College Football Is the Wild West Now

South Dakota State fans cheer as they play Sam Houston State in Frisco, Texas last May. Photo: Michael Ainsworth/AP/Shutterstock

Back in June, a concurrence from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, defender of America’s ardent lacrosse fandom, seemed to invite collegiate athletes of the future to pick apart the NCAA one lawsuit at a time.

With Kavanaugh basically signaling that the Court would be receptive to any lawsuits that challenged the organization’s business model, it sure felt like the death knell for the NCAA. The reaction to the Court’s decision, and Kavanaugh’s concurrence, was immediate and immense. States, particularly in the South, rushed to sign Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) legislation, and on July 1, players started cashing in commercially. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, a man who has thrown one collegiate touchdown in his life, has reportedly already made more than $800,000. The floodgates were open. The Wild West was upon us. The NCAA was reeling.

This is all still true. But college football, which begins with “Week Zero” games this weekend and officially kicks off Labor Day weekend, is thriving. Every single move the sport has made since the Supreme Court decision has been one made from a position of strength — of knowing you’re going to be around a long, long time. Literally the day after the ruling, the College Football Playoff Board of Directors, announced that it would likely expand from four playoff teams to 12 within the next three years. Nearly every major school (excluding Hawaii) announced it will have full capacity crowds after a year of limited or zero attendance. And then word leaked that Texas and Oklahoma, two giants of the football world, were leaving the Big 12 conference and joining the hated — and increasingly omnipresent — SEC (in what was college football’s far-more-triumphant equivalent of the power play that the Super League tried and failed to execute in Europe). That led to three other leagues, the Big Ten, the ACC, and the Pac-10, putting together their own alliance to combat the SEC. These are not moves made by people in charge of a dying sport. These are moves made by people fighting over billions and billions of dollars. These schools want to make sure they make as much money — mostly from TV networks — as they can in case the spigot ever runs dry.

The NCAA, for all its massive, massive problems, was the only real law college football had. Which is to say, the sport is now lawless.

Why would the SCOTUS smackdown set off such a display of high-dollar wheeling and dealing? Because the NCAA has been slowly bleeding influence and scope for years. Their weakening has resulted in an erosion of any sort of central authority in college athletics, and specifically college football — which is where all the money is. With the NCAA nudged further into free fall by the likes of Kavanaugh, conferences — which are less “leagues” at this point and more “collections of corporate franchises exercising their collective bargaining power” — have stepped in to fill the power void. Everyone wants their piece of the pie. And the Supreme Court ruling did not magically eliminate people’s obsession with college football, which is essentially the second-biggest sport in the country right now, behind the NFL. (It certainly is the second-most powerful in television ratings, which is how power and money are reflected in sports today.) SCOTUS didn’t get rid of college football; it just got rid of the ineffectual sheriff hanging around that no one liked anyway. Now there is no law.

So everyone’s just doubling down on everything. Conferences are getting bigger. Television contracts are expanding and being renegotiated. You will have the opportunity to watch more college football games in 2021 than any other year in history. And athletes are benefiting as well. Most aren’t making the kind of money Alabama’s Bryce Young is, but there’s no question that the Name, Image and Likeness era, as chaotic as it has been, has put cash in the pockets of athletes who would otherwise have gone unpaid. And it has not, so far anyway, been nearly the catastrophic upheaval that longtime critics (including many at the NCAA) have argued it would be.

When you look across the college football landscape heading into the new season, things looks … pretty much like they always look: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia atop the sport, while the South and Texas soak up all the attention and money everywhere. After this weekend’s Week Zero games, dozens of nationally televised football games with 100,000-plus fans in attendance will follow — just like always. And all those players, for what it’s worth, won’t be getting any more of that television money than they ever did; NIL can’t be orchestrated through the schools in any way. The sport hasn’t fundamentally changed one whit. It’s probably gotten bigger.

Sure, those lawsuits Kavanaugh was inviting may still happen. But who are you gonna sue? The NCAA? The conferences and universities have started ignoring the NCAA entirely. (In an even more ominous sign, university presidents aren’t even backing the organization anymore. They’re the reason the NCAA existed in the first place!) The beating the NCAA took hasn’t led, so far, to any major upheaval in the sport, other than your favorite team’s point guard now being available on Cameo. All it did was get rid of a centralized authority. It took away someone to sue, someone to be so angry at. It took away anyone pretending to be in charge.

And maybe this is a purer way of doing things anyway. College football has been semipro football for years, and now it’s just being a little more upfront about it. It’s possible the sport never had to be so coy, never had to use the fig leaf of “tradition” as a way to promote its amateurism. Certainly there is no movement among fans to stop watching because the sport is all but ungoverned at the moment. Delta and all, you will see literally millions of people at football games over Labor Day weekend, and tens of millions more watching all the games at home. Schools are making money. Networks are making money. Even players now are making money. Is there a coherent structure to any of this? Is there an overarching ethos? Is anyone in charge here? It sure doesn’t look that way. College football is plowing forward, just shoving aside anything in its way. The only difference now is that it’s no longer apologizing for it; there is no one to apologize for it. It might be, as it turns out, the most honest the sport has ever been.

The only real problem? The whole point of all this chaos was to get the players some of the sports’ revenue, or at least a seat at the table. But now that the NCAA has essentially abdicated its role as governor of college football, it’s not entirely clear who the players would even sit down at the table with in the first place. College football may be more honest than it’s ever been, but that’s still not very honest. These schools aren’t any closer to paying the players than they were before the SCOTUS ruling. They might even be further away.

College Football Is the Wild West Now