College Football: The NCAA isn’t dying, it’s dead and buried

NCAA logo (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
NCAA logo (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

COVID-19 has exposed the NCAA and college football for its lack of central leadership, and rendered amateurism as a relic of a long-departed era.

If there’s one positive to take out of the conference-wide cancellations and postponements of the 2020 college football season, it’s that the NCAA as we know it is now dead and buried.

Allow me to shovel some of the dirt.

Amid months of uncertainty around the status of the college football season, the NCAA stood silent, unwilling and perhaps incapable of nationwide mandates to try and save a season that has looked doomed since March. The NCAA and its member institutions have preferred instead to sit and wait, hoping to run out the clock on a virus that doesn’t give a darn about a game clock.

COVID-19 is aggressive and unrelenting; the NCAA has been meek and placable. The opportunity was there for someone to step up and assert control, proving the governing body of college athletics was there for more than arbitrary transfer-waiver decisions and even more arbitrary sanctions for programs run afoul. Strength was needed where weakness prevailed.

Decisions on the 2020 season have instead been left up to the conferences and programs, which have also sat dormant while the clock ticked toward a midnight of doom.

Smaller conferences kicked off the parade of cancellations, but it felt inevitable that it would ultimately trickle upward. That inevitability turned into reality on Tuesday when both the Big Ten and Pac-12, long joined at the hip, decided to postpone their fall sports with a pipe dream of playing in the spring instead.

The SEC, ACC, and Big-12, along with the AAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA, still seem determined to make a fall season work, as difficult as that will be to ultimately bring to fruition.

A spring season seems unlikely, with the NFL unlikely to move its 2021 draft from its comfortable April perch, all but assuring that the brightest draft-eligible stars would opt out of the spring season. Those who did not, though, would be tasked with the unenviable position of playing two seasons in a single calendar year — a logistical nightmare and morally irresponsible ask of unpaid laborers.

Amid the uncertainty surrounding these harrowing times has been the rising tide of college athletes who have finally begun to understand the incredible power they wield. From the Pac-12’s #WeAreUnited letter to the rallying cry of #WeWantToPlay, players are speaking up in a last-ditch effort to salvage an unsalvageable season. The athletes must speak up because the adults in the room sat on their hands for five months, both in the governing bodies of college athletics and within federal and state governments. That’s why we’re still here, 153 days since the NBA initially shut down and the March Madness of the NCAA Tournament was lost.

We’re stuck in a seemingly endless time loop, reliving the same days over and over again, locked in our homes, unable to spend needed time with family and friends.

We’re witnessing the last stand of amateurism. It has unsheathed its lonely, blood-stained sword to stave off thousands of angry riders bearing down upon it. It may have one more victory in it, but it will be a pyrrhic victory before it’s completely overrun and buried under an avalanche of indignation.

Understand that the Big Ten and Pac-12 have cancelled their seasons for that reason. To delay the inevitability of the current business model crashing and burning. There’s certainly enough information out there about the public health risk associated with trying to play college football, a sport where social distancing is perhaps more impossible than any other pastime. But that’s a clever disguise, a ruse they hope lasts long enough for everyone to forget about this relic of a bygone era.

There will be no business as usual when college football returns to the gridiron, whether that’s in the spring or fall of next season. The players have long had a grip on the cajones of the NCAA — but while before they were unaware, the athletes now see that power and they’re beginning to tighten their grip.

Amateurism is and has always been a fallacy; a capitalistic enterprise designed for those in power to reap all the monetary benefits from the workers who make all the money under the guise of a “free” education.

Capitalism has always existed to take advantage of the blood, sweat, and tears of workers. The greater the skill set, the greater the desire to exploit those skills. The rich get richer, while the poor and exploited are left with a promise that if they work hard enough the money will one day come. If you keep working, keep your head down, shut up, and don’t ask any questions, things will work out eventually (unless they don’t, but don’t worry about that!).

It didn’t work out for Steve because he was lazy and didn’t try hard enough! You’re not like Steve. And hey, look, you have been doing a real good job around here, so how about you take this free voucher for a free chicken sandwich. Fries and drink not included! What are we, made of money?!

The NCAA operates in the same capacity. Student-athletes are not allowed, yet, to even profit off of their own likeness. They make millions of dollars for their respective institutions and see that money continuously go into unnecessary and gaudy new locker rooms and other facilities. We know you want your slice of the pie, but check out this water slide! Isn’t this fun?

You’re promised as a student-athlete, at least in one of the major sports, that if you work hard enough you will make your money at the next level. Endorsements, signing bonuses, you name it. It’s yours for the taking. Never mind the fact that only roughly two percent of college football players make it to the NFL, and for those who do make it the average career length is a mere 3.3 years — or, you know, less than most of them spend playing football for free in college.

But what about the free education, you might ask? That question ignores the fact that programs often steer their players toward easier majors to maintain eligibility, because their ability to play football on Saturday is much more important to their coaches than their interest in physics or engineering.

The peak of a player’s popularity often comes in college, a point where the vast majority of athletes enjoy their best earning power. This is especially true for players at colleges in states that do not have NFL teams.

Take former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron for instance, who still plays in the NFL but is a career backup. He was a part of three national championship-winning teams in Tuscaloosa, two of which where he was the starting quarterback. How much money do you think that was worth?

A good starting quarterback for the University of Alabama is often the second most popular person in the entire state just beneath the head football coach (when things are going right). He’d have been a millionaire long before he signed his first professional contract had he been allowed to make money just off of his image in college, not to mention if he was given his share of the accrued profits by the university’s athletic department and football team.

Take Reggie Bush as another example. He was a true superstar in college, but merely a solid if unheralded NFL player. Was he more valuable during his time as a Heisman Trophy-winning running back at USC or as a bit player for the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins?

The only thing keeping guys like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields from being millionaires right now is that the NCAA will not allow that to happen. Both quarterbacks could sign seven-figure endorsement contracts this afternoon if that option was open to them.

Then, of course, there’s players like Joe Burrow. Thanks to the right set of circumstances, Burrow had the good fortune of putting together one of the best single seasons by a quarterback in the history of the sport in 2019. I don’t mean that negatively toward him because clearly Burrow worked his butt off. The talent was always there, but it took the right program and the right coach to unlock that for him and turn him from a mediocre player in 2018 into a legend in 2019. He went from an NFL Draft afterthought, a guy who would be lucky to get picked at all, to a no-brainer No. 1 pick and a $23.9 million signing bonus — all in one year.

Had he not redshirted for a year at Ohio State in 2014, Burrow would have been a senior in 2018 and his breakout season would’ve never happened. Maybe he never would have earned a real shot to play in the NFL because of it, and his legacy is left as the answer to the trivia question:

“Who was that quarterback at LSU right before Ed Orgeron really figured stuff out?” 

Danny Etling? 

No, Joe Burrow! 

Etling, Burrow. What’s the difference?

So the Big Ten is doing what it does best: punting. The opposing side is bearing down on them, and they’re back up to their own goal line for fourth-and-a-mile, the first-down marker nowhere in sight. So they’ll drop back to punt, in hopes that come spring the players will have forgotten their demands. And we’ll all rejoice in watching the ball sail right over their heads.

Next. College Football can still be saved in 2020. dark