The 101-year-old Rose Bowl is in danger of collapsing into one of those tumbled-down structures you see on the slopes of old Rome, while the supposed business geniuses turn college football into something sickish that looks like three different tumors stuck together. They have arrived at a situation where Stanford, Texas Christian, Cincinnati and Central Florida could all wind up clapped into the same distended conference, in which players must take red eye flights home from games, just so said administrators can claim to be media honchos while covering their years of overdrafts.
All the people saying college football would lose the character that made it distinct if players were ever allowed NIL payments? They failed to recognize that the real people leeching it of originality and distinctiveness were the ones sitting in the corner offices.
Everything you need to know about USC and UCLA’s move to the Big Ten
These functionaries would do any kind of business, no matter how unseemly, rather than do the most fundamental thing: sensible balance budgets in the name of academia. College athletics is supposed to be a break-even proposition, a nonprofit endeavor with education as its aim. Amateurism was never required for that. Simple integrity was. The right intention.
Instead, they have ruled college football with market panic and predatory practices. These continental leaps by schools toward creating bloated “superconferences,” are not the result of the “rapidly changing sports media and college athletic landscapes,” as Southern Cal President Carol Folt tried to sell it disingenuously to her constitution. They are the result of the slow gathering of lousy practices over decades, which were the furthest thing from well-intentioned.
UCLA is frantically clutching at the end of a rope and swinging across the country to the Big Ten because it has apparently run up to $102.8 million deficit, which the Big Ten’s median rake-off will help alleviate. A good deal of the deficit is the inheritance left by former athletic director Dan Guerrero when he retired rich in 2020. As The Post’s Will Hobson revealed in a devastating expose of college sports fiscal practices in 2015, Guerrero increased his salary from $299.00 to $920,000 between 2004 and 2014, although his duties remained the same.
Another of Guerrero’s bequests to the world of college athletics was to grow UCLA’s administrative staff from 91 to 141 employees and its non-coaching payroll from $9.1 million to $16 million in that span, after adjusting for inflation. On his watch from him, former football coach Chip Kelly was allowed to increase the “nutrition” budget for his team from $1 million to $5.4 million. Such excesses put these schools on a path toward catastrophe, even before a real one arrived with the pandemic.
But the frenzied economic climate goes back much further than this kind of disastrous bloating of athletic departments in the last 20 years, the $50 million gross misallocations to indoor waterfalls and locker rooms like first-class yacht cabins.
It dates to the powers schools’ subversion of the Supreme Court’s 1984 antitrust ruling in the case of NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, which stripped the NCAA of its ability to regulate college football’s TV contracts and team appearances on the air. The ruling was intended to be a corrective to the NCAA’s overbearing exercise of its powers, but the problem with it is that it failed to recognize there is a legitimate state regulatory interest in curbing the excess profiteering of athletic department scoundrels who are simply using the kids for skim.
The University of Georgia’s president at the time, Fred Davison, didn’t bother to disguise why the big football schools were suing to strip the NCAA of regulatory control over TV rights. He wanted an end to “a tyranny of the majority to impose itself on the commercial enterprise.” Why should Georgia have to split airtime and media profits with a mass of smaller colleges? Even then, the ministers at the power schools were talking about forming a single “superconference,” in which the peons would be brushed aside so the giants could compete solely against giants — and not have to profit share with Rutgers or Hofstra or Vanderbilt. They’ve been trying to get to this consolidated-wealth point for decades and decades.
John Feinstein: USC and UCLA share values with the Big Ten all right. Greed, for one.
In a dissent, Justices Byron “Whizzer” White and William Rehnquist recognized this ulterior motive and where it led. White wrote that the court was “subjugating the NCAA’s educational goals” to “purely competitive commercialism.” And the end game would be total cannibalism. They were exactly right.
So now Virginia, North Carolina, Clemson and Florida State may be flirting with the Southeastern Conference, and the Big 12 may try to swallow half a dozen Pac-12 schools, not because it’s good for the players or the student body or will lead to interesting and uplifting competition, but because of the mega-broadcasting rights deals, and for those who are left out, it could mean the gutting of entire athletic departments.
If college football is anything more than pageantry and fevered boosterism, it’s because there is something worth teaching in it. It doesn’t make you naive to say college athletics can and should have a genuine moral-educational component. In the right hands, the game is a discipline that has absolutely nothing to do with money or amateurism. It teaches a certain brand of, for lack of a better word, citizenship. It’s all about restraint of selfish desires for a larger goal, in the name of a collective prideful endeavor. When you strip the final vestiges of that away, now the game truly does become unrecognizable.
This “new landscape” of college football is not new at all but rather the black decay of a half century of totally unrestrained commercialization by the administrators. And the game they’re blighting is likely to be a lot less captivating and worthwhile as a result. That’s what will ultimately kill interest in the sport, not the cash in the pockets of the kids.