SALT LAKE CITY — Today we continue with our ongoing theme of the last couple of weeks — College Football is a Big Hot Mess.
You’re probably thinking the restiveness and confusion that are part of this Big Hot Mess are temporary and all will return to normal when the pandemic ends.
The NCAA’s failure to take charge and lead college football through the pandemic has paved the way for change — long-lasting (and much-needed) change. Where the NFL produced a pandemic plan for all of its franchises, the NCAA came up with nothing and chaos has followed.
Players, coaches, athletic directors and universities have been left to figure things out for themselves. Some conferences chose to play this fall, some chose not to play at all, some will play in the spring, some changed their minds several times and still don’t know what they’re doing (we’re talking to you, Big Ten) and now the courts are involved. It’s a hot mess, all right.
Given the independence the various conferences and schools have had thrust upon them this summer it’s difficult to imagine that they will not assert themselves on various issues in the future rather than submit to the authoritarian NCAA again. The NCAA has only as much power as the schools give it, after all.
During the pandemic, players in the Big Ten and Pac-12 created a list of demands before they would agree to play — safety protocols for COVID-19, labor grievances, athletes’ rights, amateurism, transfer rules, the top-heavy pay structure that enriches coaches and administrators but demands athletes live paycheck to paycheck, the lack of long-term medical insurance, the nonsensical draft rules that prevent athletes from choosing to return to their college teams after the draft, an end to the ongoing arms race among football programs that results in ever more expensive football facilities.
As you can see, most of them had nothing to do with the threat of the virus. It’s as if the pandemic has brought all of college football’s long-festering issues to the surface at once. When the pandemic subsides, schools, players and coaches could choose their own way — pay and endorsements for players, new recruiting rules, new draft rules, whatever. There might never be a better time to strike. We’ll see how serious the players are about their rights when the pandemic relents. It’s easy for Big Ten and Pac-12 players to make demands and say they won’t play when their conferences are threatening not to play anyway.
All this notwithstanding, the biggest changes in college football — and college sports in general — will be caused by the lost revenues resulting from the pandemic — the canceled NCAA basketball tournament, the lost nonconference football games, the losses incurred by the 54 schools that chose not to play at all (a decision that is looking more and more premature, at best).
That includes lost revenue from TV, gate receipts, concessions, advertising and sponsorships. To make matters worse, the NCAA will grant another year of eligibility to players who sat out the season because of the pandemic, which means rosters and the number of scholarships allowed will have to be expanded, costing more money.
All of the above could cause big changes across the board and many of them are long overdue. The spending on football by universities — remember when their mission was education? — has spiraled out of control. They’ve become football businesses with universities attached rather than the other way around. The highest-paid public employee in 40 of the 50 states is a college football or basketball coach.
While we’re on the subject, why are there 130 FBS football schools and 127 FCS schools? That’s fat and bloated. Only about 20 of the FBS schools, at most, have a realistic shot at winning a championship, unless 1984 repeats itself (it won’t). Not every school has to be — or should be — FBS division, which is a much more costly business venture than the lower levels.
For one thing, every school — large and small, poor and rich — seems to be obliged to update existing facilities or build new facilities to keep up with everyone else. The Washington Post reported that 48 FBS schools spent $772 million combined on athletic facilities, an 89% increase over the previous decade (adjusted for inflation) — and that was in 2014. It has only gotten worse. These days it is de rigueur that football facilities have big-screen TVs, barber shops, leather couches and even miniature golf courses.
Ridiculous salaries are awarded to coaches and administrators. According to USA Today, in 2019, some 68 football coaches were paid more than $2 million, and 31 of them made more than $4 million and none of this includes bonuses. There are strength coaches — nine of them, according to USA Today — who make between $500,000 and $800,000 annually. For that matter, according to another 2019 USA Today report, Power Five coaches in the nonrevenue-producing sports saw a 43% jump in compensation the previous five years (it was 51% for football coaches).
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), summed up the situation well when he told USA Today, “You’ve got this relatively small handful of money-making sports programs that can credibly justify paying enormous coach salaries based upon the money they make, but that clearly puts a pressure on the schools in the (sports) programs that aren’t making money to pay similar salaries.
“To me, it’s fascinating that none of these schools feel any pressure to do better by the kids — that (some) coaches are making 60% more than they were five years ago, and the students haven’t gotten a dime in compensation during that time.”
For the NCAA and college sports, the next year or two could bring about dramatic changes in the way things are done.