Ten conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director told Vice President Mike Pence last week that college football wasn’t happening until college was, and our first inclination was to think: “Thank goodness for clear-headed priorities.”
“With that phone call, at the very least the commissioners understand that it would be pretty ridiculous to try to have college football when it’s not safe enough for students to come back,” said David Ridpath, an Ohio University professor and president of the Drake Group, a college athlete advocacy organization. “If you do that (bring football players back first), you’re basically saying the safety of the players doesn’t matter and all we want to do is have the games so we can make money.
“And I think that would be a lot of nails in the coffin for amateurism.”
Do Bob Bowlsby, Greg Sankey and their fellow commissioners have the health of their athletes in mind? Gosh, we should hope so.
Do these men also realize that the COVID-19 pandemic represents a bigger threat to pearl-clutching notions of amateurism than player jersey sales and video game images? I think we all know so.
All of us, those commissioners included, heard Mike Gundy a couple weeks ago lay it out pretty clearly.
“I’m just gonna say the football budget for Oklahoma State University is $77 million,” the OSU football coach said. “Football brings in, I don’t know, $36 million and basketball brings in $4 million. And then you’re $37 (million) in suites and ticket sales. So you get the idea. About 90% of the budget is made by football.
“So let’s just say OU’s is $100 million (OU’s athletic department budget was a reported $108.9 million for fiscal year 2019). I don’t know what it is, but let’s just throw a number out there. That’s $177 million that goes back in the state’s economy. That’s pretty important.”
And who is most important in generating those millions? Spencer Sanders, Spencer Rattler and their 200 or so fellow football players, equated in this case to any of Oklahoma’s other essential employees.
Gundy said, at least in this passage of his hour-long address, what I would guess 85-90% of his FBS peers were thinking. He was using financial terms they were all familiar with, and that we are at least ballpark familiar with.
Of course, college football is a massive business enterprise. One look at Gundy’s or Lincoln Riley’s contract, or at their swelling support staffs, or inside Boone Pickens Stadium or the south end of Owen Field, tells you that. So does the fine print of media and apparel deals.
It has always taken unpaid athletes to gas up that Brinks truck. That’s hardly in sync with amateurism concepts. The pandemic hasn’t changed that.
It has, however, laid the hypocrisy painfully bare. We haven’t seen such stark terms since Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA in 2009.
Gundy speaks and you can picture a group text between Bowlsby, OSU president Burns Hargis and OSU AD Mike Holder, a chain of face palm emojis.
And it isn’t just Gundy.
The Mike Pence conference call was last Wednesday.
“Our players are students,” Bowlsby told CBSSports.com by way of the underlying message. “If we’re not in college, we’re not having contests.”
Friday, just two days later, Kansas State football coach Chris Klieman hosted a media call and, according to the Wichita Eagle, was hopeful he could have players back practicing even if it meant they return before the student body. He, too, spoke of financial implications, though he limited the impact to his university, not his state.
The longer the pandemic drags, the more economic damage it’s going to do. The impact will be everywhere, college campuses and their athletic departments included.
What drives money in those departments? Football.
How desperate are people in those departments going to grow? Very.
How hard is it going to be for those people to toe the old “football player as student-athlete” line? Oh, they might toe it, as those commissioners did with the vice president last week.
But how long before we stop seeing that line to begin with?
I’m guessing if the football players trickle back into their locker rooms before engineering students trickle back into their labs, none of us will see it at all.
We will recall something Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy tweeted after Gundy spoke: “Sometimes the secret is said out loud: college football isn’t about ‘student-athletes.’ It’s about the money.”
That secret has been out a while, honestly. We’re just confronting it full bore as we confront the fallout from the pandemic.
As we confront the reality there can’t be millions of dollars in revenue without the games, and there can’t be games without 18-to-22-year-olds coming back to school, and we’re actually having to clarify whether they might come back to a university where the locker rooms are open but the classrooms are closed.
That’s egg shell cover for an NCAA amateur model we’ve seen cracking for years.