On Wednesday, August 5th 2020, we were finally given the answer we have all been waiting for from the NCAA with regards to the continuation of the 2020 fall sports season.
We were given no answer.
Or, well, divisions were told to “figure it out on your own”. While they did give some guidance in terms of moving forward in a safe and ethical way, there was no clear message sent.
“Figure it out on your own.” How does the NCAA come to such a toothless conclusion? Why can’t the main governing body for collegiate athletics hold up its own ideals? Do those ideals mean anything in the time of TV revenue?
Prior to 1905, football players, frequently, were severely injured from playing a “game”. Injuries and deaths of players were not acceptable levels of risk to many colleges and powers at be.
As academic institutions began to drop the sport for its barbaric and dangerous nature, two conferences, led by then-President Theodore Roosevelt, prompted reforms that later led to 13 institutions coming together and write down rules and regulations for the sport, as they were often adopted and changed from school to school.
Following this meeting, in 1906, 62 member institutions formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). The organization would change its name to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) in 1910.
At the time, no HBCU schools were invited or allowed to be members of the NCAA, and women’s sport was not covered either. Women’s sports were not brought under the guidance of the NCAA until the 1980’s, and HBCUs later came into the NCAA’s fold in 1977 .
The NCAA had a hand in the rule making and changes in the game of football, but made its first shift towards becoming the arbiter of championships in the early 1920’s the first being Track and Field. While it began administering championships in other sports, football remained autonomous. Champions were decided by many polls of the era, which made it difficult to crown a true champion. Consensus national champions would not come around until 1950, and even those would sometimes yield results of 2 teams claiming the national title legitimately.
While the NCAA was not administering football championships, it was still in charge of keeping the playing field level. This was done mostly by establishing guidelines in recruiting and financial aid.
As television became an emerging medium, schools became worried that TV would dissuade fans from attending games, so the NCAA stepped in to control which games would be played live on TV. Keep in mind, not that many channels back the day. Notre Dame skated this rule by taping their games and playing them the next day for a couple years.
Then in 1984, a Supreme Court decision allowed schools to go after their own TV deals, which was the beginning of the end of the NCAA’s iron grip on college sports.
This ruling was about to make the divide between the haves and the have nots bigger than it already was.
The NCAA had divided into the University and College divisions in 1956 denoting how schools were funding their athletic programs, and then again in 1973 to Divisions I,II, and III. For football, Division I would split once more in 1978 to I-A and I-AA, eventually to be renamed the FBS and FCS. All of these divisions formed due of football, and the revenues each school got from it.
From 1984, the quiet part of collegiate athletics – money – suddenly became a lot louder. FBS schools made their money playing football, while the NCAA got its main revenue from the men’s NCAA tournament. With TV and corporations controlling postseason FBS football and the pollsters deciding a champion, it became its own entity, while still having to adhere to ethics guidelines, scholarships restrictions, Title IX, and other NCAA rules.
In 2014, the Power 5 conferences officially became autonomous – meaning, they had rule-creating authority in the NCAA but didn’t have to consult with the rest of the membership to do so. In reality, though, once money started to dictate decisions, the Power 5 essentially was autonomous way before that.
The Ripple Effect
In a previous article I wrote, I talked about how the split in football really started once TV became bigger, and advertising dollars started to pour into the sport.
Big state schools and some of the larger private institutions took this and started to build powerhouse programs. This left the smaller private colleges in the northeast behind on the gridiron.
Up until 1984, the NCAA had at least some sort of ace in the hole so to speak when it came to who got on TV. For example, prior to SMU receiving the death penalty, one of the punishments levied against the university was no televised games for a season.
The NCAA doesn’t have that sort of leverage anymore. With more bowl games spawning, and TV deals becoming ridiculously huge for these conferences, the power dynamics have shifted.
This indisputable fact was laid bare in the decision made by the NCAA on August 5th when it comes to the continuation of fall sports in 2020. The NCAA had an opportunity to protect college athletes, and cancel sports in fall of 2020. The problem is that they did not have the power to cancel the multi billion corporation that is FBS football. And if FBS football was the only college sport playing while many students took classes online and no other sports were playing, the quiet part would have been said loud again. Football players are athletes first, students second. Moreover, they are more akin to employees than students, as they help generate revenue to help the university and conferences maintain corporate sponsorships.
So, what can the NCAA do? Well, they did publish some guidance with regards to standards needing to be met to proceed with fall sports. However, they left the ultimate decision on whether to play up to the divisions themselves.
They provided some protections for collegiate athletes with regards to players opting out for health reasons – schools having to honor scholarships, or schools being held accountable for medical expenses due to COVID-19 that effect a player and the family of a player.
But at the end of the day all they could do is say “every conference and division for themselves.” Why? Because they needed to have the backs of the Power 5.
The Power 5 now has cover to protect their football money, and the NCAA has protected their March Madness money by not cancelling championships for other athletes.
What is obvious though, is the NCAA was hoping that the pandemic would have subsided by the time their fall sports season came around. Sadly, it has not.
The NCAA could have, however, made this noncommittal decision a couple weeks ago.
They could have given FCS football schools some sort of answer, even if the answer is, well you’re on your own. Instead, they kept kicking the can down the road.
Now, smaller schools scramble and suffer the consequences of the NCAA’s noncommittal answer, and horrible planning.
Shortly following the non-decision decision of the NCAA, Divisions II and III decided to cancel fall championships entirely for the fall. Most of those schools had already decided not to participate, but given the guidelines laid out, there was no hope for these schools being able to adhere to them. This was expected, and most of us were not shocked when they decided to do this.
More surprising, though, is that athletes from larger colleges started to speak out and demand more accountability of those who are in charge.
