On Thursday, for the third time this week, the real travesty about the College Football Playoff was underscored. It had nothing to do with an unbeaten Florida State team being left out of the four-team championship tournament or a once-beaten Alabama leapfrogging it by way of a knockout win over two-time defending champion Georgia.
Instead, it was found in one lawsuit filed in California by three star college athletes against the NCAA for barring them from being paid for their play and in another suit filed by several states over the NCAA’s transfer rules.
That came on the heels of NCAA President Charlie Baker suggesting Tuesday that he would like to create a new group of the biggest, wealthiest and most influential college sports programs that could pay their players. (That morning, I had even mentioned college athletics’ disingenuousness to NPR host Michel Martin as we wrapped up a conversation on “Morning Edition” about the uproar around whether undefeated Florida State was wronged. “What people should be mad about,” I said, “is the fact that the players are still not going to share in all the revenues that have generated through this tournament. That’s … the real problem.”)
And that, my long-held lament, followed a remark most of us overlooked by Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh to ESPN’s Rece Davis, who was interviewing Harbaugh about his team ascending to the top seed in the playoff quartet.
“It’s not about one person. It’s not about any coach. It’s about the players,” Harbaugh said. “I love that you’re talking about the players. That’s who everyone comes to see. Those are the people who put in the work. You hear a lot of the controversy about who should’ve been in [the playoffs] and who shouldn’t have been in it. . . . As you make those comments, I just hope you also remember it’s the players, and don’t forget to give them a share of the revenue.”
Then analyst Kirk Herbstreit joined the discussion and asked Harbaugh about how good his team was a year ago, and Harbaugh’s plea for equitable remuneration for college football’s undercompensated laborers evaporated into nattering sports blather.
Still, this argument has never been louder and clearer than now. It is no longer far-fetched or preposterous or impossible. College athletes are about to get paid. It is inevitable. Very soon. I would bet (especially since you can do so on college sports so easily and above board now) by this time next year. Which is also when college football’s playoff expands again — something to which the keepers of the game once said they never would never agree until they found themselves unable to turn down bigger and bigger bags of money. It will go to 12 teams from four, after having gone to four from two and to two from none. It will generate upward of three times the loot that Michigan, Alabama, Washington and Texas will bring in this season to crown a champion after two semifinal games and a championship.
The bags of money are so gorged with cash now that some court of law — if not that of public opinion, which has manifested itself in Capitol Hill proposals such as the College Athletes Bill of Rights — will force or shame college sports’ overlords into doing the ethical and moral thing by divvying up their overstuffed pie into slices for players.
NIL, the much-ballyhooed acronym that allows college athletes to turn their name, image and likeness into cash and gifts, was never a remedy for college sports’ inequity. Its promotion, however, confused many into believing as much. But it’s just some court-decision inspired patchwork relief for athletes from the NCAA’s long-onerous control of their fame, which the association turned into gobs of dough through commercialization that helped make multimillionaires out of coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners and NCAA honchos. The movement afoot now will force colleges and universities to hand over a share of the loot they make off the blood and sweat of those athletes, disproportionately Black males in football and basketball. Just like professional sports leagues bargain with their athletes. After all, it has been a couple of generations since there was a discernible difference between how the pros thrive and how major college sports work.
Indeed, the Knight Commission, the highbrow watchdog of all things college sports, pointed out this year that in a few years, a 12-team football playoff could generate $2 billion annually, or $1.4 billion more than now, for whatever major conferences are around then. This year there were five such conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC — filled with 69 schools. Next season there will be four conferences, after the Pac-12 dissolves and all but two of its members — Oregon State and Washington State — are absorbed by the other conferences.
More money, all of us should understand by now, is what conference realignment has been about since it ramped up the past few years. The Big Ten and the SEC in particular have been positioning themselves for the day the law decrees that they, at the least, treat revenue-generating sport athletes like the cogs in the college industrial athletics complex that they have become. The SEC, with Texas and Oklahoma coming in next year to join recent addition Texas A&M , will have seven of the 10 richest athletic departments in the country. The Big Ten, in major markets from New York to the Pacific Ocean, banked a record — for the moment — $7 billion TV contract. Former Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said the plan he sold to CBS was modeled after the broadcaster’s $2 billion-a-year NFL Sunday package.
Not to share these windfalls with the players at this point is theft.
The lawsuit filed by players Thursday, which includes two women as plaintiffs — Stanford soccer player Nya Harrison and TCU basketball player Sedona Prince — is not alone in the legal pipeline. A couple of high school basketball stars sued the NCAA last month over its denial of their college eligibility because they cashed in their NIL playing for a private high school. There is, most notably, Johnson v. NCAA, which demands athletes be deemed employees and therefore subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act. There are several complaints before the National Labor Relations Board to demand the same employment status for Pac-12 athletes and those at the Ivy League’s Dartmouth.
In short, the jig is up. Enjoy the bowl season. But don’t miss the landscape for the burning bush.