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College Football’s Divided Season Reveals Fissures That Have Existed for Generations

The Big Ten and Pac-12 have postponed football this fall. The ACC, Big 12, and SEC are pressing on. The lack of cooperation among the sport’s power brokers sets the stage for a bizarre season—and represents something much larger.

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As a college football fan, I am calmed by the sounds of fans bickering about which conference is the best. You might listen to the sounds of rain steadily falling on a metal roof to help you fall asleep; give me a loop of Paul Finebaum’s callers bragging about SEC speed while calling the Big Ten cheese-filled slowpokes, roasting the Big 12’s defense, and laughing off the Pac-12 as a competitive football league. Normally mid-August is when these sounds return to the wild, and normally they’d put me at ease. But five months after the coronavirus pandemic started spreading across the United States, it’s unsettling to hear these refrains. That’s because this year conference-specific hateration is being applied to medical decisions.

On Tuesday, the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed their football seasons, along with all other fall sports. They followed the smaller Mid-American and Mountain West conferences in making this move, meaning that of 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)—the highest tier of college football—54 have announced they will not play in the fall. The other 76, though, are pressing onward, including members of the ACC, Big 12, and SEC.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 both cited player health amid the pandemic as the primary factor in their postponements. According to The Athletic, at least 10 Big Ten players who tested positive for COVID-19 have since developed a heart condition called myocarditis. The Pac-12’s medical advisory board recommended daily testing for athletes due to the rapid spread of the virus within the conference’s footprint, but noted that this type of frequent testing wasn’t possible for all league schools, and thus concluded that a return to play this fall would be unwise. Meanwhile, ACC doctors said that a season could be played safely. “Look at all of the regular injuries that we accept as a certain level of risk as a part and parcel of football,” Dr. Cameron Wolfe, a Duke physician and head of the ACC’s medical advisory board, told Sports Business Daily. “Now the reality is we have to accept a little bit of COVID risk to be a part of that.” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said that his league was just as informed about the virus as the leagues that chose to postpone, but settled on a different path forward. “I think we can all talk to the same people, we can all look at the same data, we can all look at our own individual circumstances, and we can come to different outcomes,” Bowlsby told reporters. “Obviously that’s what’s happening.”

NCAA medical advisers have been consistent in expressing the risks of playing a football season this fall. In a virtual media briefing hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, Dr. Brian Hartline, the association’s chief medical officer, said, “I don’t know where we’ll be in the spring, but where we are today is exceptionally disappointing.” Dr. Carlos Del Rio said that he’d like to see the number of cases contained to 10 or fewer per 100,000 members of the population, and compared the efforts to stage a fall football season to the sinking of the Titanic. “I feel like we have hit the iceberg and we are making decisions about when we should have the band play,” he said.

Despite this, the NCAA—nominally the governing body of college sports—opted to leave the decision of whether to play to its member conferences. And while it’s still to be determined whether any will actually play games this fall (on the same day the Big 12 unveiled its conference schedule, Bowlsby said “If we got disrupted, or something happened that we couldn’t start the season, I think this spring is viable”) for now we’re set to have a college football half-season, or perhaps a whole football season split into halves. The leagues with approving medical advisory boards will prepare to begin playing games in a few weeks, while those with more cautious ones will try to put on a season in the spring.

The half-season will be strange. College football is defined by its sheer scale: The FBS has 130 teams whose games typically take place over a span of 12 to 15 hours on fall Saturdays, depending on whether Hawai’i is at home. With so many teams absent, this season will feel empty. Will the 76 teams moving forward attempt to crown a champion given the circumstances? (Probably.) Will anyone consider that champion to be legitimate? (If it’s Clemson or an SEC team, yes. Anybody else will be considered a fraud.) Will the programs planning to play this spring also crown a champion? (I have no idea.) Will a team from outside the Power Five conferences get invited to the College Football Playoff now that two of those power conferences have postponed their games? (Ha, of course not.)

