Why College Football Can’t Help Itself

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jason Gay headlined “Why College Football Can’t Help Itself”:

Silly me. I spent a few idle moments thinking the collapse of the Pac-12 would help college sports. This plainly ridiculous chaos would provoke school presidents, trustees and conference officials to finally step up and stop the madness.

How naive can a sports columnist be? It was like hoping a poker table would turn into a turkey sandwich.

I should ask the Journal’s ace car columnist Dan Neil if he wants to trade jobs. I’ll drive Lambos in the Alps, and Dan can enjoy the pageantry of Oregon at Rutgers.

College sports can’t help it. The television money’s too good, the hubris too hubris-tastic, so the hypocrisy flourishes, and the wrecking ball pushes on.

This week the realignment circus moved over to whether or not Stanford and Cal—two of the four lonely teams still left in the Pac-12—should join the ACC.

The Atlantic Coast Conference. When you think of the East Coast of the United States, you think of Maine lobster, the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island, the wild horses of the Outer Banks…and Palo Alto and Berkeley.

Then again, if we’ve previously reworked the U.S. map to install Los Angeles, New Jersey and Maryland in a historically Midwest athletic conference, what is the big deal about Stanford in Miami?

It has been amazing to see some college football surrogates tally up the aeronautical miles and claim it’s really not a big deal, it isn’t as much additional travel as you would think.

Is that so? In a couple of years, please hop on a call and explain this to a volleyball player cramming for two exams in six hours and is wedged in the middle seat of a transcontinental flight.

Does anyone think the chaos ends here, that schools will stop lily-padding from conference to conference, and deal to deal? Wait until TV contracts come up years from now, and networks start talking about programs that aren’t carrying their weight.

There will always be greener artificial turf. As Stanford and Cal mull ACC life, current ACC member Florida State is ready to leave—they’re on the front steps with a windbreaker on, an Uber on the way.

Don’t they want to play in a half-empty former Pac 12 stadium before they rush out the door?

I hope everyone got a chance to read the deeply-reported Journal piece last week from the Journal’s Melissa Korn, Andrea Fuller, and Jennifer S. Forsyth about the runaway spending which has consumed college campuses. This is college in general, not college sports.

Convinced they’re in an arms race with the competition, schools spend, spend, spend, and trustees approve, approve, approve, because that’s what you do, and if you don’t do it, students will go somewhere else.

Sound familiar? It’s the same pretzel logic of college athletics, a trap the schools themselves created and now refuse to challenge.

As long as the bill is being sent elsewhere—to future administrations, to students and families being saddled with debt, the spending continues apace.

We have to do it, because everyone else is doing it.

Doesn’t every parent have at least one conversation with a child in which we admonish them against this type of thinking?

Schools impress the holistic idea that college football keeps a larger athletic ecosystem going—that without it, nonrevenue programs will go overboard, in particular women’s sports. (This idea is also frequently deployed to argue against comp for athletes in revenue sports.)

But colleges are already cutting teams. And the NCAA itself reported that its Division I schools currently spend twice as much money on men’s college athletics as women’s athletics—a gap that is even more pronounced at Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

Last week, UCLA coach Chip Kelly became the latest to suggest an idea that’s kicked around for a while: What if big time college football programs just broke away from the rest of their athletic programs and become their own thing?

Just an independent college football association, nothing else. Notre Dame, writ large.

There’s logic to it, which, as the L.A. Times’s J. Brady McCollough argued, is why it will never happen. Colleges in thriving conferences seem loath to break up the party. They’re busy battling for “name, image and likeness” regulation and restricting athletes who want to bolt via the transfer portal. They’re freaked at the idea of collective bargaining and athlete revenue sharing.

Easier to keep the control of the status quo.

Over the past week, I have heard from many of you on this topic, and I am grateful for all the feedback. Lots of you relayed personal experiences with college football—some of you were even good enough to play—and what makes it great. A few of you told me how much you enjoyed it when your team beat my beloved Wisconsin.

Almost everyone told me how the game made you feel, as a student, as a player, as an alum, as a fan in the stands on any given Saturday.

You worry it’s getting lost—or is already lost.

And yet college football set itself on this path long ago. This is the obvious outcome. They can’t help it. So it continues.

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