The only constant in life is change. Everyone knows this. Sometimes change is good and sometimes it is not so good. Everyone enjoys change that is for the better and everyone hates change for the worse. However, which of those categories any change happens to fall into is often subjective. College football is facing a number of changes that loom large for the sport, the players, the coaches, and the fans. These changes will revolutionize the sport.
I am a huge fan of college football. I grew up watching college football games with my dad, uncles, grandads, and cousins. Although we were not always supporting the same teams, we were all united in the view that the college game had more passion and wild unpredictability when compared to the pro game (which we all still enjoyed as well, just on a much subdued level). I will not pretend that there are scientific, objective, or technical reasons for this — it is all, admittedly, rooted in feelings and emotions.
When we would talk about it, we would often say it was about the “purity” of the game. This vaguely meant that the players were “amateurs” in that they did not (openly) receive a regular pay check for playing. Rather they were being given a great opportunity to receive an education and a shot at perhaps later playing ball professionally later. I, however, have personally always looked at a scholarship, room and board, food, and athletic clothing and gear as forms of payment or compensation totaling tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars over four to five years in value. Recent studies of the value of a college football scholarship to a major team ranges from about $36,000 to over $40,000 per year.
As we find things today, college football faces such monumental changes that the future of the sport could go many directions from this point. I am referring to the changes that are coming with with is known as “NIL” or name, image, likeness. This refers to the possibility that players will be allowed to profit off the use of those things on jerseys, for giving autographs, and or using these aspects of their identities in video games and so forth. Over the years, we have all heard terrible stories about scholarship student athletes who could not afford to go home to visit their families, football coaches who got into trouble for giving a couple hundred dollars to a player to go home for a family funeral, or groceries because the family was impoverished or players going into stores and seeing their number on a jersey blatantly representing them, and yet they could not make a penny off such sales.
Under any unbiased analysis, such scenarios are absurd. Making matters worse, any other student on campus is allowed to make profits in any (legal) way that can be conceived and (usually) without any consequence. Due to the NCAA’s model of amateurism, both players and universities have long labored under extreme duress trying to keep agents and wealthy boosters away from violating NCAA rules. These NCAA rules often were nonsensical but were supposedly intended to maintain an even playing field for all universities. This is, and always has been, a joke. Not simply because someone somewhere is always cutting corners or breaking rules, but because the NCAA’s investigatory and punishment practices have been all over the map.
NCAA inconsistency eventually brought about outright legal defiance. For example, the Miami Hurricanes have long been seen as a sort of rogue football program. Although presumably clean now, the ‘Canes were hit with a thick book full of NCAA violations and instead of falling down before the power of the NCAA, they instead chose to be defiant, lawyered up, and challenged it like a true legal case. The NCAA was then exposed as a paper tiger. More and more teams and conferences decided to keep the NCAA at arms length performing their own internal infractions investigations to self-report, and even self-impose sanctions. This model, used over much of the last twenty years, has been very effective by allowing the fig leaf of NCAA power to continue. All the while what happens behind the scenes is unclear. At least that is the common fan’s perspective. We simultaneously know the NCAA rules make little sense, are unjust to players, and are likely broken (sometimes with impunity) across the nation. And, so long as our team is not under investigation or penalty, who really cares what is going on behind the scenes.
We all hear the rumors: new cars suddenly appear in high school parking lots or on university campus following National Signing Day, new houses for parents of players, autographs for cash, and so on. But this is mostly accusation, innuendo, or (frankly) things fans just do not really care about anyway. In a way, that brings us to where we are now — some players are about to be paid and probably paid a lot. In fact, as I write this article, the Supreme Court has just sided with former players in a lawsuit against the NCAA regarding compensation. This effectively opens the door for player compensation beyond the scholarships and other elements I mentioned previously. Although the Supreme Court currently leans to the right politically, the decision was unanimous in the decision which has to be terrifying and ominous for the NCAA regarding future potential legal action.
The SCOTUS finding means that the NCAA is and has long been violating antitrust laws by placing arbitrary restrictions on player benefits. Even more frightening for the NCAA should be that the positions taken by two of the newest members of the Supreme Court (Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh) have established a range for player compensation without any restrictions from the NCAA. What this could mean is that players could be handed a pile of cash for winning a Heisman trophy or helping their team win a championship or even maintaining a 4.0 GPA and the NCAA could do nothing about it whatsoever.
The next question is: what will happen to college football once this begins? Will the support we love become a watered-down version of the professional game? Will it rise to new heights? Will college teams suddenly find themselves in competition with the professional league for high school seniors? Or will the pros continue to use college football as a sort of unofficial farm system to scout talent? One thing is certain — change that we cannot even think of right now will take place.
The NCAA faces a slew of other lawsuits and potentially a number of legislative changes that will utterly de-fang the institution for good, making it superfluous. They have poured millions into legal battles and attempting lobby members of Congress and the Senate to take it easy on them. Operating under the assumption that pay-for-play will soon become the order of the day, I’m going to speculate about what we may seen happen over the coming decades for college football.
- The formation of a union and collective bargaining.
- The first million dollar player.
- The first player to earn more than their head coach.
- New practice regulations and restrictions aimed at enhancing player safety.
- The establishment of a long-term medical care fund.
- A continued separation of the haves and have nots.
- The return of the 3 or 4 year player.
- A deterioration in head coach authority and power.
- The rise of new power teams due to financial influences (this may at first appear to contradict 6, but it doesn’t as both can happen at the same time).
- The dissolution of some teams altogether.
- Professional leagues may be forced to alter their pay structure due to what is happening at the collegiate level. For example, late round draft picks based upon the current structure may make less than seniors at major colleges due to across the board support and high payment guarantees. In other words, why opt to enter the draft if you’ll only potentially make late round money when you can make more staying at Alabama, USC, Texas, Ohio State, or Clemson?
- The ultimate dissolution of the NCAA itself. Although the NCAA may have died on October 13, 2017 when it allowed North Carolina to skate after being caught in decades of creating fake classes and allowing grade changes for players to remain eligible to play, the final blows may come from the courts or an act of Congress.
Those are just twelve areas in which I foresee great change for college football off the top of my head, but I openly admit their are likely a great many more that will take place once this begins. Beyond this, there is the open question regarding Title IX and how that will impact any pay-for-play scenario which again will likely require a number of court cases and possibly additional legislative action to resolve. One thing is for sure…major changes are coming for college football.