What if I told you the biggest threat to playing football in 2020 is not coronavirus?
We’ve heard it over and over to the point of exhaustion: The virus controls the fate of the college football season.
What if I told you the biggest threat to college football, to the collegiate amateur model, isn’t the virus.
It’s college football players.
“You and your colleagues are chasing the wrong story,” a Power 5 athletic director told me last weekend.
The story is player organization.
There’s no greater existential threat to the collegiate model than player organization. The virus, while a significant problem in the here and now, can’t stop college football.
Players organizing and finally, collectively, pulling back the curtain on a multi-billion dollar industry that forever – let me say that again, forever – has used young people with no other option, is the real story.
A convergence of rare events has given players more bargaining power than they’ve ever had, and they’re seizing the moment – and college sports is on the verge of a paradigm shift that can and will change it forever. Key word there, again: forever.
“You lose the entire framework of your mission when players organize,” the Power 5 athletic director said. “The virus alone is enough to stop the season, but (university) presidents are terrified of players organizing.”
When asked why he was admitting something so diametrically opposed to the amateur model, he said, “because there are some of us in college sports who believe we can do better by our student-athletes.”
Now, they have no choice.
The move toward seismic change began last year when the state of Florida passed a law allowing student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. The NCAA has forever – again, forever – forced players sign away their name, image and likeness (essentially giving it to the NCAA, by the way) as part of signing a scholarship.
When Florida passed the NIL law, the meter starting ticking on significant change in college sports. The bare foundation is this: On July 1, 2021, the seven FBS schools in the state of Florida (Florida, FSU, Miami, UCS, USF, FAU and FIU) will have a significant competitive advantage over the rest of college football by being able to offer players the ability to make money off marketing their NIL.
This leaves the NCAA with no choice but to pass a uniform NIL bylaw that allows all students in all sports to profit off their NIL. At one point earlier this summer, the Power 5 conferences asked Congress – the most dysfunctional group on the planet – for help with federal law to better manage the NIL process. Yeah, good luck with that.
Then the virus arrived and everything changed, eliminating the most successful and popular tournament (the NCAA men’s basketball tournament) this side of the NFL Playoffs, and throwing the cash cow of every university (football) into a sea of uncertainty.
And guess who has the lifeboat? Players.
“They’ve never had more bargaining power, and that scares the hell out of our presidents,” another Power 5 athletic director told me.
Without players agreeing to play, there is no FBS season and no checks cashed from billion-dollar television deals. Without television money, athletic departments crumble.
Before we go further, this must be said: The vast majority of presidents and athletic directors truly believe in the most important tenant of the amateur model. The idea of providing higher education (because that’s what college truly is) to those who otherwise might not have the ability to receive it but for their athletic ability, is a real and tangible thing. And it’s a good thing.
But the explosion of the sport from regional to national, to individual conference television networks, to Power 5 conferences raking more than half a billion dollars a year in television revenue, has changed the landscape and forced us to look beyond the ideals of amateurism.
Yes, it’s about money. What in life isn’t?
This is where the newfound strength of players comes into focus. Because when you’re arguing over dollars, things rarely make sense.
FBS schools want to play football this fall to save their athletic departments. They need players to do so, and players know this – and that’s why we’ve seen a quickly growing wave of players publicly supporting their rights and the need for change like never before.
It doesn’t matter what happens to this fall season, university presidents have been backed into a corner by their own greed. Had they simply agreed to giving players their NIL nearly a decade ago when the push began, we wouldn’t be at this point.
Players and universities could have been years into figuring out the best way for players in all sports to earn off their NIL, players would be earning from that marketing and, most important, it would’ve eliminated the pay for play argument.
And please, can we finally stop the nonsense that there will be “1,000 players behind those who boycott” and take their scholarships. What, those players won’t want their share of money, too?
Now we’re staring at a pandemic very well might end the season and force university presidents into another difficult decision: try to play in the second semester and ask players to play 2 seasons in 10 months.
If presidents think players are on the verge of organizing now, wait and see what happens when they ask for 2 seasons in 10 months.
“The NIL was our get out of jail free card, and we didn’t take it,” another Power 5 athletic director told me. “That will go down as the most shortsighted move in the history of amateur sports.”
Understand this: We don’t know what happens with the virus. It could be here for another 6 months, another year, or – here’s that word again – forever. And this isn’t to undermine the seriousness in any way.
At some point, if you’re going to play football, you must figure a way to play it as safely as possible. Just like university presidents realized you’ll never eliminate the inherent football dangers of concussions, spinal cord injuries, debilitating injuries and, yes, death.
According to HBO Real Sports, 33 players have died in offseason conditioning drills since 2000. But those mat drills are still around, and players are still pushed to the limit.
Concussions happen every day on every snap of team drills, and every practice and game, and we continue to learn more about the long term ramifications of those dangerous head injuries. But that hasn’t stopped football.
Think about this: Universities are paying for insurance policies for players in case a debilitating injury not only eliminates the ability to play professionally and earn money, but if their draft stock value drops from one round to the next.
They’re not doing that out of the goodness of their heart. They realize there is risk in their sport, and they’re trying to mitigate it. This is what they do, day after day.
The virus is no different.
Players know the risk and still want to play. But from one side of college football to the other, they’re organizing and asking for increased safety measures and a seat at the bargaining table.
The Pac-12 players’ movement asked for a ridiculous 50% of the conference revenues ($530 million in 2019). That’s a pipe dream.
But consider this: 1% of revenues to the 1,020 scholarship players in the Pac-12 is a little more than $5,200 a year. Five percent is life-changing money for players and their families.
“We have to do something,” another Power 5 athletic director told me. “They way we’re headed, it’s not sustainable.”
Players know they have power. They know college sports has forever held the one, undeniable hammer above their heads – the only way to get to the NFL is through college football – as a measure of control.
They also know the virus doesn’t control the fate of college football, and to a greater extent, college sports.