This isn’t the first time that some of college football’s top conferences have made an arrangement without the Big Ten and Pac-12. For most of the sport’s history, there was no College Football Playoff—in fact, there wasn’t even a guarantee that the best teams in the country would play against each other at season’s end. The national champion was simply the team that finished the year ranked atop the AP poll, but sometimes the AP poll rankings wouldn’t align with the coaches’ poll rankings or various other ranking systems. So in 1992, the ACC, SEC, Big Eight, Big East, and Southwest Conference formed a group called the Bowl Coalition to ensure that their champions would play each other at the end of the season. In 1994, the Big Eight and SWC coalesced into the Big 12, and the group renamed itself the Bowl Alliance. On three occasions, this alliance pitted the no. 1 and no. 2 ranked teams in the AP poll against each other in a true national championship game. Yet because the Big Ten and the conference then called the Pac-10 were contractually obligated to send their champs to the Rose Bowl, no. 1 playing against no. 2 was the exception rather than rule. In 1994, Nebraska (then in the Big Eight) and Penn State both finished undefeated, although Nebraska is generally considered to be that year’s national champion. In 1997, Nebraska and Michigan both went undefeated, and the polls couldn’t agree who deserved to be the champ. So in 1998, the Big Ten and Pac-10 joined the other major conferences in creating the Bowl Championship Series. The BCS was massively flawed—if more than two teams went undefeated, somebody would inevitably get left out of the national title game—but without it, we wouldn’t have had Big 12 star Vince Young storming past Pac-10 power USC into the end zone on fourth-and-5. After people got fed up with the BCS, all 10 FBS conferences created the College Football Playoff, which has given the sport legendary moments and made the leagues previously unheard of sums of money. ESPN pays $600 million each year to broadcast the College Football Playoff games. Things got better because the conferences worked together.

But college football’s conferences generally don’t work together. While they collaborated to form the College Football Playoff, they are still independent businesses that look out for their own interests above all else. They have their own media rights deals with television networks; they fight for deals with prestigious bowl games; they make millions of dollars if their teams qualify for the playoff. The Big Ten and SEC are less like the AFC and NFC in the NFL than they are like two competing companies in the same industry. They’re not Google and YouTube, two massive entities inside of a larger parent company; they’re Apple and Amazon, two behemoths constantly trying to figure out how to gain an edge. (Like Apple and Amazon, they’ve both launched their own television platforms.)

This structure has led to speculation about the competitive ramifications of three major conferences playing this fall while the other two are not. There has been talk that teams in the ACC, Big 12, and SEC could try to poach transfers from the Big Ten and Pac-12; there has been talk about how the schools that are pressing on could benefit from that decision in recruiting. And, of course, there has been talk about the financial fallout: The leagues that play will make hundreds of millions of dollars this fall; the leagues that have postponed their seasons will not.

Even within conferences, unity can be scarce. Take Nebraska, which left the Big 12 to join the Big Ten in 2011. From a financial perspective, this move has been great for the Cornhuskers, as Big Ten schools individually make about $15 million more than Big 12 schools annually on media rights deals alone. But now that the Big Ten has postponed its fall season, the Huskers are frustrated, because their leadership very badly wants to play. Head coach Scott Frost estimated that the school could lose between $80 million and $120 million because of the postponement, and said on Monday that Nebraska would look to play this fall “no matter who it is or where it is.”

The Big Ten quickly rejected this notion, with commissioner Kevin Warren saying that Nebraska could not play this year “and be a member of the Big Ten Conference.” (The school’s contract with the Big Ten also makes that clear.) Nebraska has since backed down, but its disappointment with the conference it joined for cash a decade ago has been noted.

It’s impossible to imagine any other major sport having these discussions. In MLB, the American League would not play a season without the National League; in the NFL, the New York Giants would not leave the NFC East for the NFC South and then complain about how much the NFC South sucks.

Perhaps this moment of disarray will prompt college football’s power brokers to realize they need to work together more. Despite the sport’s sprawling scale and the disparities between the big and small conferences, the Power Five conferences have plenty in common. They all generate massive revenue streams. They all lose those massive revenue streams if a college football season doesn’t happen. It seems like there is only one way to play sports safely during the pandemic—in a bubble. Implementing such a bubble would only be possible if the major college football leagues banded together, dropped the pretense that college athletes are amateurs, and negotiated a deal to play games far away from college campuses. This would make many people happier, and many people richer.

However, it feels like this moment of crisis is driving teams and conferences apart. Will Nebraska ever forget that the Big Ten made this decision without its finances in mind? Will the Big Ten and Pac-12 forget that the rest of the Power Five decided to proceed without them? How will the ripple effects of what’s happening now manifest themselves for years to come?

College football conferences may seem like parts of the same whole, but in reality they’re distinct businesses operating wholly out of self-interest. The amateur status of the players and the connection to academia can give off the impression that college sports are quaint, but leagues and teams can be more prone to selfishness than professional teams, and less capable of compromise. The past week has shown how bad this divide is for the sport. But working together is a lot less fun than getting a leg up on your rivals.