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Autonomy and What I Think it Means for College Football

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RBR's 12NationalChampionships penned this overview of yesterday's Big 5 autonomy announcement and I felt it was a great summary of what it means to Alabama and college football as a whole. Please enjoy. - bammer

The so-called Power 5 conferences received autonomy today from the NCAA Division I Board of Directors (although it still has to go to a member vote). In effect, this frees the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 to create their own rules within the NCAA structure and most likely prevents the Power 5 from breaking away entirely.

For folks who don't follow college football closely, this appears to be a move to allow large college football programs to give some money to players, in the form of stipends, and that is certainly part of what's going on here. However, the long-term impact to college football is still largely unknown. Let's take a look at how we got here and what I think the future holds for America's second largest sport.

Three major factors brought us here today.

The first is television. College football fans my age and older remember the days when ABC carried a game of the week on Saturdays, or maybe two. Now nearly every major college game can be seen on any number of outlets during the season, not only on Saturdays, but Thursdays, Fridays, and Tuesdays as well. It might surprise you to learn that we owe this development not only to the proliferation of cable television, but also to the Supreme Court.

In 1984, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled, in NCAA vs. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, that the NCAA's limitation of television rights was a restraint of trade - basically a monopoly. The NCAA argued that it was protecting football stadium attendance by limiting the appearance of university teams on television. The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia Athletic Association disagreed, and sued the NCAA. The Court sided with the universities. Stripping the NCAA of its ability to control television rights not only led to the ability of conferences to negotiate their own deals, but also began a proliferation of the product, culminating in increased viewership, a surge in the sport's popularity, and huge television contracts.

Secondly, these big money contracts began coming in at the same time that a growing body of research began to reveal to the general public that head injuries were much more common and dangerous than previously believed. Memory problems, degenerative brain diseases, and a number of otherwise unexplained suicides among several high-profile former football players appeared to be tied to repetitive brain injuries sustained during play years, and even decades, prior. The research also showed that small, repeated blows to the head, such as any number of football players would sustain during a game, could have the same long-term effects as repeated severe concussions.

As it became clear to casual fans of the game that football could be much more detrimental to the athletes who played it than previously believed, the inequities of NCAA regulations became more and more odious. How could it be fair that universities like Texas, Alabama, and Notre Dame were earning tens of millions of dollars in profits, and paying their coaches obscene amounts of money, while NCAA rules prevented the athletes who played the game from controlling their own images or earning any revenue of their own from their play? Wasn't this another example of the NCAA exerting a restraint of trade?

Finally, lawsuits like the EA Sports Video Game case and the threat of legislative action by Congress forced major universities to start discussing providing additional value to college athletes beyond that of a sometimes farcical college education. Some schools and conferences began guaranteeing four-year scholarships to the athletes, rather than the typical one-year renewable deal. The major conferences then proposed changing NCAA rules, to provide $2000 stipends to college athletes in addition to their scholarships. However, the smaller schools in Division I blocked this proposal.

All of that brought us to this day. Rather than splitting off completely from the NCAA - which provides some modicum of legitimacy, not to mention tax-exempt status to its members - the Power 5 worked to separate themselves from the small schools, which claimed not to be able to afford stipends. The arrangement, if approved, would provide a means for major schools to create their own sets of rules, which smaller schools could decide to follow, or not. So, what does this mean for the future of college football?

1. The end of "BCS-Busters"

Of course, with the advent of the college football playoff, the BCS is dead anyway. However, my point is about the teams that were often labeled BCS-busters - minor conference teams that appeared to have a chance to compete for a national title. Boise State, TCU, Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Utah, and a handful of other teams have risen to national prominence in the last decade or so, finishing with undefeated regular seasons and facing off against a major conference opponent in a Bowl game. While none of them won a national title, the college football playoff at least gives teams like that a real shot, right?

Well, it might, if not for autonomy.

See, the BCS-Buster schools were "busters" precisely because they weren't part of the six (at that time) major conferences that had formed the BCS. These schools, as members of minor conferences like the Mountain West and the MAC, had to basically finish with perfect seasons and hope that they could qualify for an at-large bid to a BCS bowl. That's still theoretically possible, but not likely. To see why, first, look at what happened to those teams.

