It may seem impossible to imagine now, but there will come a time when we look back at college football in 2020 and think fondly of this year. Yes the COVID issues were a challenge, but many teams and players stayed in it and played for their teammates and for their schools. These players did not have agents or endorsements or get paid this season.
That will all change starting this year and the simpler times of amateur college football in 2020 will be a distant memory.
The short-term greed that got us the 2020 season will ultimately be the flood that breached the levee. Professionalism is headed to your favorite college football program. The flood will carry terms like Name Image Likeness, one-time transfer rules and fair market value in 2021. These things will change college football as we know it.
But why was 2020 such a milestone in all this? Because the push to play college football in 2020 came down to one thing: TV money. Conference television revenue shares have eclipsed the money made from ticket sales—even at big schools.
Television money fuels the addiction to high coaching salaries and the salaries of bloated football and athletic department administrations. The promise of future TV revenue is leveraged to borrow money to pay for over-the-top facilities. For the past decade, athletic departments have operated without a care because they believed the flow of television money would never be slowed.
But the players also saw this money flowing… and then came COVID.
Athletic departments no longer lived in a bubble immune from the things that impacted society. At most schools —most, not all — coaches took pay cuts, employees were furloughed, salaries and staff were cut. And even that was not enough without football TV money. So the demand came for a football season and the television money paid to conferences. And the networks cheered the ad revenue that flowed into the coffers of Fox, ESPN and CBS.
The players adjusted to a routine of daily testing, quarantine, restricted lives and worries about what might really happen to them. The players realized that while they assumed the most risk, the flow of big money was going to other people.
The players see that the emperor has no clothes. Politicians see that the emperor has no clothes.
Politicians love any issue that brings with it a spotlight and media attention. And the media and political attention has forced the NCAA’s hand.
We are perhaps days away from new NCAA rules allowing players to monetize their own names, images and likenesses (NIL) assuming that it is all at “fair market value.” You will be tired of hearing about NIL and “fair market value” very soon. And as someone who spent years recruiting and wrote the book “Hot Seat” about some of those same recruiting stories, I can assure you this world will be the Wild West.
By next fall, you may see billboards, ads and paid appearances by your favorite college player. You may also find that your favorite player has an agent, and that agent may be swinging a deal with a marketing firm that thinks he would have better opportunities at USC or LSU. And he’ll be allowed to switch schools and play right away.
COVID has exposed the dark side wrought by big money and the influence of big boosters. It has given major college football an outsized importance as boosters demanded a football season be played, regardless of what was going on with the rest of the students on campus.
Now college football is entering a new world that will forever change the game we love.
On the advice of their agents, more and more players will opt out of bowl games. Why should players compete in a made-for-TV event bowl game and risk an injury when they are just weeks away from an important NFL Scouting Combine? That bowl check goes to the conference, not the players.
Can you blame them?
But college football conferences, administrators and coaches brought this chaos upon themselves. All the talk about huge contracts and television rights no longer goes unnoticed by the players.
They know that their coach makes $15,000 to $17,000 a day, demands private plane time and gets a six-figure retention bonus for simply honoring the contract he signed. Maybe players should get retention bonuses for staying at their schools.
In 2021 and beyond, these players will transfer, will follow the money and eventually demand a cut of the television money. We’re foolish to expect them to see adults behave one way and then lecture them on the purity of the amateur model.
This COVID season only showed the players how much the entire system depends upon them. It showed them that grown adults, many of them people they will never meet, are drawing big salaries because they play this game.
Given their new COVID-fueled leverage there is no turning back.
Someday we may look back and wish for the way things were in 2020 and before.