OPINION: With USC and UCLA Cali Cash Grab, Power Five, Inc. Makes College Football Unrecognizable

This Thursday, the news dropped that USC and UCLA was going to make a move to be a part of the Big 10. As someone who has written about and followed college football for the better part of three decades, I searched my soul to try to figure out how I felt about that. The answer was: nothing.

It’s not that the USC and UCLA move was, in retrospect, surprising. For decades the five most powerful college football conferences – the Big 10, Pac 12, Big 12, ACC and SEC – have seen power and money twist these conferences and sports programs into something akin to corporations seeking alpha. USC and UCLA were simply following the same, depressing corporate march towards more pay for the CEO on the backs of the average fans.

But the Cali Cash Grab really has been just the latest of a litany of horrible headlines that have twisted and corrupted the sport of college football into a sort-of corporate branded league, one where the athletes are employees and the rivalries and school ties are all astroturfed, as artificial as the Civil CONflIct trophy.

The corporate entity called Power Five, Inc. has done what corporations do, which is consolidate. Rivalries, historic Bowl games have no sway. If they are in the way, they will be destroyed.

As a result, for college football fans of a certain age, the 2022 and beyond flavor of college football has morphed into something we don’t recognize. Whether that transformation good or bad, a Bowl Season without a Rose Bowl that matters, with employees as football players, is something I never thought I’d ever see.

And it has changed me. It’s made me hate what Power Five, Inc. has become. I still love college football. But I can’t abide what is happening in Power Five land. I don’t think I can watch it or enjoy it. And it no longer resembles the thing that made it so great for so long.

For more than a hundred years, American society agreed upon only one thing about college football: it was something different, and special, that deserved protection from it becoming another corrupt for-profit league. (Even successive Supreme Courts agreed on the precedent that the NCAA had a special role in regulating college sports, until Brett Kavanaugh threw that in the trash in Alston vs. NCAA.)

But now, with two schools in the LA “market” joining the Midwest “market” in a sports league that makes no sense collegiately or academically, the transformation of Power Five athletics into the USFL feels like it’s basically complete.

The Descent

It wasn’t completely USC and UCLA’s fault. The transformation of the Power Five into the USFL took many years.

NIL played a huge factor, basically transforming recruiting college athletes into a for-profit endeavor and the athletes into employees. When the Supreme Court basically stripped away the NCAA’s ability to regulate it, predictably money flooded the system, corrupting it as hundreds of years of college football history predicted it would. With all the money sloshing around the system, the money becomes de facto payments. It makes no difference whether it’s against the law or with the law – the money still corrupts.

So did COVID-19, where the Power 5 basically decided it didn’t care about the health or welfare of its students, essentially forcing them to play football in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic with no way to guarantee the health or safety of its participants. The Power Five schools had a once-in-a-generation decision to make on whether to treat the students as students or employees – and they chose employees.

So did FOX and ESPN, who unilaterally decided that having actual students playing the games and decades of rivalries didn’t matter, as long as a TV market is involved. They didn’t force the schools to make the decisions to abandon tradition for cash, but they dangled enough money in front of them to guarantee that someone, somewhere, would be corrupted someday.

So did the NCAA, who time and again had opportunities to show leadership and cohones to punish schools that broke the rules of recruiting or illegal compensation or phony classes to keep eligibility or even child abuse, yet somehow managed to fail spectacularly over and over.

Without cops, it’s not a surprise that chaos ends up reigning, and when chaos reigns, there’s nobody to look after the fans or the athletes. FOX and ESPN gleefully pursues market consolidation, ignoring what makes college football great and what gives colleges such a strong bond of fandom. Corrupt agents and boosters eagerly swoop in, seeing who they can swindle more, the schools, the athletes, or each other.

Everything is corporate about this move – the devolution to the schools as corporations, the students as employees. Hell, NIL is even designed to give corporate access to athletes, making them pitchmen for corporate products.

In that sense, USC’s and UCLA’s move is really just another act – maybe the final one – in twenty years of relative lawlessness. It’s made Power Five college football officially into semiprofessional for-profit athletics. They don’t know that there is a breaking point for fans, particularly older ones, and that it is now where the rubicon has been crossed. When you don’t have ties to the student population, when you don’t have ties to education, and boosters are de facto paying players, the players are effectively putting brand names on their jerseys, not schools or anything representing education. The USC logo might as well be a corproate Shell, STP or NetJets logo. There’s nothing connecting the student with the regular alumni of the school.

But that will take time, as Power Five, Inc. will eventually discover that their brands were actually based on education, not colorful logos, as they watch the interest level in their product wane. People want to root for students of their university, not Shell. It will take time.

My Views On Fandom

One thing I do know about is my own college fandom.

I went to Lehigh, went to class with Lehigh football players, and have attended in person more Lehigh football games than I can count. I know that through those classes, and knowing those students, and others over the years, it forms a bond that makes you want to support the school, the current athletes, and the athletes to come.

But I don’t see any relation to what’s happening at USC and UCLA anymore and my experience at Lehigh.

NIL has made the kids in Power Five, Inc. de facto employees. Do they go to class? Do they need to? Is there a chance that a USC freshman, by accident, could be in the same class as a football player getting payed perhaps a million dollars to play a sport I played with friends for free? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Lehigh is deeply defined by its regional rivalry with Lafayette, 18 miles away. Broadly speaking they have adhered to the same rules of competition and cherished and protected that Rivalry.

The bond is special because there is a tie to the area and a tie to history. For the players, they are playing in a game that has been played every year but two since 1884, and has been contested 157 times. For the fans, they are a part of something that has occurred every fall, basically, for 138 years. There are traditions, regional bragging rights, and a huge outburst of energy that week that simply cannot be astroturfed and is something that both Lafayette and Lehigh think is worth preserving. It makes them unique as institutions.

Lafayette and Lehigh, too, are high academic institutions. It’s not easy to get admitted to these places, even as athletes. Getting admitted to either is an honor in and of itself. It’s a part of the overall bond of going there. You’re not paid to go there – you earned the right to go there. If you got an athletic scholarship to go there, it’s a big deal. That Lafayette or Lehigh college education is worth a hell of a lot – way more than a NIL deal to huck for a casino.

I don’t know if Lehigh (or Lafayette, for that matter) would abandon all of that if FOX dangled millions of dollars of TV money in front of them. But I believe, to Lehigh and Lafayette, the Rivalry matters, and more importantly, the players and fans matter. They see the traditions and what is around it and they think it is worth preserving. Some corporations might not see that value, but they do.

Conversely, Power Five Inc. seems hell-bent on destroying everything that makes college football great. Lehigh fans can go see a football game at Lafayette with packed stands and be home on campus that night. When UCLA plays Wisconsin in late November, which Bruin fans are forking over $1,000 in airfare to watch 3-6 UCLA face off against the Badgers? As a result, what sort of sterile environment are you going to get in the stands?

I’m not sure if Power Five, Inc. fully realizes what they’re doing to the overall game. I do know, however, that I’ll continue to follow Patriot League football and Lehigh football. As long as Lehigh and Lafayette manage to preserve what makes it great, I’ll keep following it, watching it, and talking about the students that play in it. I just don’t know what that has to do with the Power Five anymore.