The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College football was betrayed by the adults who were supposed to protect it

The traditional Rose Bowl matchup could be a casualty of the latest round of college realignment. (Tournament of Roses/Getty Images)
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The current state of college football is this: Across the nation, paunchy, over-exalted ticket managers who title themselves athletic directors are racing in ungainly circles trying to find a padded, covering seat for their butts in a game of musical chairs. For years they cried that name, image and likeness payments to players would be a threat to the game’s tradition and uniqueness. It’s nothing compared with the destruction wrought by these administrative gluttons, with their combination of treachery and ineptitude, who would give away a century to grab a television minute.

The 100-year-old Rose Bowl is in danger of collapsing into one of those tumbled-down structures you see on the slopes of old Rome while the supposed business geniuses turn college football into something sickish that looks like three different tumors stuck together. They have arrived at a situation in which Stanford, TCU, Cincinnati and Central Florida could wind up clapped into the same distended conference, in which players must take red-eye flights home from games, just so said administrators can claim to be media honchos while covering years of overdrafts.

All of the people saying college football would lose the character that made it distinct if players were ever allowed NIL payments? They didn’t recognize that the real people leeching it of originality and distinctiveness were the ones sitting in the corner offices.

Everything you need to know about USC and UCLA’s move to the Big Ten

These functionaries would do any kind of business, no matter how unseemly, rather than do the most fundamental thing: balance sensible budgets in the name of academia. College athletics is supposed to be a break-even proposition, a nonprofit endeavor with education as its aim. Amateurism was never required for that. Simple integrity was. The right intention.

Instead, they have ruled college football with market panic and predatory practices. These continental leaps by schools toward creating bloated “super conferences” are not the result of the “rapidly changing sports media and college athletic landscapes,” as Southern Cal President Carol Folt tried to sell it disingenuously to her constituency. They are the result of the slow gathering of lousy practices over decades that were the furthest thing from well intentioned.

UCLA is frantically clutching at the end of a rope and swinging across the country to the Big Ten because it has apparently run up a $102.8 million deficit, which the Big Ten’s media rake-off will help alleviate. A good deal of the deficit is the inheritance left by former athletic director Dan Guerrero when he retired rich in 2020. As The Washington Post’s Will Hobson revealed in a devastating expose of college sports fiscal practices in 2015, Guerrero increased his salary from $299,00 to $920,000 between 2004 and 2014, though his duties remained the same.

Another of Guerrero’s bequests to college athletics was to grow UCLA’s administrative staff from 97 to 141 employees and its non-coaching payroll from $9.1 million to $16 million in that span, after adjusting for inflation. On his watch, football coach Chip Kelly was allowed to increase the “nutrition” budget for his team from $1 million to $5.4 million. Such excesses put these schools on a path toward catastrophe, even before a real one arrived with the coronavirus pandemic.

But the frenzied economic climate goes back much further than this kind of disastrous bloating of athletic departments in the past 20 years, the $50 million gross misallocations to indoor waterfalls and locker rooms like first-class yacht cabins.

It dates from the power schools’ subversion of the Supreme Court’s 1984 antitrust ruling in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, which stripped the NCAA of its ability to regulate college football’s TV contracts and team appearances on the air. The ruling was intended to be a corrective to the NCAA’s overbearing exercise of its powers, but it didn’t recognize that there is a legitimate state regulatory interest in curbing the excess profiteering of athletic department scoundrels who are simply using the kids for skim.

The University of Georgia’s president at the time, Fred Davison, made clear why the big football schools were suing to strip the NCAA of regulatory control over TV rights: He wanted an end to “a tyranny of the majority to impose itself on the commercial enterprise.” Why should Georgia have to split airtime and media profits with a mass of smaller colleges? Even then, the ministers at the power schools were talking about forming a single “super conference” in which the peons would be brushed aside so the giants could compete solely against giants — and not have to profit-share with Rutgers or Hofstra or Vanderbilt. They have been trying to get to this consolidated-wealth point for decades.

John Feinstein: USC and UCLA share values with the Big Ten all right. Greed, for one.

In a dissent, Byron “Whizzer” White and William Rehnquist recognized this ulterior motive and where it led. White wrote that the court was “subjugating the NCAA’s educational goals” to “purely competitive commercialism.” And the end game would be total cannibalism. They were exactly right.

So now Virginia, North Carolina, Clemson and Florida State may be flirting with the SEC, and the Big 12 may try to swallow half a dozen Pac-12 schools — not because it’s good for the players or the student body or will lead to interesting and uplifting competition but because of the mega-broadcasting rights deals. And for those who are left out, it could mean the gutting of entire athletic departments.

If college football is anything more than pageantry and fevered boosterism, it’s because there is something worth teaching in it. It doesn’t make you naive to say college athletics can and should have a genuine moral-educational component. In the right hands, the game is a discipline that has absolutely nothing to do with money or amateurism. It teaches a certain brand of, for lack of a better word, citizenship. It’s all about restraint of selfish desires for a larger goal in the name of a collective prideful endeavor. When you strip the final vestiges of that away, the game truly does become unrecognizable.

This “new landscape” of college football is not new at all but rather the black decay of a half-century of totally unrestrained commercialization by the administrators. The game they’re blighting is likely to be a lot less captivating and worthwhile as a result. That’s what ultimately will kill interest in the sport, not the cash in the pockets of the kids.

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