  • Boise State - Tried hard to convince the Pac-12 to invite them. However, relatively poor academics and a tiny television market made that a nonstarter.
  • TCU - Joined the Big 12 after Texas A&M left for the SEC.
  • Louisville - Joined the ACC after Maryland left for the Big Ten.
  • Cincinnati - Relegated to the American conference after the Big East imploded, it has been rumored as a candidate for Big 12 expansion, if the Big 12 actually goes to twelve teams.
  • West Virginia - Invited to the Big 12.
  • Utah - Invited to the Pac-12.

So, the lucky ones got swallowed up by major conferences during the realignment of 2010-2013. The Big 6 became the Power 5, and a few more schools got left out of the process. Now, assume that the Power 5 conferences go ahead and vote to offer stipends covering the full cost of tuition to all student-athletes. Right now, a proposed sum of $5000 per athlete is being bandied about. The minor schools have no big television money to keep up with the Power 5 and cover that cost. Keep in mind that only around 25-30 university athletic departments even operate in the black today, and then add another one or two million dollars a year in expenses.

Schools like Alabama can absorb that without batting an eye. Schools like Fresno State cannot.

And if you are a star athlete, the majority of whom are not wealthy by any means, and you could choose between a school that can offer you a scholarship and a school that offers you a scholarship plus five grand a year, what would you do? There was never a level playing field, but the rules were at least the same for everyone in Division I. Now they won't be, and there's every reason to think that the minor schools will be less competitive.

2. UAB will die.

Ok, not really. But teams that are at the fringe of the Football Bowl Subdivision, like UAB, will likely drop out of the FBS, or stop playing football altogether. In recent years, a number of schools, like UAB, Troy, Florida Atlantic, Georgia State, and Texas State, have joined the FBS, latching on to the same division that boasts major traditional powers like Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and of course, Alabama. The idea is that by competing with the major powers, revenue, attendance, and competitiveness will increase.

This has largely gone poorly for these teams, who had a hard time competing on the same field with established teams. To compete in FBS requires certain stadium attendance levels that can be difficult for new members to meet. Major college football is expensive too, and without major television revenue, the major conferences are distancing themselves from their smaller brethren.

The separation of the Power 5 into, what for all intents and purposes is another division, makes it highly unlikely that many of these fringe programs will be able to justify the continued experiment to trustees and alumni. That's not to say that there won't be an upset now and then. At least a couple of times a season an FCS school will knock off a major college opponent, but these occasions are memorable precisely because they are rare. FCS schools are less competitive because they are limited to 63 scholarship players per team (as opposed to 85 for FBS schools). What would keep the Power 5 schools from expanding that number for themselves in the future? In the past, the smaller schools prevented that from happening. Now, they could not stop it.

3. Major college football will become semi-professional.

This is the one I am dreading. No one would argue that NFL football is played at a higher level of talent than college football. After all, only the best college players make it to the pros. However, another difference between college and pro games is discernible to anyone who can hear. Last season people marveled at the crowds at Seattle's CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks' "12th Man" gives them a decided home-field advantage. The reason it was so remarkable is that it is so rare in NFL football. What seems fairly normal to SEC football fans - loud, raucous crowds screaming and cheering for three solid hours - is almost nonexistent in the NFL. Although it isn't exclusively true, many college football fans spent years attending their alma maters. They have memories and friendships that tie them to the school. They don't have to worry about their favorite team leaving town, or their favorite player leaving to play for more money somewhere else.

The fallout of the Northwestern football team's vote on whether or not to unionize, regardless of what the outcome will finally turn out to be, has altered the landscape of college football. If the National Labor Relations Board upholds an official's ruling that scholarship football players are employees, then they will not only have the right to unionize, but may be entitled to workers compensation benefits, unemployment insurance, and some portion of the revenue generated by college sports.

It would be hard to argue, in light of the potential for catastrophic, life-altering injuries and long-term disabilities from playing football, that these players don't deserve at least the opportunity to decide to unionize. In their best incarnations, unions protect workers from abuse and exploitation. However, the natural progression of this might mean free agency, contract disputes, and work stoppages. Can you imagine the Alabama-West Virginia game being delayed or cancelled by a players' strike? Or having a group of non-scholarship walk-ons playing the game while the scholarship players sit out? It has happened before in all the major professional sports, and there's little reason to believe it couldn't happen here.

One might argue that the decision on autonomy is an effort to stave this off, by allowing schools to address some player complaints by sharing revenues above and beyond the cost of scholarships. But I'm afraid that the genie is already out of the bottle, and college football will be completely unrecognizable in the next decade or two, assuming it even still exists.