The great Cecil Hurt, who has been carrying the scepter of wisdom in the field of Southern sports commentary for so many years now that it’s covered by his homeowners policy, once got off such an appropriate set of adjectives while describing the NCAA that the rest of us, because we couldn’t do any better, just stole them: “arbitrary and capricious.”
Hurt has used those adjectives several times since at least 2002, to the extent that when I see the letters “NCAA” anywhere, my mind says softly in the background, “arbitrary and capricious,” without even having to ask it to.
When Covid-19 first began to transition from nasty bug to disruptor of all human life circa March of this year, one of the first whispered concerns among the faithful was of the upcoming college football season. Back then, one of the misconceptions about Covid-19 was that it was bound to lessen in numbers or intensity during the summer (it didn’t, at least not initially), which would have made it a thing of the past by the time the calendar rolled around to September. People have, however, grown tired of the restrictions on life, but the media picked up the mantle of battle on that front – not a day goes by without a breathless commentator ginning up fear, and condemning those who refuse to be panic-stricken as heartless or flat-out dumb.
As such, the college football season is in jeopardy, even while other sports leagues are either playing or intend to. And the reasons might not be completely the fault of Covid-19, either.
While the NCAA has mostly sat back and let its member conferences steer the conversation, there is a storm much more deadly to the NCAA’s regular mode of doing business than Covid-19 brewing out west. PAC-12 conference athletes effectively want to unionize. The list of demands includes revenue sharing (although, in a telling moment of clarity, players are demanding that the sharing appears mostly to apply just to participants in revenue sports), taking the lid off the transfer system, and providing medical insurance for players after eligibility has run out, among other items.
These two hurricanes have now crashed into each other, causing a super-storm of confusion, politics, and duplicitous intentions, fueled by sportswriters who have either bought full into the worst Covid-19 predictions or have their own agenda for why college football can’t (or shouldn’t) be played.
Overseeing it all is an NCAA leadership that can’t decide whether to scratch their watches or wind their heads. Shut down the college football season, and it would disempower those behind the PAC-12 unionization movement somewhat, as eligibility progression would theoretically persist and many of those players would age out of the system. On the other hand are schools and conferences that need the revenue that comes with playing the game.
There is an entire encyclopedia of columns to be written about how the media fawns over every negative story relating to Covid-19 but either downplays or outright ignores positive developments. Specific to college football, there has been significant criticism of three of the Power 5 conferences’ decision to play, but similar decisions by both professional sports leagues and high school systems have been either glossed over, or in some cases even supported.
And that brings us to a junction point that was already a long time in coming: a frank discussion of whether the NCAA remains relevant as it pertains to the game of football itself – especially among the largest, most profitable programs.
There is a point to be made about how the NFL considers the NCAA to be its captive minor league organization, run by schools at no cost to the league, and whether this is fair to taxpayers who inevitably fund the mechanism through the dollars they are required to part with every April 15. But that relationship has little to do with how the NCAA has effectively served as a monopoly on the governance of college programs, trying to apply artificial standards of equality not to things like race or creed, but rather financially, putting its thumb on the scale of the free market.
To be blunt, there is no reason why Ohio State University should have to help float the program at Ohio University, whether directly or indirectly. For that matter, there is no reason why the NCAA should have allowed many of the current FBS programs to ascend to the FBS level in the first place. The NCAA’s policy, basically stated as “anyone can join,” is not rooted in sound business practices and has led to situations where small schools have been able to hold larger, more resource-abundant programs hostage in an attempt to make the results, rather than the access, egalitarian in nature.
To paraphrase the character Remy in Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” a protagonist who was guided by a similar mantra but didn’t buy completely into it, “anyone can join – it doesn’t mean everybody should.”
For a division now hovering around the 130-team mark, if every school was given one national championship, the NCAA still wouldn’t have been able to dole out championships to all programs across the entire history of FBS-level college football. Not to mention many schools have won multiple titles, and really not to mention programs like Alabama that are closer to 20 titles than even just 10.
For many years, I had resisted calls to reform the structure of college football, either out of romanticism over my parents’ salad days spent traveling to bowl games in the zenith of the Bowl Era, listening to them talk about spending the night with friends at a home in the New Orleans French Quarter prior to a Sugar Bowl, or their tales of watching Alabama unveil – firsthand, in a season opener – the wishbone against Southern Cal, or being there for a bitter loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and having to share the experience with a couple from Omaha.
