media stars earning several-hundred-thousand dollars a year. Even the idea of a committed amateur playing a game at a high level for its own sake is becoming incomprehensible. Sporting brands and consumer products sponsor coaches and schools and pay out in the millions every year. Why should the athlete be cut out?

Head coaches have gone from physical-education teachers during the spring semester to multi-millionaires with off-season vacation homes. Now their assistant coaches are being paid in the millions yearly. Athletic directors and conference commissioners are worth millions more, and a power-five university rakes in anywhere from $50 to $150 million every year off of the market power of its football program, with a wide range in revenues depending on the situation.

Through all of these changes the player has been left with his scholarship, a slightly larger stipend for expenses, a type of posh pampering at elite athletic facilities, and access to high-level academic assistance. But he still has no exemption to take a job based on his fame or talent as an athlete, or rights to his own image and likeness to sell on the open market. The N.C.A.A. and its member institutions own the players athletic accomplishments and are free to sell them for what they can get in return.

What if a player’s fame and value peaks as a college athlete and he never makes professional money? His coach made millions using him to win games, and his personal accomplishments on television every Saturday made him a national figure, but he never was allowed to take home his share of the gold. The moment he removes that uniform for the final time he is worth massively less to the corporate world than he was before. Quite literally every other figure associated with the game is free to find his value in the open market. This is why an outmoded era is plummeting to its end.

The Knight Commission met with perhaps the last old-order N.C.A.A. president in Mark Emmert and presented their findings and recommendations. Afterward, the N.C.A.A. released an uncharacteristically ambiguous statement.

“The governance and oversight of college sports are determined by the presidents of the schools who participate. The nearly 1,100 presidents of NCAA schools have consistently sought to create the most effective and fair ways to support student athletes.

“Presently, the NCAA is discussing the long-term sustainability of intercollegiate athletics. These discussions are focused on promoting the education, health and safety and fair treatment of college athletes. N.C.A.A. members within Division I have long sought to include a diverse representation of schools while supporting all student-athletes in similar ways.”

In the past the association would have declared by fiat that no one was going anywhere and laid down an iron law, with a promise of soothing justice for transgressors. Rebels would have feared the dread punishment in store for anyone defying the men in the High Castle. But the N.C.A.A.’s power has been decimated, leaving an almost open understanding that college football is hanging with the association for now because they are what’s familiar, not because they’re what’s needed.

The N.C.A.A. has become so toothless as a rules enforcement body that the association hardly even punishes prominent football schools for violations anymore, a situation that would have been unthinkable even ten-years ago. The keepers of that compromised castle are about to be declared illegitimate by their once-cowed aristocracy and they know it. Behind closed doors the coming secession is under open discussion.

What Will Be Gone

College football is a sport with its own organic and fascinating folk history. The game supported a unique eco-system, with long-standing rights and beautiful traditions. It was a sport with far more personality and wonder than its professional cousin, older by fifty years and with a history that developed contemporaneously with the United States after the Civil War, and played an active role in shaping the culture of the country.

College football was a unique showcase for university-bound American youth that included an illogical and compromised, but profoundly captivating fall season. The game was distinguished for being more far more art and feeling than corporate business model, and those were considered features, not flaws, by those who loved it. But the gate keepers set fire to that old order in order to grow the game. The fact of the matter is that may not have been a bad decision, and quite possibly the only real path forward, but this is where it has led.

Since 1998 those same forces have strip-mined the sport. They’ve separated out the valuable traditions and customs into neat little piles—like an estate sale—re-packaged them into a cartridge suitable for the television hype machine, and sold them back to its core audience at an exorbitant cost. College football, like the N.F.L., has become a mere advertising vehicle for the most powerful interests on the planet. That ineffably superb regional sport, bearing the traditions and customs of the land it grew from, has been turned into nationalized corporate cash machine.

The B.C.S. behemoth, and the colossus that is the C.F.P., were spawned by the kind of people who believe wealth beyond limit is the greatest possible outcome to any endeavor. From certain angles it looks like a Faustian parable of being careful what you wish for, because it might come true. The new championship structure and the accompanying riches have arrived, but did the game get on the bus, too? Time will tell.

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