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College Football’s Great Facade Is Cracking—and the Fracture Could Reshape the Sport

Schools and conferences across the country are scrambling to figure out how to play a football season during a pandemic. Their decisions will define 2020. They will also reveal how this sport really works.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

College football is a lot of things. It’s the packed stands on a frigid afternoon in the upper Midwest at a rivalry game that’s been played since before the invention of radio. It’s the empty bleachers on a 90-degree day in the Bahamas at a bowl game that was created a few years ago to fill a television slot. A college football Saturday starts at noon Eastern and ends at about 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, when a Hawai’i game wraps up in the middle of the Pacific. There’s a team at a Mormon school and teams at Catholic schools; there are teams for future military members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard; there are conferences for historically Black schools; there’s a team for deaf players. (They invented the huddle.) College football is a melting pot that produces gumbo at an LSU tailgate and fondue at the Harvard-Yale game. If you’re American, there’s probably at least some part of this sport that’s for you.

College football is a lot of things, and that makes it easy to romanticize. But the sport’s size and diversity means that the schools involved have more differences than they do similarities. College football is Ohio State, a powerhouse that perennially competes for national championships and sends players to the NFL. College football is also Ohio, a team from the Mid-American Conference that needs the paychecks it receives for playing schools like Ohio State to break even. College football is any of 21 Division III teams in the state of Ohio, which don’t give players scholarships and are able to survive primarily because the athletes pay tuition. According to a 2016 report from the Department of Education, Ohio State generated close to $100 million from football, Ohio made around $10 million, and the D-III schools in Ohio didn’t break $1 million. College football is a lot like Canis Familiaris, the species name for dogs—all dogs, the ones that are 200 pounds and the ones you can hold in your palm. A Great Dane would starve if it was fed a Yorkie’s diet; a Yorkie would die if it tried to give birth to a Great Dane. Somewhere along the line, though, they all descended from friendly wolves, so we say that they’re part of the same species. Similarly, because all college football descended from students playing rugby against each other in the 1860s, we consider Ohio State, Ohio, and the Division III schools in the state to be parts of the same college football system.

College football is a lot of things, and that makes it nearly impossible to govern. This is especially problematic during a pandemic. No singular governing body is telling the schools with teams what to do. There are differences in testing protocol: Clemson had dozens of players test positive for COVID-19 and simply kept practicing; Michigan State had one player and two staff members test positive and quarantined the entire program for two weeks. Meanwhile, Toledo has said that it can’t afford to test players regularly, even though its football team returned to practice. Incidentally, Toledo’s head coach recently tested positive for COVID-19. There are also differences in scheduling protocol. The Big Ten announced on July 9 that it would go to a conference-only schedule in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus; the Pac-12 and SEC have since followed suit. On Wednesday, the ACC said that its schools would play an 11-game schedule, with 10 conference matchups and one nonconference matchup of their choosing. Yet in the Division II and Division III ranks, many conferences have either canceled their seasons outright or moved them to the spring. All this while Big 12 schools are adding games to their fall schedules, replacing canceled ones and in some cases bumping up their start dates.

This level of disarray is unseen anywhere else in the American sports landscape. In the NBA, WNBA, NHL, NWSL, and MLS, the owners and players decided to play the seasons in contained bubbles. The owners and players in the NFL and MLB had more contentious negotiations, but both sides eventually came to agreements on health and financial protocols. It’s easy to see why these sports were better suited to reach such agreements than the NCAA. The richest and poorest NBA team owners are both billionaires who make huge sums of money off their teams; the richest and poorest NBA players are both pro athletes who have accepted the physical risks of sport in exchange for a paycheck. When the sides met to determine how to play games in a pandemic, the goals of both were clear, and a deal was struck.

College football has no such clarity. The lack of leadership over the past few months has prompted calls for the sport to install a commissioner who can make decisions and take control. But if there was a single commissioner for college football, who would that commissioner serve? The schools that would be financially ruined by the loss of college football this year? Or the schools that would be financially ruined by the playing of college football this year? (I’d say maybe a commissioner would look out for the players, but remember, this is college football.)

