The new college football season will be close to a return to normalcy. After a fraught 2020 that felt morally compromising in ways that go beyond the sport’s usual conflicts, 2021 will bring fans back to seats in large numbers and, hopefully, far fewer COVID cases than the sport had last year. (The exact number of those cases is impossible to land on because schools, conferences, and the NCAA declined to make bulk data available to the public.) ESPN’s College GameDay will have raucous crowds behind its set, marching bands will play on, Alabama will make the College Football Playoff despite losing its whole roster to the NFL, Nebraska will be a disappointment, and the landscape will look a lot like it’s looked for a long time.
It will not feel so familiar forever. Several developments during the pandemic have accelerated an eternally halting process of change in this sport. At this point, the train can’t be stopped. The result will not be the death of college football or even its transition into something unrecognizable: Clemson will still wear orange. Boise State will still play on blue turf. Oil men will still throw cash at Texas A&M. But everywhere other than inside the stadiums, college football is poised to soon look much different from its first 150 years. Political winds that were calm have gathered speed, and so have cold, hard, capitalist forces that have made the status quo increasingly hard to maintain. In general, that is worth celebrating. College sports’ old model is worth breaking. Hopefully, what replaces it will be an improvement.
The argument that change is coming soon starts with the NCAA, which finds itself in big trouble in both the legal and political arenas. For the first time in the history of organized American college sports, athletes nationwide have the option to profit off their name, image, and likeness without jeopardizing their eligibility. The NCAA’s move to allow that, starting on July 1, came at gunpoint. After California passed a bill in 2019 that made the NCAA’s ban on such payments illegal, dozens of states followed suit, to the point that now only a handful do not have name, image, and likeness, or NIL, laws on the books or under consideration. The NCAA capitulated rather than have a patchwork of rules for teams in different states, and now something the association always warned could lead to the professionalization of college sports (the horror) has become the law of the land. The NCAA’s aversion to third-party payments to athletes, as it said in public, was that it might open a door to schools one day having to pay athletes. Whether that cause-and-effect relationship checks out or not, we’ll learn soon whether NIL was the first step in a rapid transformation of athlete earning rights.
NIL laws have been an unusual area of bipartisan consensus. Ron DeSantis, Gavin Newsom, and their legislative majorities more or less agree on the subject. But that is not the only issue where opposition to college sports business as usual has had a weirdly unifying effect. A 9–0 Supreme Court handed the NCAA a loss this June in NCAA v. Alston, wherein the association tried to get the justices to toss a lower-court ruling that said national caps on “education-related” benefits to athletes were an antitrust violation. Though the NCAA tried to downplay the ruling as limited in scope, the justices sent several signals that they’re open to future challenges to its rules, according to sports lawyers and court-watchers who were paying attention. A future plaintiff will try to test the NCAA’s rules limiting payments to players in the first place. It is no longer crazy to believe the courts, including the highest one, will hear them out receptively.
Somehow, the Supreme Court might not be the NCAA’s most serious problem. Democratic politicians in high places have begun to take an interest in college athlete rights and labor protections. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy introduced a bill in May that would give college athletes union rights. That bill isn’t passing in the current Congress, but keep in mind that name, image, and likeness went from a novelty issue in 2019 to a national standard in 2021. The NCAA is an appealing target for Democratic elected officials who see college sports as a fertile place to make gains on both racial justice and labor organizing. (Nonwhite players are a majority in football, the country’s cash-cow college sport.)
The Biden administration opposed the NCAA in Alston, and the recently installed general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Ohr, is the same person who—as an NLRB regional director—gave Northwestern football players the go-ahead to organize a union before the national board kiboshed his ruling in 2015. The NIL and union issues are not the same, but when Biden and Sanders are sending signals that they’re on the same side of something, it probably has a future in Democratic politics.
