It sure would sound insane to you if you were one of the nearly 27 million people who watched 70,000 screaming fans at the College Football Playoff Championship Game in Indianapolis on Monday night, and it would definitely sound insane to you if you are a Georgia Bulldogs fan this morning — but seven months ago, it sure looked like college football was in trouble.
It was just last June when the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling allowing college athletes to receive compensation for the use of their name, image, or likeness. Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s opinion was so blistering that it looked like it might be college football’s death knell. “The NCAA is not above the law,” he hissed. “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America … Price-fixing labor is price-fixing labor.” For longtime critics of college sports, this felt like a watershed moment: the most conservative member of the nation’s highest court calling for reforms that the most wild-eyed radical could have only dreamed of as recently as three years earlier. Surely this would rock college sports to its very foundation.
Seven months later, college football has shaken off reformers and crusading journalists like a nimble running back in the open field. Its successful efforts culminated in the Bulldogs’ glorious, electric, 33-18 victory over longtime nemesis Alabama at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis — a game I was lucky to be able to witness in the flesh. It was Georgia’s first title since 1981, a title that is going to have the town I live in drunk and barking for at least a month. (Seriously: Every Georgia fan you’ve ever met is going to have the goofiest smile on their face for months.)
This was a platonic-ideal ending for what ended up being a platonic-ideal season. Contrary to some people’s expectations (including my own), every single aspect of college football — and by extension, college sports as a whole — is healthier than ever. The Southeastern Conference just signed a $3 billion deal with Disney. That’s just for one conference, not the sport entirely. And considering that ratings have exploded this year, that deal already looks like a bargain. (Such is the appetite for college football that the Music City Bowl, a meaningless New Year’s Day game between two teams who weren’t even ranked in the sport’s top 25, did comparable ratings to several World Series and NBA Finals games.) Another way to measure the amount of money circulating through the system: Brian Kelly left Notre Dame for LSU for a salary that would put him among the five highest-paid coaches in the NFL.
How did the sport pull this off? It turns out that Kavanaugh did the people who run college athletics — the people who really run college athletics — a huge favor. Kavanaugh’s opinion focused on the NCAA: That “the NCAA is not above the law” was the opinion’s final line, and an absolute dagger. But what happened next was fascinating. The NCAA, after some initial tough talk, essentially ceded. It mostly stopped enforcing violations (at least ones that came after the ruling), but more to the point, it stepped out of the conversation entirely, deputizing individual conferences — and in some cases, schools — to just come up with their own rules. It was the college-sports equivalent of the federal government checking out and leaving everything up to the states. That’s to say: It’s exactly what conferences had wanted all along.
The lack of overarching authority has led to profitable chaos. Leagues are constantly fighting with each other about everything. Protocols — for COVID-19 or for anything else — are essentially made up on the spot. But all this has also allowed conferences to use the NCAA as a convenient bogeyman and scapegoat as they do whatever they want, and make as much money as they can. The result of the NCAA’s abdication has been less like the breaking up of a cartel (as the organization was long considered) and more like the creation of a lawless Wild West. If you’re a coach or a booster or a bagman, what is to stop you from doing whatever you want? There’s nothing, and no one.
And the new NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) legislation ended up being perfect for college sports. It allowed players to make a little money from companies looking to use players in advertisements, without colleges being on the hook. Heck, college football even mostly evaded COVID-19 throughout the year, with the only Omicron cancellations coming during bowl season. The College Football Playoff, the sport’s true moneymaker, remained untouched. And when CFP participant Michigan beat its longtime nemesis Ohio State in early December, the game felt and sounded indistinguishable from the pre-COVID era.
All told: The new lawlessness is probably preferable to the NCAA’s draconian restrictions of the past. There are surely more athletes getting more benefits than ever before, both under the table and over it, and there’s less money going into the pockets of anonymous white men in khakis and polo shirts sitting in an office somewhere in downtown Indianapolis. That is progress, as meager as it might be. But it doesn’t change the fact that, while television networks and football fans (but mostly television networks) are pumping billions of dollars into the game, that money still is going to people who aren’t putting their actual bodies on the line in actual games. The NCAA isn’t the middleman anymore. But players are receiving the same percentage of television and ticket revenue as they’ve been getting for more than 100 years: zero.
Kavanaugh’s opinion was meant to change this dynamic, or at least tweak it. But by pushing the NCAA out of the picture, he only entrenched things further. The logical result was an event like Monday night. It was a massive, staggeringly profitable spectacle that thrilled even the most casual football fans, who could watch at home on television or streaming via one of ESPN’s 14 different channels — with not a single cent of the profits going to the players, which is what the point of reform was supposed to be in the first place. It was a wild ending to a wildly successful season, a year in which, it turns out, just about everything the people who run college football wanted to happen ended up happening. Reform? Why would college football want to reform now? This is exactly what it wanted all along.