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ALWAYS PLAYING AWAY • The Mike Carlson Column

College Football: The Virus Bowl

And then there were three.
Published on August 21, 2020

Ohio Stadium A regular scene at a college game (Ohio Stadium in this case) – bigger than many professional events. © Fenstermacher Photography

Only three big-time college football conferences will play this fall, assuming nothing changes their minds. People think of the NFL as the be-all and end-all of football, but the NFL is 32 teams in 30 cities. There are 262 colleges playing football in NCAA Division I, another 164 in Division II and 250 in Division III. Throw in 94 in the small-college NAIA and 126 junior colleges (66 of them in California) and that is just under 900 teams.

Before television, college football was the glamour game played in huge stadia on Saturday afternoons; the NFL was played by hard men in the industrial north on Sundays – it was almost perfectly analogous to British Rugby Union vs Rugby League in status.

In the upper echelon of college football in the USA, the very old Division One has been divided into two tiers: the old 1-AA became the Football (in case there was any doubt) Championship Subdivision (FCS) because they play a basketball style playoff. There are 126 teams in the FCS. The upper tier, numbering 136 teams, is now the Bowl Subdivison (FBS) because they play in post-season Bowl games (some 36 of them, so more than half the teams get the equivalent of a little league participation trophy) and then the four-team playoff for the national championship which extends the season into mid-January, hugely impacting the scholar-athletes’ final exams.

But that FBS elite is itself divided between the Power 5 conferences and the Forgotten (at least when it comes to championship playoff berths) Five. Of the Power 5, two – the Big Ten (14 teams) and the Pac 12 – have postponed their fall seasons, leaving only the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) South East Conference (SEC) and Big 12 (10 teams) still playing football and other fall sports. Why? Because money talks.

NCAA football is a multi-billion dollar industry. Even smaller schools can clear millions of dollars in ticket receipts and ancillary income (souvenirs, parking, refreshments) which they can use to fund other sports. But at the top, the numbers are huge. The annual TV income to the FBS schools is nearly $2 billion. In the regular season, $788 million comes from all-sports ESPN, with the most hours of programming to fill. But Fox Sports, where college football represents 80% of their programming in-season, pays $496m, and CBS throws in $90m for a smaller, elite-only package. ESPN adds just under half a billion per year for the FBS playoffs. There are eight stadia in America seating over 100,000 people. All eight are located in college towns, and were built for college football.

All this lost revenue threatens the big football colleges. Their athletic departments are virtually self-operating: there is something like $7.5b in debt mounted up in various building schemes; the service on that debt amounts to almost $600m per year. Seven football coaches are paid more than $6m per year; all those at state universities are the highest-paid public employees in their states. Only one, Jim Harbaugh of Michigan, comes from a conference that has postponed their season. It is a self-fulfilling cycle: the teams bring in more money, the department builds bigger and better facilities to attract bigger and better coaches and players. Yet with all this revenue coming in, it is the big football schools, by and large, that are quickest to cut other, non-revenue generating sports. When Title 9 forced colleges to offer more women’s sports and spend more on them, schools as large as Wisconsin dropped their baseball program.

So the stoppage of play among the big conferences has been with great reluctance, which is why, officially, their seasons are only ‘postponed’. But spring play, were it to be possible, poses a new set of questions for the TV networks and their advertisers, as their air-time and budgets could be taken up by NCAA basketball’s March Madness, by NHL and NBA playoffs, by the start of a full baseball season, even, perhaps by The Rock’s new iteration of the XFL.

COVID-19’s impact has been felt in football from the bottom up. The smaller schools in the lower divisions were the first to shut down fall sports; they are not television attractions, do not draw tens of thousands from around their states. But they are also the places where the athletes are integrated most fully into the student body. And as we have already seen, with a cluster of cases after a sorority party at Oklahoma or one off-campus at Louisville attended by athletes from the women’s soccer, volleyball and field hockey teams, the mingling of students poses a threat. In fact, Notre Dame announced their first two weeks of classes would be held remotely, but their football team would continue to practice.

Notre Dame is the outlier in college football. They play as an independent, with their own lucrative TV deal with CBS. But with many of the games of their schedule already canceled, they decided to play in the ACC (where they already are members for basketball, since the ACC TV deal is the biggest and ND basketball has no weight as an independent and where they already play four games) for 2021.

