College football’s moment of truth

College football needs to make a conscious decision about what it wants to be, a decision it should have made a long time ago. It can attempt to reclaim the notion of showcasing students who happen to play football, or it can embrace its current popularity and become the NFL’s developmental league, with teams effectively selling their naming rights for a fanbase, probably adopting some sort of playoff system. It can be popular, or it can be college, but it can’t be both.

One of the glories of college football in the pre-ESPN, pre-BCS era was that the results didn’t really matter. Yes, good teams went to bowls at the end of the season and rivals wanted to beat each other, but the real heart of college football was everything surrounding the game – all the pageantry that purists like to talk up. Polls crowned a national champion at the end of the year, but few people really cared. In the words of Ed Guenther, whose series on the college football playoff debate informed my own series on the same debate two years ago, college football was a sport “played regionally on Saturdays”, whereas now it’s “played nationally for four months”.

The BCS is the biggest proximate reason for this change, but it is itself a result of the increasing television attention focused on college football, which began with the birth of ESPN in 1979 and the court case that stripped the NCAA of control over the TV rights to regular-season college football. Once conferences began selling their own TV rights, it became possible to follow college football on a national basis over the course of the whole season. It’s no coincidence that the rise of conference TV contracts coincided with the rise of attempts to provide some sort of “national championship game”. As the national championship became more important, and as the bowls started coming into more and more money as more and more people across the nation became interested in them, the focus shifted away from the overall college football experience, and wins and losses became more important, even all-consuming.

Combine the influx of money into the sport with the increased stakes for getting the best players, and the result is a dog-eat-dog recruiting world. It’s no wonder the college football landscape has been rocked by scandal in recent years, scandal that has, in all likelihood, only scraped the surface of the corruption and under-the-table “extra benefits” trading hands in college football. The ongoing scandal at Miami (FL) is only the worst that has come to light.

The notion of amateurism – once thought to be the bedrock of college sports – now seems quaint to almost everyone outside the NCAA offices, even exploitative when one looks at the amount of money these players provide to their schools and the NCAA while seemingly getting little to nothing in return. The idea of paying players has started to look rather appealing, with the major obstacle being the practical matter of paying participants in non-revenue sports; I believe someone on ESPN (maybe during their Blueprint for Change series?) pointed out that sports are the only collegiate activity that isn’t paid.

Of course, sports aren’t like other collegiate activities. The school band or the student newspaper doesn’t have the whole school coming out to support all of their activities, nor are they broadcast on national television for a tenth to a fifth of the country to see. The school band or student newspaper don’t rack in millions of dollars for their universities, nor do they engage in high-stakes recruiting battles with other schools for the best trombonist or the best reporter. Paying players would only¬†exacerbate¬†a trend that has been growing for the last few decades: players as mercenaries taking their talents to whatever school they feel would best prepare them for the NFL or NBA, or in this case, selling their services to the highest bidder, with no real connection to their schools, and turning college football into a de facto developmental league for the NFL, or college basketball into the NBA’s de facto developmental league, with teams simply selling their naming rights to schools for a fanbase.

College football’s gatekeepers need to figure out whether they want to keep making money hand over fist, or reclaim the notion of amateurism once thought to be at the heart of collegiate athletics. I don’t think the latter can withstand the continuation of the former. The pay-players movement has too much momentum, and lawsuits will be filed if things continue as they are. But college football needs to definitively choose one or the other; they can’t have it both ways. Either approach, however, would involve some hard choices and some decisions college football’s gatekeepers don’t want to make.

If the decision is made to go all-in and turn college football into a money-making developmental league for the NFL, the first thing that should be done is to divorce college football from the NCAA, ASAP. The NCAA has its origins in an effort to clean up college football shortly before World War I, but football is now the sport the NCAA has the least connection to. Cutting off college football from the NCAA at all levels would save the NCAA from an all-sports defection from the big-name football schools that would probably cripple it permanently, allow conference realignment to proceed to 16-team superconferences (and the potential playoff that comes with it) without screwing up the conferences for other sports, and depending on how such a split would be interpreted through the lens of Title IX, save lesser collegiate sports from being sunk by the requirements imposed by the need to pay players. And make no mistake: unless the NCAA and college football’s gatekeepers take steps to reclaim the notion of amateurism in collegiate athletics immediately, they will have to pay players. Hell, it’s already happening under the table and everyone knows it.

The new collegiate football association would then be able to impose the sorts of rules and regulations necessary to create a fairly stable status quo, one that brings the current black market into the light, that could propel what was left of college football into the future without the NCAA’s unnecessary bloat – possibly including a playoff, but such a divorce would open up another approach, which I’ll get to in a later post.

If the NCAA decides that, ultimately, the money isn’t worth losing the soul of college football, then some drastic actions will need to be taken to reclaim it. The first thing will involve putting pressure on the NFL to start its own developmental league (whether from scratch or by absorbing the UFL) and allow potential players to declare for the NFL draft right out of high school without necessarily changing the age limits for the big league, a step absolutely necessary to give people who only see college as a stepping stone to the pros an alternative, similar to the college baseball model.

Then the NCAA needs to impose some drastic, top-to-bottom reforms to, possibly, put the toothpaste back in the tube, completely remaking the rulebook, getting tough on corruption and the Nevin Shapiros of the world, beefing up the enforcement staff and making clear that the age of Michael Wilbon comparing the NCAA to “Barney Fife” is over. It’s possible that ending athletic scholarships and recruiting entirely may be necessary, or at least severely restricting them.

If – and it’s a big if – these moves are successful at bringing the stakes in college football and college sports in general back down to earth (besides potentially keeping the stakes high, the NFL could balk at starting its own developmental league and the big schools could decide they want to keep making money and secede from the NCAA), it’s going to start another major shake-up in college sports. Conferences that were formed for reasons of money will shatter in an instant, with the return of regional rivalries possible but a big long-shot (more likely, conferences remain capped at 12 teams). The BCS could collapse, not necessarily replaced with a playoff as opposed to the old bowl system, and probably half the bowls shut their doors immediately. The result would be a long period of uncertainty, and maybe – maybe – a return to a more idyllic time in college football at the end of it.

I can’t guarantee that any of that would actually happen. It’s possible it’s too late for anyone to save the ideals at the heart of college football. But college football needs to make that decision on its future soon, lest it collapse under the weight of its own scandal and corruption.

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