Even when the bowls were decoupled somewhat from the conferences, giving Alabama a chance to face off against Miami in the Sugar Bowl following the 1992 season, the bowls were still the bowls. Even, perhaps, when the bowls simply became other names for College Football Playoff matchups much the same way the NCAA men’s basketball tournament named regionals after cities, the bowls were still the bowls.
All of us at one time probably resisted the call for the installation of the playoff system. Some of us held out even longer. There were worries that college football would lose some of its week-to-week desperate emotion, where every game mattered as much as the one from a week ago. By and large, the current CFP has managed to retain the bowl-era urgency and desperation, but only because it purposefully left out an entire round of playoffs that would have made it inclusive of all five of the major conferences.
It’s not that the current structure needs fixing for the sake of the CFP, but it needs fixing for the sake of major college football as a whole.
The Covid-19 shutdown has not only amplified the disconnect between the haves and have-nots among FBS programs, but it has also caused a split in the Power 5 itself. The PAC-12 may have split away while trying to manage an organized labor crisis, but there is no excuse for the Big Ten to have broken ranks, unless it was done solely in support of the PAC-12, to whose hip the Big Ten has been tied for decades.
The triggering event, though, may have been the decision of the MAC to delay football until the spring or cancel it outright, a follow-up decision that will be determined at a later date. While no one believes the MAC had a playoff team among its members this year, the decision to cancel its season lent cover to other conferences that may have been waiting for someone else to jump into the pool first.
But all of this – all of it – could have been solved long before now with a little bit of leadership from the NCAA home offices.
But college football? Apparently not safe enough to come back to some, even though college-age students are less likely to suffer major consequences from Covid-19 than anyone in an older age group. Furthermore, now that college football players receive a stipend – and since the prevailing opinion among journalists, and now a number of PAC-12 athletes as well, is that players are some kind of pseudo-employees of the schools – the argument that players are captive to the schools somehow is increasingly becoming a logical non-starter.
So where is the NCAA in all this?
All fall championships have been canceled. Mark Emmert, the current NCAA president, speaks in double-talk: the NCAA, he notes, has no jurisdiction over FBS championships. But the NCAA does want to hold FBS teams to NCAA standards, enforce NCAA rules, and have jurisdiction over FBS schools’ relationships with students, athletes, and presumably athletes’ advocates like the ones raising a ruckus in the PAC-12.
That kind of half-in, half-out governance the NCAA has put forth over the years is the very definition of what Hurt describes as “arbitrary and capricious.” So is its guidance. So is its judgments, its punishments, its leadership.
We are fast reaching the point in history where that kind of half-baked superintendence is no longer welcome. We have resolved that bowl committees and backroom politics are no longer needed to determine championships; nor is it necessary to run a football league for successful programs (that also includes programs that should be, for their own good, playing in a lower division).
Covid-19 has been a disaster of epic proportions, and the response to it has been politically pitched and, despite plenty of disagreement from within the scientific community, scarily promoted to the public with one-size-fits-all solutions. But it has also been an opportunity for some – who wouldn’t like to go back in time and invest in a mask-making operation in, oh, January?
Therefore, let’s let Covid-19 do a little good for college football at the same time it threatens its very existence. Let’s have the Power 5 pull completely from the NCAA – meaning, completely out from under the administrative politics, the inscrutable rulebook, the draconian compliance division that has been largely neutered by the legal system anyway, and especially the anti-free-market restrictions on the teams that have been responsible for making all the money that the smaller institutions have sapped away.
Five conferences, 16 teams apiece, 80 total teams in FBS. An eight-team playoff with each of the five conference champions plus three at-large teams.
And most of all, hire leaders that won’t be afraid to lead from the front, make tough decisions, apply them to everyone and stick with them in the face of pushback from a media that can’t seem to be bothered to view things through an apolitical lens. Covid-19 isn’t a joke, but it also can’t afford to be complicated by outside entities trying to run their own social, political or economic schemes through a proxy.
A “Super Division I” has been a subject of conversation ever since the BCS was formed. The introduction of the College Football Playoff only amplified the volume. If the NCAA can’t get its act together during Covid-19 – whether politically, or out of economic concern for teams that can’t afford regular testing – then it’s time to pull the plug on this old steam engine once and for all and move into the modern age.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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