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Opinion: College football is eating its institutions alive


Opinion by Will Leitch

(CNN) — The world of college football has, to put it mildly, gone mad.

Rutgers, in New Jersey, is now in the same conference as Oregon; the Pac-12 Conference is about to be dissolved entirely. The biggest strategic decisions made by some of the largest, most respected institutions this country has to offer have essentially been handed over to random television executives.

With the new college football season starting this weekend, it can feel like the bottom has dropped out of not only one of the grandest sporting traditions in America, but also the entire sports-education balance for the universities involved. It can make you wonder if these schools are starting to feel less like the training grounds for our country’s future leaders and more simply a place to recruit extras for the television program that college football has become. The notion of regional conferences is as baked into college football as the 50-yard-line; the Big Ten represented the Midwest, the SEC the South, the Pac-8 the West, so on. This arrangement was logical, even obvious, in a pre-television world, stirring intense local rivalries and, of course, cutting travel costs.

The chaos that has enveloped college football, as the saying goes, came on us slowly, and then suddenly. The true starter pistol for all this, though, was the June 2021 Supreme Court ruling—and instantly infamous Brett Kavanaugh concurrence—that essentially called the NCAA, which was claiming it didn’t have to pay its football players despite bringing in billions of dollars, a cartel. The NCAA’s response to this was, essentially, to take its ball and go home, to abdicate any responsibility as the governing power of the game.

And while the NCAA is flawedhugely, hilariously flawed—and was in desperate need of reform, it was still the closest thing college football had to an overarching authority. When it checked out, that vacuum launched an arms race among athletic directors, conference commissioners and television executives to fight for every scrap of revenue—and to destroy anyone who stood in their way.

That’s why Oklahoma’s now in the SEC, Arizona is in the Big 12, Washington’s now in the Big Ten and the Pac-12 is dead. Every college football decision has been made with solely short-term interests—rather than what’s good for the sport, and higher education in general—in mind. No one’s minding the store. So everyone’s pulling up and selling anything not nailed down.

This is bad enough for college football which is going to look up in 10 years and realize almost everything people loved about it is now gone. But it’s also bigger than college football. If you care about other collegiate sports, or just “college” as a concept—you need to know: there is collateral damage everywhere.

First off, what may make sense for college football television contracts—the reason all this realignment is happening in the first place—is generally a disaster for every other collegiate non-revenue sport. (A non-revenue sport is one that doesn’t make money for the university but is an essential part of the collegiate experience regardless—generally speaking, it’s every sport but football and occasionally men’s college basketball).

It might not be a huge deal for Illinois football players to fly all the way out to Los Angeles for their one game a week, but it sure is for volleyball players or women’s soccer players or the swimming team. The travel budgets for non-revenue sports are already meager; expecting those teams to be able to afford constant cross-country mid-week trips is an unreasonable ask.

That’s not even accounting for how much in-class time these students—almost none of whom are training for any sort of career in professional athletics and are, in fact, in school to get a degree—miss with all this constant travel. (Softball players from Oregon and Arizona State, two of the schools leaving the Pac-12, have been consistently pointing this out.)

College football has long helped fund these smaller sports, but now it has grown into a behemoth that threatens to eat them entirely.

But there is an existential question here as well: At a certain level, if the primary driver of major university decisions—the other schools they align themselves with, the way they fund their operations, their primary public outreach that sports provide—is going to be college football (as it increasingly is becoming), well, that’s not what this was supposed to be about, was it?

You’d have to ask University of Arizona president Robert Robbins—whose decision to move to the Big 12 was the final dagger in the Pac-12’s heart—if he imagined his career in higher education would lead to him dismissing a potential $23 million-per-school-per-year deal with Apple TV (which required fans specifically subscribe to the service to watch Pac-12 games rather than have them delivered via traditional cable channels) as “selling candy bars for Little League or Girl Scout cookies.” I doubt if that’s what he got him inspired him to join the world of educating young minds in the first place.

The changing nature of higher education—the pressures, internal and external, that have affected the industry over the last decade—has put presidents such Robbins in the same late-stage-capitalism, get-what-you-can-while-you-can bind as so many other administrators. Many see this as their only salvation. Which has led to the money involved in college football ultimately eating institutions from the inside out.

Is there a solution here? One may have come, from all places, controversial basketball coaching legend Rick Pitino, who posted on X (formerly Twitter): “Doesn’t it make more sense for football to break away to separate leagues and allow the rest of the sports to compete regionally?”

Pitino is hardly the arbiter of what makes sense in life, to say the least, but he’s right about this. College football has become so outsized—and so independent, at this point, from any other part of the college experience entirely—that connecting it to the university like it’s just like every other student program is looking increasingly outdated.

As Pitino suggests, perhaps college football just does its own thing, with its own rules (since the NCAA is not in charge of it anymore), and the rest of college sports, and university life, goes on like it always has. Oregon can play Rutgers all they want in football, but in basketball, the Ducks can stay in the Pac-12 and play schools that don’t take a week to travel back and forth to visit.

Universities in power conferences can treat college football almost like an endowment, a way to fund activities when you need it but not as something tied to the institution in the same way as basketball, or debate club, or the philosophy. Right now, college football is driving the car for universities, and it’s in danger of recklessly sending it careening over a ravine. Perhaps it is time to let it go its own way—and let the rest of the schools do the same.

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