In fact, when Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten (delivering the Washington-Baltimore TV market) and Missouri joined the SEC from the Big 12, both those conferences were strictly in states at least nominally, like Missouri, Confederate. The ACC messed that up by adding Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville as it decimated the Big East and took their TV markets, but perhaps with a sense of national reconciliation. Football was always a way for the South to refight, and win, the Civil War. In the days when there were four big Bowl games on New Year’s Day, all but the Rose were in Confederate states, as were the handful of second-tier games: the Tangerine, Sun, Gator or Bluebonnet Bowls. Southern colleges were usually the hosts, had home field advantage, and of course had trained in the warm weather those big corn-fed Yankees from Ohio didn’t. If you think I’m joking, believe me, I have experienced the attitude personally.

Apart from basketball in Kentucky and perhaps North Carolina, football is the South’s big sport. So the cancellation of college seasons would have a similar political effect as NASCAR’s banning of the Confederate flag. The Big 12 has four teams in Texas, but their others are in states that were Union (Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and West Virginia) but today lean strongly to Republicans. President Trump has already issued tweets demanding that college football be ‘allowed’ to continue – as with Colin Kaepernick’s knee or NASCAR’s flag, college football could well become a political, uh, football.

Micah Parsons 'Linebacker U'’ Penn State’s best prospect in years, Micah Parsons has already declared for the draft. Photo courtesy Penn State

The Players

But a bigger problem looms for the NCAA, and that is the preservation of the non-professional status of their ‘student-athletes’. There has been a concerted effort by players, primarily in the Pac 12 and Big 10, to organize a union. Federal regulations would make a union impossible, but a players’ association might be viable. Some ACC players, like Trevor Lawrence, the Clemson QB widely expected to be the first pick in next year’s NFL draft, have called for players to have a greater say in the safety measures under which they will play. But the other groups have bigger issues in mind. Although colleges are saying players will have the right to opt-out of playing the status of their scholarships remains hazy, especially since some players have accused their coaches of ordering them to hide positive test results. And college football coaches tend to be the types who expect to be obeyed.

We have already seen the knock-on effect for star players who expect NFL careers. Consider Trey Lance, the QB from North Dakota State, who led the Bison to a 16-0 record and the FCS title in his first season, during which he threw 28 touchdown passes without a single interception. Lance was a red-shirt freshman, which means after this season he would eligible for the NFL draft. The Missouri Valley Conference canceled its season, but the Bison tried to find other opponents. They didn’t, and Lance, rather than wait after what would be his second red-shirt year, announced he would spend this year preparing for the 2021 draft. Whether he would continue to attend classes in Fargo was not announced.

Penn State is known as Linebacker U, and their top prospect in years, Micah Parsons, also declared for the draft. But top-rated players from colleges going ahead with their seasons are also joining the opt-outs. Travez Moore, a linebacker from reigning national champs LSU lost 27 pounds, and his sense of taste, after contracting the virus. Announcing his opt-out, he tweeted he could ‘barley’ smell, which is either a very clever joke or evidence of an LSU education. Similarly, Auburn’s Justin Ferguson withdrew because he felt vulnerable to the virus because of ‘underlining’ conditions. This is a serious point as roughly half the players in the FBS are black, and blacks have been more vulnerable and, due partly to underlying conditions, more seriously affected by the coronavirus. Minnesota’s star receiver Rashod Bateman, Miami’s defensive end Gregory Rousseau and Virginia Tech’s corner Caleb Farley are other potential first-round picks who have now opted out.

The total, as I write this, is around 40, which is only a small fraction of those who play. Asked how he would prepare his team against COVID dangers, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said “it will be next man up”, indicating where his priorities lie. But this could be the issue on which the remaining college seasons hang. In Major League Baseball we have already seen the problems when just a few players get infected, if your intent is to protect both your team and your opponents. The situation is better for sports able to ‘bubble’ in one (or two) locations, cut off from outside contact. But this would be a difficult thing to do on a college campus, especially if ‘scholar-athletes’ are actually going to classes in pursuit of their degrees.

And therein lies the rub for college football. For the more they isolate their football teams, the more they treat them differently from the rest of the student body, the harder it will be to argue that the players are not, indeed, employees, rather than students, and entitled to protection, if not compensation, from their employers who profit so hugely from their efforts. And this drives home the real point: during the pandemic, sport has existed as a microcosm of society, and with college football, society’s dilemma is demonstrated starkly. The battle between protecting society from disease, and coping with the economic and social losses which that protection brings on, is a balancing act that has proven very difficult both in America and here in the UK. The question is whether the big business of college football will be able to establish some special status for itself, seemingly exempt from the pandemic, and whether if, in so doing, college football begins a movement toward changes that may in the end prove unstoppable by those who now control the game. Or business.


Fresno State All action - Fresno State Bulldogs football team enters home field. © Ken Lund

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