The two factors driving the NCAA’s crisis point

The NCAA is at a point of identity and organizational crisis. Its new president is out there talking about creating a new subdivision where schools can pay players directly, but its enforcement arm is also out trying to apply anti-pay-for-play NIL rules. The staff is a mix of reformers and amateurism dead-enders, and the contradictions are spilling out into public as external pressure mounts.

If there are two facts that shape where the NCAA is at and why it’s gotten to its breaking point, it’s these:

  1. America can’t get enough of football, but the NFL’s age limit is going nowhere.
  2. Trying to create a level playing field within the bounds of sports requires restricting competition outside the realm of play.

If you can internalize the ramifications of those, everything becomes clear.

Football is king in the United States, and the NFL has an age limit for good reasons. The most obvious can be seen by comparing photos of true freshman players to dudes several years into their pro careers. Physically, you can’t be having 18-year-olds play against, y’know, this.

But even if the NFL did open its doors to the handful of early-blooming underclassmen who look like they’ve been on the line at a steel mill for a decade, there is also the mental aspect of the game. A lot of folks who don’t know anything about the sport look down on football players as dumb jocks. However, it’s an intensely complicated game that takes a lot of time to learn fully.

Plus it’s a cliche that the game speeds up the higher one goes because it’s true. College is a lot faster than high school, and the NFL is a lot faster than college. If you’re thinking, you’re losing. It takes years of practice to build instincts so that a player can simply react without deliberately working through a decision tree in his mind.

Baseball lacks the crushing physical element of football, but a similar mental dynamic exists. The minor leagues will always be around because hitting major league pitching — and putting pitches past major league hitting while staying in the strike zone — is so incredibly hard. It can take years of reps in the minors before a player is ready to thrive in the bigs.

So, there will always be a place for a football developmental league to slot in between high school and the pros. Colleges have filled that gap for as long as it’s existed, and the NFL has no incentive to try to replace it. It’s getting a proving ground for potential prospects for free and without any potential legal liability. It’s perfect for them.

Americans’ love of football has turned college ball into an industry with billion-dollar TV deals and eight or nine-figure coaching contracts. The money has gotten so great that it’s become worth it for former players and government officials to go to court to knock down some of the rules that have historically restricted the flow of funds.

The NCAA rulebook ostensibly exists to try to preserve competitive balance. It never has succeeded, and no one believes that Ohio State and Ohio University compete on a level playing field. But the rules as they exist are written to help everyone pretend like they are.

This is where the second fact from above comes in. Attempting to enhance competition on the field requires restricting competition off of it, else the richest programs would simply spend their way to success even more than they do now. See international soccer for an example of how that happens. The thing is, the law doesn’t care about on-field competition, but does care a lot about the off-field stuff.

The core of the recent NIL laws around the country are clauses that forbid organizations to forbid college and sometimes high school athletes to make money off of their names, images, and likenesses. The NCAA played along because it had no choice, but it created rules such as those that forbid using NIL as a recruiting inducement.

Well, the attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia are challenging the rule against using NIL in recruiting. And, earlier this week, the federal judge overseeing the case said the AGs are likely to win. This, just a couple of months after a different federal judge hearing a different case temporarily blocked the NCAA from enforcing its rule requiring players to sit out a year after their second undergraduate transfer.

The point to emphasize here is that any rule the NCAA puts on players that isn’t about the details of how sports are played is fair game for a court challenge. I’ve seen it brought up in a few different places that even the concept of years of eligibility might not be legal. If someone manages to find enough degree programs to stay in college for a dozen years, why shouldn’t that person be able to participate in athletics for all those years? And if a player participates in one sport for a time, why should that prevent them from participating in a different sport afterwards through the loss of years of eligibility?

Professional sports leagues can have things like age limits, drafts, and salary caps because they collectively bargain with players unions. College athletes aren’t (yet) considered employees, but once that barrier falls, it opens up the door for collective bargaining. If the schools that run the NCAA want to stop NIL from being a recruiting inducement or cut down on the transfer free-for-all, they’ll have to draw up the rules in a way such that the players will agree to it in a CBA.

The thing to wrap your mind around here is that the rulings in the NCAA’s recent run of courtroom losses strongly imply that every amateurism and transfer rule has always been illegal. The Sherman Antitrust Act predates the NCAA’s founding by 16 years. It’s just taken until recently for the rules to be challenged in such a way as to get some of them stricken from the books. Courts tend to rule narrowly based on the specific issues of a given case, so not every such rule is gone yet, but they’re all sitting ducks waiting to get picked off.

Those legal challenges have been coming with more frequency lately because of how much money there is in college football. The NFL’s utterly rational choice to let colleges run a minor league for them for free combined with this country’s passion for football installed a bright red target on the NCAA’s rulebook.

Yet the law of this country doesn’t care about how many more 5-stars Georgia signs than Georgia State, or how many points Texas beats North Texas by. It does care, however, about restraints on commerce that weren’t agreed to by all parties involved.

And that’s how we got to where we are today. If it all feels unstable, that’s because it very much is. The only real question is whether Baker and the university presidents who hired him are willing to change proactively before all the court cases overwhelm them.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2