Here's why the coronavirus is a fundamental threat to the NCAA

April 7, 2020

A long time ago, Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs published a back-and-forth he had with Yahoo journalist Charles Robinson in which Craggs succinctly explained what has become my view of the NCAA:

What you guys are trying to do — demonstrate the fecklessness of the NCAA by exposing every NCAA violation across the land — is roughly akin to demonstrating the futility of marijuana laws by exposing every dude who packs a bowl on a Friday night. You begin from the assumption, in your reporting if not in your personal beliefs, that the NCAA is a worthwhile institution with flaws. I begin from the assumption that the NCAA should be dynamited.

I think you want me to offer pragmatic, adult, incrementalist solutions to fixing the NCAA. And my point is that pragmatic, adult, incrementalist solutions only further consecrate the fundamentally insane notion that higher education and big-time spectator sports have anything to say to one another.

I thought about this passage yet again when I came across a remarkable article from the Dallas Morning News which recounted all the ways big-time football schools are hoping they can get their seasons in. Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork was particularly blunt:

“I can’t comprehend it, especially looking at our place where you have facilities built specifically for housing these large gatherings, 100,000-plus people,” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said in a recent interview, “and you have financing related to that based on ticket sales and advertising and suite sales and donations. 
“So the whole model rises and falls based on football. If there’s no spectators maybe we can play, but if there’s no spectators, the economics just don’t work. That’s what we have to focus on is that long-term picture.”

I thought about Craggs’s missive yet again when I read a Bleacher Report post about college athletic directors warning that a cancelled football season would be disastrous to their bottom lines. Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard is quoted by Bleacher Report saying, “If we can't play football this fall, I mean it's Ice Age time. Because there is nobody in our industry right now that could reasonably forecast a contingency plan for how they would get through not playing any football games.”

Bleacher Report further quoted Pollard saying, “The thought that (there's) no football and losing an entire season, that's a complete game-changer. College athletics wouldn't—I'm not going to say go away as we know it, but it's probably closer to that answer.”

I also thought about Craggs when I read Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney’s recent comments about the upcoming season: “My preference is let's get to work and go play. That's the best-case scenario, and I think that's what's going to happen. I don't have any doubt. I have zero doubt that we're going to be playing and the stands are going to be packed.”

The most generous interpretation of Swinney’s words, including his other incantations about “American ingenuity” et cetera, is that he longs for the world to get back to normal, which means summer practice and fall crowds on Saturdays. But of course, this is also the man who’s paid seven figures each year to run a football program at a public university while actively campaigning against paying the bulk of the laborers in his profession in cash or at levels approaching their true market value. Getting back to “normal” means returning to a wildly exploitative status quo for young athletes seeking to play sports with extremely lucrative paydays for a lucky few.

From these comments, and more, I suspect Bjork, Pollard, and Swinney share the view that college sports have high value to their communities and, therefore, talented professionals ought to be paid well to administrate college sports. But getting someone like Swinney to publicly grapple with the economics of his profession in a serious and thoughtful way isn’t in the cards because it only takes a minute of reflection to understand that a slew of administrators and coaches get paid huge salaries precisely because players don’t get paid anything. This also isn’t some new argument; it goes back to the inventions of the term “student-athlete” and the concept of “amateurism”.

Furthermore, I suspect coaches and big time college sports administrators are anxious to get their sports back underway for the same reasons millions of business owners and employees across the country are anxious about when they’ll be able to start producing for revenue, themselves. Read Pollard’s words again. He has no compunction about using the term “our industry,” probably because he and other Division I athletic directors are the business of selling a product. It’s not likely to jump out at you because the NCAA, universities, and their media partners have created a culture where college sports-as-product are an unquestioned reality. Sure, college sports stir up strong communal and tribal feelings, but that’s not enough — it’s the American way to monetize those fuzzies and build a monstrous apparatus to make it happen, all at the expense of the players, who happen to be the most essential part of the whole enterprise.

Now, those coaches and administrators are facing a particularly thorny problem: how and when to resume selling college sports in the face of a pandemic. The trouble is that most big-time intercollegiate sports programs rely on football to financially prop up the entire edifice. Say the football season is dramatically reduced, or even cancelled. That would mean disaster for people in athletic departments across the country as institutions look to meet budgets with slashed revenues.

