College football’s new era of greed

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Fans follow along with the national anthem before a game between the Northwestern Wildcats and Purdue Boilermakers at Wrigley Field in Chicago, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The new college football season is upon us, and it comes at a moment of considerable upheaval.

Longstanding allegiances are being disposed of, with schools like the University of Texas and UCLA announcing their departures from their historical conferences for wealthier pastures. Meanwhile, student-athletes, gaining more power and knowledge, are navigating the waters of endorsement deals to finally get some compensation for their labor.

To one extent or another, all college sports have been in a state of flux for the last decade. With college football being the most prominent sport, it has become the biggest showcase of the NCAA’s warts.

With coaches making millions and programs earning billions, college football was a major battleground in the fight for college athletes to be paid for their labor. As discontent brewed over the years, athletes were suspended for “indiscretions” as minor as selling autographs, while Northwestern cracked down hard on football players who tried to unionize.

After the Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA’s refusal to pay its athletes, the organization rolled out a new rule last year enabling players to cash in on their name, image and likeness — opening the possibility of endorsement deals, social media promotions and the sale of autographs, among other things.

But that hasn’t put the issue entirely to rest. Schools, wary of further player empowerment, are searching for more ways to protect their profits in big sports like football and basketball. For them, joining the largest and wealthiest conferences is the best way to do that.

Those conference realignment moves, where schools shirk history and ignore the geography that historically formed the basis of athletic conferences, reek of the corporate consolidation we’ve seen for decades in other industries.

For example, the University of Southern California and UCLA are leaving their regional Pac-12 conference for the wealthier Big Ten, a conference dominated by mostly Midwestern teams. And the universities of Texas and Oklahoma are abandoning the Big 12 for the SEC, abandoning their long-running historical rivalries for the cash cow that is the SEC.

Some fans worry it will backfire on the schools with rivalries and histories tied to competitors that are now outside their conference. As a traditionalist myself, it feels wrong to me for these schools to leave their historical conferences, where the passions of their supporters are most on display in games against nearby rivals.

Moves like these devalue the experience and joy a student or alum gets from watching their team play. Games mean less to supporters who have less invested in the matchups, so it becomes less vital to tune in and watch. And over time, that starts to erode the fan base.

Does this mean college football is in immediate trouble? Not financially, necessarily. But what it does mean is that in their search for ever-increasing profits, colleges and conferences may doom themselves to a diminished level of support. And as we’ve seen in corporate consolidations of all varieties, these maneuvers often lead to a lower-quality product.

That is the risk college football is taking. Pursuing the almighty dollar could dilute the game to the point where the fans turn away from the college football behemoth.

If that occurs, some may argue that allowing student-athletes to get endorsements somehow took away from the uniqueness and the exciting “amateurism” that the game long touted. In fact, we’re already seeing these arguments.

But make no mistake — if college football teeters off the edge, it won’t be because the players can get endorsements. It will be because greed and excess — where head coaches are the top paid public employees in their states and universities pull in millions without paying their players a salary — stripped the game of the heritage and history that draws fans and attracts TV viewers, week in and week out.

College football and these power conferences need to check themselves before they wreck themselves.

Brian Wakamo: is an inequality researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C. policy and research center.