Sports

Ubben: It’s the end of college football as we know it. Here’s why I feel fine

I still remember the first time I walked through the gates. A neighbor was taking some friends to a college football game to celebrate his birthday from him and asked if I wanted to go.

It was 1995, and Arkansas was hosting South Carolina, and when I walked through the gates, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I had never seen that many people in one place. The spectacle of the game itself and all the pageantry, cheers, smells and sounds that surrounded it left me in awe.

No one else in my family watched or cared about sports. I had watched tons of NBA VHS tapes but had no frame of reference for what I witnessed that day as Arkansas ran up the score on South Carolina.

I fell in love. I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve walked through gates like those in the nearly three decades since. I’m currently working my dream job, finding the things that interest me most about the sport I’m most interested in and writing about them. The regional differences in style, traditions and fans make this sport the best on the planet.

But as I got older and kept my nose pressed against the glass of the sport, some things never made sense. As I left high school and began covering the sport in college as a member of the media in 2009, some truths crystallized.

There was so much money being spread around to so many people, and none of it went to players. Why could graduate assistants getting coffee for coaches collect a paycheck, but the players people paid ticket prices and cable bills to see could not?

It always felt a little icky. The more I studied it and spent time around programs, “icky” became an understatement. Injustice was a far more apt description.

The day I walked through those gates of Razorback Stadium 27 years ago, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden was the sport’s highest-paid coach. He made $975,000, with bonuses that could (and did) make him the first million-dollar coach in college football history. Last year, Nick Saban made 10 times as much, at $9.75 million. And at least 90 of the 130 FBS head coaches made more than $1 million.

It has been big business for decades. Calling it an amateur sport has long been insulting to the intelligence of anyone who walked inside the palatial stadiums and state-of-the-art facilities. And until last year, players were artificially restricted from monetizing any part of their existence while universities sold jerseys bearing the number of players they claimed for decades had no value without the name on the front of the jersey.

As the name, image and likeness space has given way to collectives, we’ve learned that disparity was somehow even worse than many thoughts, even as the hush-hush, under-the-table money that has flowed through college sports suggested otherwise. What has become clear during the past six months is that money was a fraction of what players were truly worth.

So yes, college football is changing. The end of the world as we know it has arrived. But it is not the end of college football. It’s college football’s financial renaissance, a rebirth as it sheds a skin it should have escaped long ago.

College athletes deserved to be paid. But the hurdles that arrive in tandem, like answering the how and how much, always have been too high to clear for the world of college sports that legislates at a glacial pace. Ironically, college football now has accidentally legislated itself into a pay-for-play open market, but not everyone is willing to pay … yet. Places that want to win will figure it out soon enough.

I love college football, and if you love something, you don’t want to see it hurt people. And for decades since the television money in the sport has exploded, college football has hurt people. It has churned players through programs on a conveyor belt and squeezed their value into coaching salaries and facilities. The lucky ones moved on to pro careers, but most of them had their value arbitrarily restricted during the time when they’re most valuable, solely because that’s always the way it had been done.

College football’s renaissance was always going to be a road filled with potholes and speed bumps. The sport is hitting them often now, and people in the car are complaining. Anyone who believed introducing financial freedom wasn’t going to cause problems was naive.

But sometimes you do difficult things because they’re the right thing to do. And sometimes you do difficult things because the Supreme Court makes you. Either way, doing the right thing is often not the easy thing. College football is dealing with that reality now.

Avoiding the problems college football is wrestling with now would mean holding firm to a system that the Supreme Court described in the same way that anyone who could hold their nose long enough to closely examine would see, too.

“The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his concurring opinion. “The NCAA is not above the law.”

So all these headaches, from star players leaving campuses to collectives simultaneously raising eyebrows and player wages across the sport? They’re problems caused by pipe dreams, willful ignorance and inaction, not fans or media who could see the obvious injustice and pointed it out at every opportunity.

Universities that made up the NCAA could easily have seen this sea change coming and tried to ease into common-sense legislation and a more fair and equitable system. Instead, they held onto a dream that they could count on the status quo in perpetuity. Instead, the Supreme Court sent a shock to the system.

Member schools and administrators were wholly unprepared for this new world, and the blame for the upheaval in the sport sits squarely on their shoulders. Still, that upheaval is merely a rapid, unsettling evolution. It is not the beginning of the end.

