With the Southeastern Conference pillaging other conferences again, college football could be on the verge of another period of chaos.
The SEC lured Missouri and Texas A&M away from the Big 12 in 2012 and now is raiding the Big 12 again, taking Texas and Oklahoma to form a massive, powerful 16-team league.
And what’s to stop the SEC from ransacking other conferences and creating a league of 24 or 30 or more schools? What’s to stop them from taking USC and Oregon from the Pac-12 and Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten, if those schools are willing?
Because nobody’s in charge. There’s no central government to oversee the overall health of the game, only a collection of far-flung fiefdoms, each protecting its own turf and conquering rivals. It’s every school and conference for itself.
The NCAA, which is supposed to be the overseer of college sports, has maintained control of basketball and the other so-called minor sports, but it lost its hold on football decades ago. It has only itself to blame.
NCAA officials have always been slow to respond to the times and to read the changing landscape — remember, these are the guys who took decades to come around to the “radical” idea of a playoff, which was like discovering the convenience of indoor plumbing and home appliances in the 21st century.
The NCAA once ruled football with an iron hand, which is exactly how we wound up here. In the 1950s, the NCAA, fearful that TV would harm game attendance, outlawed live broadcasts of games, even forcing some schools to break their TV contracts. It eventually backed down because of a public backlash and threats of legal action, but the NCAA still arranged and sold the rights to TV games and restricted televised games to one per week.
The Big Ten Conference eventually fought it and the NCAA agreed to permit regional broadcasts during five weeks of the season. Remarkably, the NCAA continued to restrict game broadcasts this way for decades and some of the biggest games in the country weren’t televised.
As we saw with the stubborn and lengthy resistance to a playoff, the NCAA isn’t exactly Steve Jobs when it comes to a vision of the future.
The big schools bridled under the restrictions and pressed for more. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma that the NCAA’s TV restrictions violated antitrust laws. The floodgates opened in the ensuing years and the business of college football has been in a state of flux ever since.
Schools and conferences were freed to pursue their own way, and the NCAA, which had resisted progress and worked against its membership, was eventually left behind. Its power gradually eroded to nothing.
Schools and conferences negotiate their own TV deals and collect millions of dollars from the hundreds of games that are broadcast each season. None of the money makes its way to the NCAA. Conferences and the various school affiliations have changed repeatedly as they navigate a growing business. With increasing frequency, conferences conduct what are essentially hostile takeovers in their pursuit of more money.
Meanwhile, no one is left to oversee the overall interests of the game. Imagine how different the NFL would be if the various entities — say, the American Conference, Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys and the NFC West — were free to act on their own instead in concert as one big business. It would kill parity and competition, which is precisely what has happened in the college version of football.
The lack of leadership was never more obvious than last year when schools and conferences were left on their own to respond to the pandemic and what resulted was chaos. Some teams postponed until spring, some played a full schedule, some played half a schedule, and schedules had to be overhauled ....
Now the SEC is acting like Vikings plundering the local villages. It will be good for the SEC, but detrimental to the game overall and to other schools and conferences. It will be another blow to fair competition.