But it’s hard to find an angle on how the shutdown hurts athletes. After all, the NCAA insists that they’re students first and foremost, and thus they’re not getting hurt any more than other students forced into distance learning models. Some may even find it’s easier to pursue academics when they’re not required to give 20+ hours per week to a team. Athletically, a cancelled college season is a lost opportunity for some athletes who wish to go pro in their sports but haven’t shown enough to gain attention from pro organizations, but those who have already shown pro-level potential won’t be hurt at all. So administrators are left to talk about how the lack of March Madness and football revenue means universities will have to make sacrifices to non-moneymaking intercollegiate teams, or, more ominously, stop sponsoring entire sports.

Which brings us back to the beginning, and asking why the system is set up this way. If the NCAA was truly about students first and providing students with special athletic abilities entry to schools they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to attend, it turns out there are lots of ways to do that without creating a multibillion-dollar administrative mechanism. One way is the NCAA’s own Division III model. Right now, D-III sports don’t offer athletic scholarships per se, but there’s nothing inherently preventing schools from offering scholarships and then spending only about $6 million per year on their athletics programs instead of $50 million-plus. Sure, coaches’ and administrators’ pay would have to be slashed considerably, but schools still wouldn’t pay players in cash.

Consider the finances of a mid-tier, power-conference, Division I school’s athletic department and the finances of a midwestern Division III school’s athletic department. Colorado University-Boulder publishes an athletics department annual report, and the most recent one states that it had total revenues of about $88.8 million dollars in fiscal 2019, against expenses of about $92.5 million (understanding that these aren’t audited figures). That followed two years in which revenues and expenses matched each other at about $85 million, respectively, per the school.

Grinnell College, in Iowa, doesn’t spend nearly that much. In fact, for fiscal 2019, the school reported (PDF) expenses of about $3.5 million. Reliable figures on revenues aren’t readily available (because the data reported in public disclosures isn’t nearly detailed enough to be all that useful), but the broader point is that Grinnell is able to offer nine men’s sports (including football) and nine women’s sports, for 380 athletes, with some pretty decent facilities on that budget. Colorado University, meanwhile, spends $85-90 million on… six men’s sports and nine women’s sports, for 364 athletes.

One might wonder what all that money is actually buying, if it’s not expanding athletic opportunities beyond what a smaller-town school in Iowa can offer.

But maybe we don’t actually want to take that path. Maybe, as Craggs eloquently put it, higher education and big-time sports don’t have anything to say to each other, especially since, in practice, athletic scholarships tend to act as affirmative action for wealthier white students, thus exacerbating the lack of access to higher education that socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants already face. Maybe schools should get out of the business of intercollegiate athletics and, if students want to embrace a school pride-through-athletics culture, schools can give permission for them to engage in intercollegiate competition under a club sport model. More important, schools can get back into the business of being academic institutions instead of contorting themselves into knots in order to accommodate football programs that are grafted on to the schools for tax purposes.

So when Dabo Swinney says he has “zero doubt that we're going to be playing and the stands are going to be packed” for college football Saturdays this fall, he’s supporting that status quo. When Jamie Pollard talks about a “contingency plan” to play football, he’s supporting that status quo. When Ross Bjork says “the economics just don’t work” when playing college football in empty stadiums, he’s supporting the status quo and saying college football can’t exist unless it’s a profit driver, even though Division III exists and almost every other industry in this country pays talented young adults.

And if other athletic directors hold the same beliefs, that means it will be difficult for them to cancel games, even if the coronavirus isn’t fully contained soon. College football attendance was already down in recent times, creating anxiety in athletic departments, and the virus is only adding more pressure. If college football is driven by community spirit and student well-being, this is an extremely easy decision: Don’t hold any practices and don’t play any games until we’re completely sure everything is safe. After all, if the point is to cultivate school spirit and pride, that’s anathema to putting people at any level of risk.

But if it’s not actually about those things, if the NCAA exists not to protect academic integrity by regulating sports, but rather to give cover for those who direct the flow of money, then risk has a price. Watch how schools make their decisions. It’ll tell you more about how their leaders think sports fit into their worlds.

(Photo: "ISU vs. OSU 2019-10-26" by Daniel Hartwig. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)