The NCAA was formed to protect players from their universities and conferences when those entities did not have the health and well being of those athletes in mind. The NCAA has punted on this issue with the exception of a hotline to report issues.
But the larger point is that players shouldn’t have to do this. The NCAA should be already fulfilling its originally stated mission.
Now more than ever it is clear that the NCAA can only punish schools it thinks can’t fight back or threaten to have a conference pull out without severe consequences.
As a result, players are left floating in the wind, wondering who really has their best interest at heart. And no, I’m not talking about starchy “statements” from conferences, universities, and the NCAA claiming that “they care about the health and safety of their student-athletes”.
The biggest losers in all of this indecisiveness is the FCS. Unlike the FBS, the NCAA runs the FCS championship (although, apparently, NCAA President Mark Emmert doesn’t seem to know the playoff format of the playoff he administers).
As the NCAA sat on its hands doing nothing, one by one FCS conferences pulled out of the season. First was the Ivy League, followed by several others, most notably the CAA. Schools in the CAA like James Madison and Elon were allowed to pursue their own schedules though, in the hopes that a playoff would be looming for the subdivision.
Critically, the NCAA came out with the decision that if a subdivision/sport has less than 50% participation from members, they would not hold a national championship for that sport. Now, of course players want to compete for this, however the decision is reasonable.
However, given that so many eligible schools had been crossed off the FCS list before this mandate was even passed down, this seems like a slow walk to the gallows for the FCS. As I write this, we are expected to hear from the Big Sky and Pioneer Leagues on postponing their seasons potentially to the spring, or some variation thereof. But there will be no full football in all likelihood for those conferences.
Each of these conferences have their reasons for not wanting to move forward. In the beginning I think it was mostly due to them looking at the trends and politics (unfortunately) that have surrounded the pandemic, and they said, there’s no way this will be over in time for football. Now with the mandates from the NCAA in terms of guidance, many FCS schools can’t adhere to these protocols because of lack of funding, which is compounded by so many FBS out of conference games being cancelled as well. One could argue that even some of the schools that are still moving forward with football do not have the means to do so and completely comply with what the NCAA has mandated. If they can’t do that, what will they do if one of their players or a family member of said player becomes severely ill because of COVID-19? These are just a few of the issues schools have been forced to take into consideration, and it really is unfortunate because they could have been avoided with the right leadership.
And what about these players? I have seen countless social media ports about players distraught, confused, angry, and disappointed with what the NCAA has done, or lack thereof, in the face of this crisis. One player asked about the mental health and wellbeing of the collegiate athletes being tossed around from update to update. Some players are being forced to make career decisions they wouldn’t have even considered had the powers at be been competent and on top of the situation. All American Towsn RB Shane Simpson has transferred to UVA, Villanova players Paul Grattan and Changa Hodge are also in the transfer portal, and D’Angelo Amos of JMU has entered his name as well. Poignant in Amos’s letter in particular, is the fact that he all but says, I don’t want to leave JMU, but I have to. That’s messed up. He is a legitimate NFL prospect, which is why UVA, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia are all now jockeying for his services, but he wanted to stay at JMU. JMU is one of the schools that is holding out to the end, possibly playing a half and half FBS/FCS season but this look bleaker by the minute. The incompetence of the adults in the governing body are forcing students to make life altering decisions. If that is not a failure of leadership on the part of the NCAA, I don’t know what is.
I am not sure what will become of the NCAA following this debacle that has been the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. What I do know for certain though, is things will be changing. These changes might be forced by bigger institutions and advertising revenue, but change is definitely coming.
If the Power 5 decide to break off from the NCAA to completely do their own thing, that is the end of the NCAA because the basketball tournaments need those schools. Gonzaga and Xavier might be excellent, but they don’t have the clout of a Duke or Notre Dame. I believe we may see another football split where we have about 80 or so teams in 3 divisions of football. I will write in greater detail about this later, but what the pandemic has shown us is that these divisions as currently constructed are not all equal in part.
Furthermore, I think we will see more players speaking their truths when it comes to experiences with coaches and on campus. They have realized that especially at the highest levels, they are the ones that drive revenue and exposure for the schools. They are on their own – despite all the claims of caring about the athletes’ health and well-being, the NCAA has been saying in so many words that the athletes can’t rely on the NCAA for that critical part of their original mission statement.
This is something maybe the NCAA feared with TV revenue and advertising. The rise of the athlete at the Power 5 level in particular is now on full display. Amateur in name only, maybe.
I don’t know what will happen with the pending cases in terms of name, image and likeness, but as we start to peel away more and more layers off this amateur athletics façade, it will be harder for the NCAA and schools to make the case against such measures.
I am saddened that we will not be getting the football season FCS fans deserve. Hell, all of football will be weird this year – assuming some sort of season can happen in the spring.
But rather than foam at the mouth and tout the testosterone levels of some programs because they are going full steam ahead with football, let’s all take a step back and examine how we got here.
Why are things the way they are? More importantly, what must the staff, coaches, and most importantly the players be going through?
PS. If you have the means I’d reach out to them with words of encouragement, prayer, or any sort of pick me up. The last thing they need is someone in their Twitter mentions going off on them for making some of the toughest decisions of their lives. Thankfully, you mostly see that at the FBS level. What I saw in the responses to D’Angelo Amos’s announcement made me feel something I haven’t felt in quite a while. Hope.
Preston attended James Madison University where he majored in Vocal Performance. As a member of the Drumline and Marching Royal Dukes for 4 years, he’s seen a lot of JMU football up close and personal and having grown up attending HBCU games, he has extensive knowledge of the history and pageantry that comes with attending a game in the MEAC and SWAC. When not talking college football or being musical, Preston is a fan of the game the world calls football, golf, and curling. (Curling? Curling!)