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Adam Kilgore: College football faces unprecedented challenges and certain change

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 15, 2020

Seven-day rolling average of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people.  (Washington Post)
Seven-day rolling average of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people. (Washington Post)
By Adam Kilgore Washington Post

Years ago, when he worked at a school in a major football conference, University of Connecticut Athletic Director Jeff Benedict listened to league and school officials discuss whether the conference should use its ballooning revenue to create a financial reserve. The conversation went nowhere, and the conference established no emergency fund.

Benedict recalled the meeting Friday morning, in the wake of a seismic week for college football. Two major conferences canceled the fall season as players led a push to play while other conferences forged ahead. The Big Ten and Pac-12 pulling out of fall football provided the most significant effect of the novel coronavirus pandemic on college football, but the fallout will continue as the sport confronts unprecedented circumstances.

“The bottom line is, we’re all going to have to look at – whether it’s institutionally or as conferences – that we can’t go on thinking the machine can never stop,” Benedict said. “It has essentially come to a halt right now.”

On Saturdays, the sport is a noisy kaleidoscope of athletic brilliance, regional and cultural identity and nostalgic school spirit. It is little flags affixed to cars, bands marching at halftime, fight songs, live-animal mascots, blood rivalries, noon kickoffs and after-midnight overtimes. Over decades, that joyous spectacle became a multibillion-dollar industry, albeit one with neither a central authority structure nor a fully compensated workforce.

The pandemic has exposed these fissures and contradictions, according to many inside and outside the industry.

The machine eventually will start again, they say, but the college football landscape likely will be permanently altered by the upheaval of recent days, weeks and months. The sport will arrive at a new normal, but what will that look like? What will change?

“There are tons of questions,” said former State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, a board member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “But I think we’ve hit the breaking point. That’s what’s so important about what the crisis can expose, and what thoughtful people with lots of experience are going to have to face into in a world that, because of very extraordinary television contracts, is now upside-down.”

Industry experts and reformers pointed to three fundamental ways the sport could emerge from the pandemic in an altered state: increased power of players’ voices, a change in leadership structure and the potential for new financial responsibility.

On Aug. 2, players from Pac-12 schools created #WeAreUnited, a group that made demands for coronavirus protocols under the threat of boycotting the season. Three days later, the NCAA fulfilled three of their requests: Players who opted out of the season could keep their scholarships; schools could not ask players to sign liability waivers; and schools will pay for any medical expenses related to the coronavirus.

Before the pandemic, legal victories had increased the likelihood of players being able to profit off their name, image and likeness, which the NCAA has for years prohibited. But the pandemic revealed in stark relief athletic departments’ reliance on players to generate revenue. Without money from television rights fees and the NCAA basketball tournament, schools have warned of financial catastrophe and have cut sports.

“The athletes see they have power and see they have influence and see we really couldn’t play football if we didn’t have athletes,” Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport Director Richard Lapchick said. “Once you get power, it sometimes feels good to wield it, especially if you haven’t been able to wield it before. It’s more likely that athletes are going to ask for more rights, which includes more revenue-sharing for the athletes.”

The notion of athletes receiving compensation beyond scholarships and stipends has allies in high places. On Thursday, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee, backed by eight colleagues, proposed a “college athletes’ bill of rights,” which they plan to formalize into a bill. The proposal included “revenue-sharing agreements … that result in fair and equitable compensation.”

Players also have organized in unprecedented ways. In the past, most notably with Northwestern football players in 2015, college athletes have been thwarted in attempts to unionize. The confederation of players who formed #WeAreUnited and later #WeWantToPlay movements provided a potential road map for creating a players’ association.

The efforts of players to organize almost certainly will not lead to a union. With athletes in different states, playing for both public and private institutions, there are too many legal hurdles for all to be ruled employees and be recognized as a group that would have collective bargaining rights. But those challenges would not prevent them from forming a trade association, or from making collective, organized demands.

“Forming a nonprofit entity with bylaws, you can create a players association,” said Tim Nevius, a former NCAA investigator who started the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative. “Currently, (#WeAreUnited) is a collection of players that have a common interest and are using their voice to advocate for positive change. Those are the beginnings of a players’ association.”

“The Pac-12’s failures have made it clear that the time for change is now,” #We- AreUnited said in a statement after the Pac-12 announced it had canceled fall sports. “The system is broken. College athletes deserve and need a real voice in the form of a players association.”

