Taylor Branch shook the world of college sports recently with the publication of a devastating attack on the NCAA’s system of exploitation against college athletes. The obfuscation, manipulation, hypocrisy, and general disingenuousness of almost everything the NCAA tries to do at the major sports level is truly disturbing. He wrote the piece in The Atlantic, and although it’s been flying around the internet for a week now, just in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet, please check it out here. It’s incredibly long, but a must read for anyone who is even remotely interested in college sports.
It also makes me hate everything about the current system even more than I already do, and more specifically makes me even more angry at football for being the root cause of pretty much all the problems. As shitty as the NCAA is in a lot of ways, the most basic explanation for why college basketball is so much more coherent, fair, balanced, and rational than college football is that the NCAA controls the basketball championships but does not control the football championships. That conclusion is not at all the point of the Atlantic article — the litany of accusations against the NCAA in the piece are largely unrelated to what we’re bitching about at the moment — but it’s a slice of my takeaway.
College basketball has a central authority capable of making decisions that are “for the good of the game”, whereas football does not. Hence in basketball the NCAA can make sure that mid-majors and small school champions get in the Tourney, because they know it will create a product that they can cash in for a billion dollars. In the short term, some big schools on the wrong side of the bubble lose out on an immediate revenue stream, and those big schools can bitch and moan all they want about losing a spot to McNeese State. But the central decision-makers know that it’s the Butlers and George Washingtons of the world that make March Madness what it is, and without them the Tourney wouldn’t be worth a billion. So over the long run, basketball thrives collectively and everyone ends up richer.
In football there’s no central authority; power is divided up among 60 or so presidents and trustee groups of the biggest schools, along with the commissioners of the several major conferences. Hence, no strategic decision-making, and a universal me-first mentality. Some teams cash in huge, and others are left behind. Consultants think that a football playoff system would generate as much as FOUR TIMES as much money as the current system, but football’s powers-that-be can’t get their act together to do it because no one is in charge, and no one’s sure how that money would end up getting divided. So instead the season ends with 30 meaningless exhibition games called “bowls” (most of which no one watches), and a fake championship game. We’re stuck with something called the BCS, an exclusive club who’s primary contribution to college athletics has been to help shred an otherwise perfectly sustainable system of conferences, because teams are forced to scramble to gain access to it. And the biggest outrage is that if the BCS didn’t exist, everyone would make more money and college football would be more popular. But there’s no institutional mechanism that allows the good of the sport to come into play. No one’s job is to figure out what’s best for college football. Hence, it’s a ridiculous, incoherent, unfair, elitist, old-boys-club sham of an operation that’s slowly bringing down the rest of amateur athletics.
None of what I said is what Taylor Branch was getting at in his Atlantic piece, and he’d probably be dumbfounded to see that someone read his article and came away with an appreciation for the NCAA’s central authority. And, frankly, given the awfulness of everything else the NCAA does in conjunction with the major sports schools (as described by him), my enthusiasm for it as an organization is slim. I do fear the results of all the lawsuits described in the article though, regardless of their individual merit. The NCAA does come off as an soulless cartel exploiting student athletes and hiding behind vacuous principles in order to preserve massive revenue streams for itself and its institutions, but I suspect that the cartel that is the NCAA is just a first-layer cartel covering up an even more unpleasant one: the schools themselves and the several major sports conferences. If the NCAA as we know it is destroyed in the ways predicted in the article, we might be left with something only slightly more just for athletes, but a whole lot worse for college sports, because the schools and conferences will then have unfettered authority to fuck everything up. It’s a no-win situation. And don’t doubt that it’s coming: Ed O’Bannon’s lawyers took down Exxon in one case and a conglomeration of Swiss Banks in another case. The NCAA is not going to be able to marshal a defense against that kind of firepower, given the extremely tenuous legal standing they have to be doing almost any of the things that they do. And that’s just one of the many cases they’re fighting off.
On the other hand, if a revolution is coming, it might mean that our ACC pain could be short-lived. If the universe of college athletics massively changes in the next 5 to 10 years, it’s impossible to know where SU will be when the dust settles and what the relative importance or meaning of conferences will be. Best case scenario is that a football playoff kills the BCS and reduces the importance of conference membership. Even better if the jackpot-revenue from said playoff is distributed widely, reducing the importance of individual conference payouts. All of this would provide flexibility for schools to align themselves in more rational and fan-friendly ways, knowing that money will be there regardless of their home base. It’s a stretch, but at least its something to hope for. On the other hand, given college football’s record of having absolutely no idea how to preserve the quality of its own product, there’s no reason to be optimistic that the inevitable playoff format will be put together in a way that’s best for the sport as a whole.