This lack of clarity also has exposed the fundamental flaws in the sport, and that led to two massive developments on Sunday. Sports Illustrated reported that members of the Power Five conferences—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC—are now exploring the possibility of staging their own championships in all varsity sports without sanctioning from the NCAA. This would allow the moneyed conferences to keep playing sports even if the poorer leagues can no longer afford to because of coronavirus-related losses. It could mark a split between the biggest leagues and everyone else. One athletic director suggested to SI that such a move could be the “final break” between the Power Five and the rest of the NCAA.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Pac-12 football players published a letter in The Players’ Tribune in which they threatened to sit out this season unless their schools agreed to a list of demands designed to improve athlete welfare. These demands include enhanced coronavirus protections; the creation of a civic-engagement task force to address “racial injustice in college sports and in society”; the freedom to make money off of name, image, and likeness rights; and a distribution of “50 percent of each sport’s total conference revenue evenly among athletes in their respective sports.” These changes would require the Pac-12 to leave the NCAA, which the players understand. “Right now it’s clear the conferences don’t need the NCAA,” said Ramogi Huma, the founder of the National College Players Association. “Each conference is an industry unto itself.”

The schools that generate the most revenue from their teams are making decisions out of self-interest. The players at some of those schools are pointing that out, and the people who are nominally in charge of governing the sport are abstaining from using their limited power, thereby enabling those schools. The other schools are probably wondering why they’re part of a structure that isn’t meant to serve them. College football is a lot of things, and right now nothing binds those things together.

College football is a lot of things, so sometimes “college football” means different things in different contexts. For example, a writer can say that Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard is “college football’s leading rusher” in 2019 and I wouldn’t call it inaccurate, even though Jaleel McLaughlin of Notre Dame College rushed for 2,316 yards in Division II. Hubbard rushed for 2,094 yards, but he plays in Division I.

Another example: There’s a competition called the College Football Playoff, the four-team championship bracket for the 130 teams that make up the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the upper tier of Division I. However, the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the lower tier of Division I, holds a 24-team playoff to decide its champion, and the Division II and Division III ranks also have playoff brackets. I guess you could call the FCS, D-II, and D-III competitions “college football playoffs,” although none are the College Football Playoff. Despite this, nobody gets too mad about the FBS labeling its event the College Football Playoff, because for most people “college football” refers to the brand-name teams eligible for the FBS title.

Of course, you could argue that not all FBS teams are really eligible for the College Football Playoff. The college football playoffs at the FCS, D-II, and D-III levels are sanctioned by the NCAA, as are the championships at all levels of NCAA varsity sports. Yet the NCAA has long allowed the top tier of college football to create its own championship system. In 2014 the College Football Playoff was born, owned and operated by the 10 FBS leagues and Notre Dame. (Not Notre Dame College, where McLaughlin ran for 2,316 yards last season. The University of Notre Dame, where Rudy once recorded a sack. Notre Dame College plays college football; the University of Notre Dame plays College Football. I can see how this is confusing.) This event is highly profitable: ESPN pays about $470 million each year to broadcast the College Football Playoff games.

By rule, the College Football Playoff selection committee must include athletic directors from five FBS conferences: the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC—that’s right, the Power Five. The five other FBS conferences—often referred to as the “Group of Five,” because the “Powerless Five” didn’t stick—have yet to get a single team into the College Football Playoff, even though they’re supposedly eligible and sometimes go undefeated. These conferences are technically part of College Football, but they’re generally treated as if they’re merely part of college football.

According to the NCAA’s terminology, the Power Five are called the “Autonomy” conferences. For years, Power Five schools would propose giving schools the ability to provide athletes with stipends, and they would be voted down by the hundreds of schools in other conferences that didn’t have the financial resources to do so. So the NCAA granted the Power Five the ability to create its own rules, via an incredibly complex voting system that requires explainers. The Power Five are an elite subset within an elite subset of college football—and yet, they’re still part of the same overall college football structure as everyone else.

