Some of you like to argue with me that player compensation is the bright line that’s going to ruin college athletics. If you’re one of those folks, you may not want to read this article.
… This was the year when athletic departments exposed themselves for what they really are: large businesses covered in nonprofit wrapping paper.
A coronavirus pandemic forced the whole enterprise to announce its priorities, which are even more skewed than we realized. There are thousands of people working in college athletics with excellent priorities, of course—people who value academics, relationships, integrity and personal growth. But those are not the qualities the NCAA system rewards. College sports, purportedly a celebration of amateur athletics, are an exercise in big squashing little: large conferences whipping small ones, and revenue sports hogging resources from nonrevenue sports.
… Universities are supposed to practice egalitarianism, or at least aspire to it. Future CEOs and artists share a campus, and that coexistence is an essential piece of the experience. This is especially true at state flagship universities, which are (or at least aspire to be) magnets for the finest students from all over the state.
And college athletics are supposedly the sporting version of this. For decades, administrators insisted that monetizing football and men’s basketball was a means toward a larger, more noble end: funding other varsity sports. As those NCAA commercials love to remind us, the overwhelming majority of athletes “go pro in something other than sports.”
In 2020, though, it became obvious that the apparatus that was supposed to support a larger infrastructure has overwhelmed it instead. Around the country, schools responded to their budget crunches by slashing nonrevenue sports, like huge law firms deciding to cut costs by slashing pro bono work.
College sports have been a hypocritical enterprise for a long time; any sober assessment of the last half-century reached that conclusion. But now hypocrisy is part of the mission statement. Football has been stripped down to what it really is: lucrative TV programming. In 2020, it didn’t matter whether playing was safe for surrounding communities or even whether students were on campus.
COVID has exposed college football for what it is: a commercial enterprise, nothing more, nothing less. Not that there weren’t plenty of hints and clues dropped along the way over the past two decades; it’s just raw and completely out in the open now. Combine that with the general cluelessness that your typical athletics administrator possesses…
Not everybody can win, but everybody can be obsessed, and everybody can market obsession. That is the prominent business model in college sports: Prove to your customers that you are as irrationally committed as they are. Schools are far more likely to be criticized for not paying obscene salaries to football coaches than for doing so. Which is why coaches’ salaries keep going up. These investments are so speculative, and so detached from the underlying economics, that it feels foolish to call them investments at all.
… and that’s how you wind up with Jimmy Sexton kicking ass every day and twice on Sundays. In other words, there’s nothing left to ruin.
I can’t stop some of you from continuing to be amateurism romantics, but you’re making bigger fools of yourselves with the passage of every year.