The college sports model is broken.
That was true before a pandemic came along to rock every facet of our lives. But the COVID-19 crisis certainly is the best example yet why we need an overhaul of the sports system that brings so much joy to so many fans.
It could be that every reasonable person would have come to the same conclusion about whether the 2020 college football season could be played this season, how many games the season would include and whether there was any possibility to salvage a playoff to crown a national champion either in January or after the season was played in the spring.
But there wasn’t a chance for everyone to come to a consensus on those critical points because there is no college football commission, no college football governing body, no oversight at all really. The NCAA has long been powerless when it comes to the desires of the Power 5 conferences.
The Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 control their contracts with the television networks. That obscene amount of revenue is why every coach in the SEC makes more than $3 million annually. The 14 coaches in the league make between $9.1 million (Alabama’s Nick Saban) and $3.3 million (Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp).
The TV money is also why we see waterfalls in football buildings, stadium video screens as big as city blocks and recruiting budgets that account for millions of dollars spent every year.
But with each individual conference having the power of the purse strings comes the ability to act without regard for what’s best for the entire sport.
That was on full display last week when the Big Ten became the first conference to announce it would play only conference games this season in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Commissioners of the other Power 5 conferences — who had been in regular contact with their counterparts in each league — were shocked when the Big Ten announced its decision.
The decision forced the hand of the other leagues. The SEC couldn’t carry on with its planned slate even though the Big Ten and SEC surprisingly had no regular-season games scheduled against each other.
The point quickly became moot when the Pac-12 followed the lead of the Big Ten and announced it would play only conference games. That meant Alabama’s opener against Southern Cal scheduled for Dallas was canceled, leading to even more changes being necessitated.
The decision makes sense. But the way we arrived at it does not.
College football desperately needs a commissioner or governing committee to look out for the best interests of the sport.
One reason the Big Ten decided to limit its teams to only conference games is so the league could guarantee its stringent health testing could be administered the same way each week. That makes sense, but it wouldn’t be necessary if there was a person or committee to mandate those testing procedures at every location.
The result of the Big Ten’s decision is that the Iowa Hawkeyes are still scheduled to travel over Illinois, Indiana and Ohio on their way to a conference road game at Penn State, but their game against intra-state, non-conference rival Iowa State has already been canceled.
That makes no sense. The only explanation for how that kind of outcome can be reached can only be described in one word: Greed.
Conference commissioners are dead set against giving up their power and control over the money to someone else.
Perhaps there was no other way for this season to play out considering the threat presented by the pandemic. But there will be other crisis situations and growth opportunities in the future. Will those future decisions be made by whichever conference decides to make up its mind first?
There has got to be a better way.
Maybe the conference commissioners will be frustrated enough with the Big Ten to do what would have previously seemed inconceivable. They could step forward to say we will be better prepared to respond the next time the sport faces a crisis situation like the one presented by COVID-19, because we will be speaking with one voice.
That’s probably just an unrealistic dream.
Nobody wants to give up power and money even if it’s in the best interest of the sport.
The system of college sports is broken. If the challenges presented by this pandemic won’t inspire change then it’s hard to imagine anything ever could.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on the new Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m.
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