Critics of the new world of college football, with expanding playoffs and players collecting paychecks complain they don’t want the sport to become the NFL. The only difference in college and the NFL are the places they play the games. Oh, and the pro players get what they’ve earned.

College programs are the front porch and identity of communities and universities. A century of tradition and identity doesn’t disappear overnight because players are no longer restricted by unfair transfer rules or artificially limited from capitalizing on their obvious worth.

Athletes still will play games on gorgeous fall Saturdays across the country. Tens of thousands of people will make their way through the gates — more in places that are winning, of course — and millions more will watch on TV. College football is a billion-dollar enterprise that has denied some of its most valuable participants their worth based on outrageous, arbitrary rules that were thoroughly and rightfully skewered by the Supreme Court in a ruling that has changed everything and defanged the inconsistent, incompetent enforcement arm of the NCAA.

There are issues, yes. There are problems.

Tampering shouldn’t happen. It’s the one NCAA rule that could and should be enforced, but NCAA representatives made it clear to coaches in January that it likely will not be. At least for now. (For what it’s worth, players are not being paid or under contract by universities so technically, tampering is not the right term. But it does make people angry, and it is an issue.)

If USC or people working on behalf of USC reached out to Jordan Addison before he was in the transfer portal, that’s not great. It’s also not unique and nothing close to a reason to believe the old way was better.

College sports will be dealing with many of these issues for years, but equitable solutions will arrive eventually. College football is changing. It is not ending. It is not dying. People still care. Come fall Saturdays, there is no sign of excellence on the field and the pageantry that surrounds it and marks the sport we love will change.

It is not worth preserving the infrastructure of an enterprise that denied thousands of athletes, a growing majority of them Black, life-changing money over decades so that universities could build a bigger Jumbotron or install cryotherapy chambers and $10,000 lockers. Two years ago, America was filled with fervor to right the wrongs of America’s past and present and support the Black community in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Black squares on Instagram only give the people who post them a false sense of satisfaction for doing the bare minimum. How can America take a tangible step toward equality? We’re watching it happen.

What is the road to the “death” of college football? Will enough casual fans really tune out because players move schools too often or they’re paid? Have enough people really bought into the lie that their program’s chances to keep pace with Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State have changed because money is flowing to players who can now transfer somewhere for free?

I agree that situations like Addison’s possible sudden exit to USC isn’t good for the sport, but I also wholly reject the idea it’s the first step in the sport’s death or that Addison is somehow wrong for turning down life-changing money if it’s right in front of him. Ask Marcus Lattimore how sure a pro football career is for anyone, no matter how great they are on the field.

Collectives are influencing where players sign out of high school and out of the portal. Critics of the new world call this a bad thing, like money didn’t influence why they chose one company over another in their own work lives.

This is how the world works. College football is special, but like the Supreme Court said, it should not be allowed to exist outside the laws of capitalism, especially when its laws robbed players of millions of dollars over decades. Scholarships are great. They have real value. But the argument they were equal to the value players provided universities is hilariously ignorant, and the checks collectives are writing are proving it more wrong by the day.

Players moving as wildly and frequently as they do now isn’t a good thing for the sport, but again, the idea it will kill the sport ignores the reality of how ingrained in the culture college football is in so many places around the country. And as collectives rise with guaranteed money in multi-year deals, I strongly suspect player movement will slow substantially in the years to come.

Now, however, the money for players from campus to campus varies wildly and the sport is in transition. That will even out in time, but for now, players are chasing money and opportunity where they can get it.

Not long ago, these same acts were decried and demonized as slimy. The people who were trying to earn money on the obvious value they provided, something just about everyone in the world tries to do every day, were colored as villains.

Reggie Bush was not a villain. Johnny Football was not a villain. Cam Newton was not a villain. AJ Green and Dez Bryant were not villains.

The rules of amateurism were the villain the whole time, no matter how many people tried to lionize them as ideals worth preserving. It was a grift, making millions off unpaid labor. It has always been wrong. But now, as the artificial restrictions that produced those characterizations fall away, so do the scales from more and more peoples’ eyes.

So yes, the Supreme Court officially ushered in the end of the world as we know it. But it’s not the end of college football. It’s a bumpy, difficult introduction to a new world that, to those no longer viewing the sport through the unconstitutional lens of the NCAA, is a lot less icky and a whole lot more just.

That’s not something to fear. It’s something to celebrate.

(Photo of Jordan Addison: Justin Berl/Getty Images)

.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button