The closest thing college football has to a commissioner is the NCAA Board of Governors, which recently held a meeting on whether NCAA sports should hold fall championships during the pandemic. The board’s decision was to not decide, as it punted the choice to a later date. (It will meet again on Tuesday.) But the fact that the Board of Governors was even tasked with this decision says a lot. The board has no impact on whether the College Football Playoff takes place this season, but is disproportionately comprised of representatives from schools that are eligible for that event. By rule, eight of the board’s 25 members are from FBS schools, six are from other Division I schools, and six are from all of the other divisions combined. (The board also includes five “independent” members, including Grant Hill.) To summarize: The 130 FBS schools get eight spots on the board that decides whether Division II and III schools have championships this season, while 700-plus Division II and III schools have just six spots. Representatives from the FBS schools will likely vote to hold fall sports championships at all levels, because that will make it easier to justify having their highly profitable football season. Reps from D-II and D-III schools will not have the opportunity to reciprocate by voting against the College Football Playoff, because the FBS runs that with zero input from anybody else.

The reason small football schools are willing to give the big football schools so much power is obvious: money. The big football schools help fund the smaller football schools. In 2018, for instance, Ohio State paid Tulane $1.5 million to play a nonconference game in Columbus. (Ohio State won, 49-6.) And the College Football Playoff gives the Group of Five conferences $90 million to divide among themselves every year. That’s a lot less than the $66 million that goes to each Power Five conference, but it still comes out to more than a million dollars per Group of Five school.

What’s less transparent is why the big football schools would agree to be part of an association with the smaller football schools that appear to offer little in return. But the answer to that is also money: When big-time college athletics programs that generate hundreds of millions of dollars say they’re part of the same college football system as the schools that don’t, they can argue that they should be governed by the same amateurism rules.

Ohio State, Ohio, and every Division III school in Ohio might be drastically different, but Ohio State benefits massively from preserving the idea that it plays the same kind of college football as Ohio and all of the Division III schools. When the notion of paying players is brought up, many people associate what’s happening at the big football programs with the quaint worlds where athletes play for little more than the love of the game and the chance to get a degree. People will often ask how the small schools could compete if paying players was permitted, and in some ways that’s a fair point. Ohio State could easily afford to pay its players; Ohio would have to shutter its football program to do so. But in other ways, the point is moot. The small schools are already fundamentally incapable of competing with the big ones. Ohio State is 34-0 all time against schools from the MAC. (It did lose to Akron in 1894, but I’m not sure that game should count.)

This relationship is supposed to be symbiotic. But in the pandemic, the bigger football schools are acting with only their own self-interest in mind. The Big Ten went to an all-conference schedule, hypothetically in the name of limiting the spread of the coronavirus. But there’s a financial element too: There’s little reason to pay $1.5 million to a small program from another conference if you can’t fill your stadium with 100,000 fans. The Big Ten’s decision surprised and upset the MAC schools whose football margins are often built upon payouts from Big Ten programs. Bowling Green’s athletic director released a statement in July saying, “The decision by the Big Ten is the tip of the iceberg.” Other Power Five leagues have acted similarly, essentially abandoning the Group of Five in a time of crisis.

Given the SI report, it now seems possible that the 2020 college football season could be contested exclusively by the Power Five schools, without the rest of the FBS. By filling some television airtime, these schools could recoup some of the tens of millions of dollars they might otherwise lose during the pandemic. Purely from a competitive standpoint, this could look similar to a normal season. A few hundred games would be played, and Clemson would inevitably meet Alabama in the College Football Playoff. That five of the 10 conferences would be missing would barely register to many fans.

But college football is a lot of things, and a season exclusively for the Power Five is few of them. It’s clear that the Power Five teams have needs and goals that differ from everybody else’s. By playing games solely against each other, they will maximize both fan interest and profit. Maybe the Power Five schools will realize this arrangement is financially beneficial even in non-pandemic circumstances. But a few dozen teams with similar needs and goals making decisions that benefit each other isn’t college football. It’s a professional sports league. And professional sports leagues have to pay and provide fair treatment to their players. This feels like a lasting split, and the more bonds the College Football programs sever with the college football programs, the harder it will be for them to pretend they still have anything in common with the distant relatives they’re leaving behind.