The train is at College Station
While the NFL largely dominates An Irishman on Football’s coverage, the specter of college football is never far away. Of course, college is the nursery ground that shapes the NFL with the conveyor belt of talent it funnels through. I’ve written at length about how, since the 2017 NFL draft, college has produced waves of players, especially on the offensive side of the ball, that have never been more NFL ready. COVID-19 hit college sports particularly hard. Athletics departments in Division 1 schools across America began shedding programs and went into survival mode to protect the cash cow and powerhouse - college football.
Today, I’ll focus on the challenges facing college football, as it negotiates a COVID-19 laden season, and the exploring grip it has on America on Saturday’s.
A lucrative amateur business
According to Forbes, college football’s most valuable top 25 programs combined to earn on average $1.5 billion in profit on annual revenues of $2.7 billion. Forbes ranked the teams by average football revenue from the 2015 to 2017 seasons, the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education and the NCAA, college athletics’ governing body. Television network budgets make up a considerable part of college football coffers. The Forbes list is a who’s who of U.S. states where college football is the bedrock of the game. At the top it's no surprise to see the University of Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Florida and Notre Dame. Texas A&M is college football’s most valuable program, based in College Station, Texas.
At the heart of college football is the student athlete and the historically enshrined Corinthian (amateur) values that go with varsity sports. Of course, most people know they are amateur in name only. The system is anachronistic and ripe for reform. Rival world sports codes facing a similar dilemma don’t really exist. In Europe, arguably the distant cousin of college football as a professional amateur game is gaelic football in Ireland. Gaelic games in Ireland have the kind of institutional and cultural sway that football has in America. When I took my wife to a Dublin game in Croke Park, Dublin, we watched the home team in their AIG sponsored jerseys, win in front of 70,000 fans. The inter-county players in Ireland are amateur, and are lucky if they get gas mileage paid for. In their day jobs, they work as teachers, accountants, farmers and sales managers. They do not get paid for their sporting commitment, yet train and perform like professionals. My wife, a Michigan woman, has brought me up to speed on what it was like to attend University of Michigan games in the Big House in Ann Arbor, where crowds of over 107,000 congregate. A staggering figure, that speaks to the level of interest and stature of the game. In 2019, California opted to compensate college athletes by allowing them to actively pursue sponsorships and endorsements. It shook college football to its core and threatened its business model. The ripple effects of that ruling are visible this college football season. The standout NFL prospect in the Big Ten football Conference is Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. After the Big Ten initially opted out of the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns, Fields used his platform, pleading for them to overturn their decision. Primarily, because it would impact his position in the 2021 NFL draft, and also because as a star player in the college game, he felt he could flex his muscles. Clemson’s quarterback Trevor Lawrence is primed to be the number one draft pick in 2021. He’s missing two weeks having contracted the coronavirus. He too spoke up about the need for college football to come back. That a college athlete would have made this move five years ago is inconceivable. Today the players are emboldened.
Big Ten punched in the mouth
When Donald Trump realized he had the Big Ten Conference as a punching bag, he pummeled it for all its worth. After the Big Ten opted out of the college football season in August, Trump knew he had constituents in key midwestern states in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan to rally around his re-election campaign. Initially, the Big Ten presidents had balked at some of the health concerns surrounding COVID-19. The opportunity in an election year was too much. Trump was only too willing to lend his voice to the calls for the Big Ten to overturn its decision. When three of the other five power college football conferences pressed ahead with their seasons, the Big Ten relented to heavy pressure and agreed to play. Each conference has acted in its own self-interest. Once the Big Ten saw that the other conferences had successfully launched their seasons, the college athletics’ wealthiest conference recommitted.
Reputationally, it has taken a major hit. Wisconsin, one of the favorites, won on opening night and has now missed two games because a flurry of its players and coaches are on the COVID-19 list. The Big Ten is playing an eight game season without bye-weeks, and no flexibility to reschedule games. Wisconsin’s chances are dashed. It demonstrates how vulnerable a leading conference was to outside lobbying influence, and unable to ignore the financial ramifications of not playing.
The evolving landscape With the return of college football, it begs the question whether amateurs should be playing in the middle of a pandemic. Student-athlete safety should be of the utmost importance during a time like this and football should take a backseat to the virus. I think it is a very different story for handsomely paid professional athletes competing during COVID-19.
An argument advanced by head coaches, such as Alabama’s Nick Saban, goes that players are safer at schools and on athletics programs than at home. On the surface, there might be a modicum of truth to this. However, it’s a much tougher sell when it's in the entire interest of the college's sports program to bring student athletes back to make the athletics program money. Coach Saban tested positive for COVID-19 last month. Maybe we should ask whether he would have been safer at home? They are some smart organizations and head coaches who haven’t overlooked the duty of care to players and invested in phasing players back. Oklahoma, under Lincoln Riley’s stewardship, has excelled in relation to its COVID-19 reintegration, as it has backed its players to the hilt in Black Lives Matter protests.
There is a lot to admire about college football. Right now, it faces a reckoning with its players, the NCAA, and the long-term validity of professional amateur status. The model is redundant. As I alluded to above, players are getting organized and represented.
All is not lost.
When Stephen Fry made his brilliant series on America for the BBC, he went to a college football game in which Auburn hosted its rival Alabama. Fry described the occasion as being the perfect embodiment of America. He concluded: “It’s preposterous, laughable, impressive, charming, ridiculous, overpopulated, expensive, wonderful. America.”