College football is a television show now. That was my thought after watching the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs on New Year’s Day. Overhyped and overproduced, grotesquely overlong—each game took almost four hours—the CFP now seems less like a sporting event than like the Academy Awards for football. College sports may still be many other things—a campus event, a communal gathering, an enactment of the scholar-athlete ideal—but college football invokes those values only in service of a larger project of branded commercial spectacle.
Decades of revenue growth, obscene coaching salaries, and blingy training facilities ultimately made compensating the players in some form inevitable. The NCAA’s reluctant acceptance last year of name, image, and likeness reform had broad public support, but the absence of formal rules or even governing norms has invited abuses. Despite some misgivings, I welcomed NIL (name, image, and likeness) reform. Athletes have a liberty interest in how their names are used, and it seemed increasingly churlish to deny players the right to earn as everyone else in the stadium grew rich. My mental model of NIL was a star left tackle on a top team earning $50,000 or $75,000 a year doing endorsement work for local restaurants and car dealers. This seemed innocent enough: “Take your game to the next level at Joe Staunton Subaru!”
But NIL has rapidly evolved to free agency by other means, as “collectives” formed by alumni boosters have bid up the price of athlete services. Elite freshmen quarterback recruits, for example, now command millions in NIL guarantees. Such guarantees are also used to lure productive players away from schools that cannot offer similar incentives. The collectives probably do some good—some invest in things like financial planning for their athletes—but they have significant potential for abuse, are unregulated, and are not supervised by athletic departments. NCAA president Charlie Baker has spent nearly a year unsuccessfully lobbying Congress for NIL legislation to create more transparency and standard contract terms. His latest proposal is for member institutions to move NIL inside their athletic departments, a responsibility they had initially declined for fear of being tainted by their association with boosters.
NIL appears to be merely a stop along the journey toward a full revenue-sharing model, in which college football and men’s basketball players (and possibly other athletes) would become employees of their schools, enjoying collective-bargaining rights, salaries, and other forms of compensation. The NCAA and its institutions have long feared this eventuality and hoped that Congress would legislate the problem away. With the National Labor Relations Board apparently ready to pronounce college athletes employees under federal law, the NCAA may have no choice but to embrace the full revenue-sharing model, hopefully on terms it will have had some role in creating. What the IRS will think of tax-exempt universities engaging in profit-making ventures with so doubtful a connection to their educational mission is another question entirely. The end of the road might be something like “University of Michigan Football, Inc.,” a separately governed for-profit entity that would pay a license fee to the university itself for the use of the “maize and blue” and associated trademarks.
Even as broadcast revenue streams continue to grow, very few college athletic departments turn an accounting profit, and many labor under debt obligations for the large capital projects that are required to compete at the top level. (Such projects may also be funded by private donations, in whole or in part.) So why do institutions that lose money year after year continue to invest in college sports? Perhaps the trustees who control university purse strings believe that their economic fortunes will change if they can only hire the right coach, who will produce the victories that in turn lead to packed stadiums, apparel sales, and bowl-appearance fees. Path dependence is also a factor. Schools that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in facilities and are enmeshed in long-term contractual obligations might not feel able to change course, especially in the face of student and alumni opposition.
The best explanation for colleges’ commitment to their athletic programs, though, relates to the collateral effects of on-field success on admissions and alumni giving. Winning sports teams buttress a university’s brand, which has measurable value in generating donations to business and medical schools and for ambitious campus projects. Winning’s effect on admissions can also be considerable. The University of Alabama, for example, has been able to recruit large numbers of students to pay out-of-state tuition for the privilege of attending Crimson Tide football games. The Gonzaga University basketball program is sometimes credited with bringing that small Catholic institution in Spokane, Washington out of a financial death spiral. It is these rewards, which don’t show up on athletic departments’ books, that many university presidents are chasing.
Younger fans only know a college sports world of money and spectacle, with the television networks driving the agenda. Older fans remember when coaches like Bo Schembechler and Bear Bryant were identified with one school for decades and seemed to gesture, however imperfectly, toward a broader system of values. Perhaps that was always an illusion. But this brave new world, in which the old hypocrisy has supposedly been banished, does not seem very much better. Some current coaches probably are the good men they claim to be, but they operate in a system that disincentivizes such scruples.
I always assumed that if college sports became too commercialized, the product would become sterile and fans would tune out. I have to admit now that precisely the opposite has occurred—including in my own house. My engagement with the Notre Dame football program is higher than it has ever been, partly because a sports media ecosystem of local newspapers and independent podcasters has arisen to meet fan demand. The press conferences, practice reports, and home games give me a connection to a campus I am rarely able to visit. I did not especially like that this year we used NIL money to lure our quarterback away from the smaller school that recruited and developed him, but I still watched every game.
Could things have been different? Perhaps. The federal courts have played a substantial role in the professionalization of college sports, beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in NCAA v. Board of Regents, which struck down an NCAA broadcast cap designed to protect live gate revenues and began the modern era of increasingly lucrative television rights. There then followed several decades in which the federal courts largely deferred to NCAA governance, rejecting antitrust and labor-law challenges brought by college athletes and prolonging the “student-athlete” model even as college football and basketball grew into massive entertainment spectacles. That era of deference ended in 2021 with the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA v. Alston, with its frank hostility to the NCAA’s hypocrisy on the issue of athlete compensation.
If we are unhappy with the current state of college sports, however, blaming the lawyers will not do. (For very good reasons, the courts are pulled along by social change more often than they lead it.) Over the last 40 years, the college presidents had numerous opportunities to bring order and proportion to the revenue-producing sports and to preserve at least some of the cherished amateur ideal. They continued to say yes to every financial inducement, and eventually the money got so big that no institution felt that it could afford to be left out. The networks and the apparel companies wrote the checks, and eventually, they called the tune. As with our politics, we now have exactly the college sports system we deserve.