COVID wreaked havoc on the college football season last year. As July turned to August, schools and conferences around the country debated the safety and propriety of playing in the fall. The Ivy League canceled their season but the SEC played a 10-game, conference only schedule. No fans were allowed at many games; some fans at others. Let’s look back at the world of 2020 and see how things have changed since then.
What did I think would happen? I wrote in August of 2020 that “education is complex, with a number of different stakeholders, each with different time horizons. The fiasco that is college football, or full time in-person K-12 instruction, are emblematic of the tension between short term economic gains/losses and long-term goals like safety and sustainability.” How the season played out would depend on a complex mix of factors, but it would be hard for schools and conferences to lose a substantial revenue stream. The game would probably go on in some fashion.
What happened? Teams played. Some teams played 10 or more games, some played far fewer. BYU, my employer, played a game on less than a week’s notice. That didn’t turn out well—the team lost both the game and with it the chance to play in a major bowl. Alabama won another national championship, having played 13 games. Ohio State lost the championship, but Buckeye fans could complain that their 8-game season hampered their chances at the crown. So, the 2020 season turned out like most seasons: filled with disputes about who was really the best team.
In the background of the on-field drama, the NCAA appeared before the US Supreme Court in late March of 2021 to argue that its policy of limiting benefits to college athletes kept collegiate sports pure and sustained the ideal of “amateurism” in sport. Last Monday, 21 June, the Supreme Court ruled in a decisive 9-0 decision that the NCAA’s limitations represented an abuse of its monopoly power. Schools are now free to dramatically increase the level of “school-related” compensation offered to students. This coming Thursday, 01 July, several schools will allow student-athletes to cut their own Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) licensing deals with sponsors. The College Football Playoff announced plans to expand to 12 teams. College football will be even more of a circus in the coming years.
Amidst all this change, the NCAA remains inert. The organization held out hope that its outdated model of sports monopoly, and its antiquated rules and policies, would pass muster with the Supreme Court. It didn’t. Justice Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, signaled just the opposite: the NCAA may lose any power it has over collegiate sports. The NCAA expressed its obligatory disappointment at the decision, but then did nothing. No emergency policies, no response. Inertia and stability are good things, until the world fundamentally changes. The world of big-time college sports has grown far beyond the relic that is the NCAA. Unless the organization engages in real change, it will cease to exist. Then college football will turn from fiasco to circus.
So What? What’s the bottom line? Inertia, like most things, is a double-edged sword. There are strengths and advantages to rules and regularity. There are limits, however, and inertia is not a virtue in its own right. Examine your own processes and culture. Where is inertia helping you accomplish your goals and where is it impeding needed progress?