An awakening among athletes may lead to collegiate shifts beyond athletic departments. Lapchick predicted that as athletes – the majority of whom are Black in high-level college football – speak out and examine systemic issues, they will question structures within their schools in a more forceful way than student bodies have. Issues such as the racial disparities in faculties and university leadership, and the pay difference between male and female professors may receive fresh scrutiny as athletes consider the forces shaping their concerns.

“I think as they move beyond COVID-19, they’re going to focus on racial issues,” Lapchick said. “It’s going to have a profound effect on institutions that have long claimed diversity is a pillar of the institution, but have failed to live up to that pillar. I think the athletes are going to hold the universities more accountable than the student bodies have been able to do. I don’t think there’s any question that’s going to be one part of the package.”

Thursday night, in an question-and-answer show posted to the NCAA’s social media channels, NCAA President Mark Emmert broke his silence on the split decision to play in fall among college football’s Power Five conferences. While announcing the NCAA had canceled all fall championships, he asserted that the NCAA has no authority over football in the Power Five, which consists of the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, ACC and Big 12.

“We don’t have authority to say to a school, ‘Yeah, OK, we know that your conference isn’t playing and you want to go ahead and play over here,’ ” Emmert said. “I may think that’s a silly idea, but it’s not up to me; it’s not up to anybody.”

Emmert’s comments underlined an odd truth about college football: No one is in charge. The commissioners of the Power Five conferences set the agenda for the sport’s highest level, with the other five Football Bowl Subdivision conference commissioners often aligning. But when they don’t agree, even on the most crucial decisions, it can lead to the chaos and uncertainty of this past week. For all the NCAA’s leadership issues, it canceled the lucrative men’s basketball tournament after one meeting, with a single announcement.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to tolerate this kind of fragmented decision-making,” Zimpher said. “It has been laid bare. That’s what a crisis does for you. It looks at the fault lines and exposes them.”

College football arrived at its balkanized structure not through design, but through years of negotiation and evolution, almost all of which was driven by the negotiation of television rights. The pandemic likely will force some kind of change, the direction of which remains to be seen. Lapchick noted prior discussions about the Power Five breaking away from the NCAA completely. Without reforms, schools and conferences may become even more incentivized to act strictly in their best interests.

Even if the current structure remains, a single head of college football, which would prevent the leadership void of the past week, may be created.

“There have been conversations, and you’re really seeing it more now: Do you really need a commissioner of college football?” Benedict said. “You have all these conference commissioners, but here we are today because of that, everyone is just really focused on what’s best for them individually. I can understand why people on the outside would look at things and say, ‘These are all Division I football programs, but there’s no interrelationship to how they’re making decisions, and does that make any sense?’ ”

Emmert shot down the idea of creating a separate college football commissioner, comparing calls for a single, powerful college football leader to authoritarianism.

“History, if it’s taught us anything, people love the concept of a czar, but they hate czars,” Emmert said. “Authoritarianism is a really fun concept; it just sucks when people actually have to live under it.”

As television contracts and rights fee led to massive increases in revenue over the past 20 years, college athletic departments developed what Zimpher called a “spend-what-we-make” mentality. Football teams engaged in arms races for coaches, staffs, facilities and recruiting budgets. Even when not directly turning a profit, athletic departments provided enormous tangible and intangible benefits to schools through marketing and publicity. They continued to spend money without any thought it could dry up.

If the suspension of a season can lead to such grave financial ruin, schools must reckon with the sustainability of their spending. As schools cut sports to save money and leaders speak about financial disaster, some point to habits formed over years of financial boom times.

“The issue is that they have spent money recklessly for decades, as illustrated by the increase in revenue from $3 billion to $14 billion over a 15-year period during which time spending tracked the same trajectory almost exactly,” Nevius said. “It did not become that much more expensive to conduct college sports. The schools chose to spend their massive increases of revenue in irresponsible ways, mostly on exorbitant coach’s salaries, lavish facilities, expansive increases in athletics and team staff, recruiting budgets and other areas. The pandemic has brought to bear irresponsible spending.”

While player movements and changes in leadership structure may be inevitable, whether athletic departments learn a lesson about spending is trickier. Once television money starts rolling back in, will leaders remember the financial hit, or will they follow suit when they see their rival build ornate facilities and pay millions for assistant coaches?

It will be up to the schools themselves to exercise restraint. Lawmakers trying to cap what a school spend or enforcing a rainy-day fund would be an antitrust violation, Nevius said. Asked how schools could be forced into fiscal responsibility, Zimpher replied, “We’re gonna need help.”

“Universities as a whole, athletic departments, conferences, I think we’re all going to be forced to have to look at things different financially moving forward,” Benedict said.

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