The administrators that have input on much of the NCAA’s decision-making are fed up with Mark Emmert, the association president, or at least they’re claiming to reporters that they are. He keeps getting raises, because no one wearing a suit fails downward in college sports. But Emmert seems to know the NCAA is in a precarious state, because he has taken the thermonuclear step of not merely appointing a subcommittee but calling a constitutional convention for later in the year. (That is the actual name the NCAA has given the event.) Will it lead to anything? Maybe not, other than some Recommendations of ways to Improve the Student-Athlete Experience. But it’s a sign that the people atop the NCAA’s edifice know something has to change, even if they can’t wrap their heads around what it is.
If the NCAA dramatically changes shape, its powers have to flow somewhere. The best bet is to conferences, which now have a few governance responsibilities but mainly exist as collective vehicles for 10 or 16 schools to negotiate TV deals and max out their rights payments. The NCAA took a step in this direction in 2014, when it gave the Power Five leagues the autonomy to make their own rules on issues like how much of the cost of attendance schools are allowed to cover for athletes. Some time in the next few years, things will move in that direction again. One of the most powerful people in college sports, Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, has been publicly pushing for decentralization of NCAA powers. His and his allies’ basic rationale is that what makes sense at LSU doesn’t necessarily make sense at Louisiana Tech. Sankey thinks the Power Five should be allowed to offer more scholarships than schools in other conferences. Emmert, the NCAA president, sounds resigned to something like Sankey’s idea happening. Nobody says out loud that such a system could also let big schools pay players in profitable sports without forcing all of college sports to move to a pay-for-play model—if politicians, judges, and players push them into a corner where they have little choice.
A power shift toward the biggest conferences would fit with recent history. The leagues already make the lucrative TV deals, with the exception of those for the national basketball tournaments. They already control the College Football Playoff, which will eventually grow to 12 teams and become even more of a financial bonanza than it is today. Playoff expansion will mean an increased season length for players while schools cash out. Around the time the Playoff expands, Texas and Oklahoma will join Sankey’s SEC, again meaning more money for those schools while not doing anything in particular for players. All taken together, these moves only make it harder to defend an ongoing amateurism charade. To be fair, college administrators are well practiced in this area and might be able to keep it up for a while yet. But they can’t do it forever, especially with so many outside interests watching more closely than ever before.
Your fan experience will keep changing against this backdrop, too. College football used to gear itself toward in-person consumption. The NCAA kept a death grip on TV rights for decades in an attempt to protect live attendance at games. The Supreme Court put a permanent stop to that in the 1980s, when conferences took control and started printing dollars via expanded telecasts. Depending on how valuable a TV property your team is, you might have already had more trouble going to and from games as a result of a shift toward television. Imagine being a Wyoming fan and having to either get a hotel or drive two hours home from a game that kicked at 8 p.m. local time because that’s when Fox or ESPN needed it for a late-night broadcast window on the East Coast—or being a West Virginia fan and traveling from Morgantown to Fort Worth to catch a conference road game. The Pac-12 started playing games at 9 a.m. Pacific time in 2020, so it could get them on the air at noon out East. Fans couldn’t go to games anyway then, and the future of such early kickoffs is uncertain. What is more obvious is that TV will continue to rule, and that fans of tons of teams will need to buy streaming services and something like cable or YouTube TV to watch their teams. In that realm, the future is now.
Those changes will serve schools’ bank accounts, just like every other big organizational change in college football (and by extension, college sports) for the past 25 years or so, or longer. The athletes have always understood that this was happening. What’s relatively new is that they are willing to confront their schools in public about it. Players took more collective action than ever to press their schools in 2020, when a mix of pandemic working conditions and social upheaval around racism put a lot of college athletes in a confrontational posture with their universities.
The 2020 season went on anyway—but with a mixture of an increasingly activist player base and so many powerful allies, college sports’ old model has never been in this much danger. The athletes know how much money is in this banana stand, especially in football, and who gets to keep it. They are en route to take more of it, no matter what the NCAA looks like when they do.