Two Out? Three in? Power 5 Math Does Not Add Up.

Herb Gould

In these uncertain times, one thing is looking certain:

Somebody is going to look. . . not smart.

If the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are able to play a semblance of football this fall, the Big Ten and Pac-12 are going to look like they made a big mistake.

If, on the other hand, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 try to play football and run into a Covid-19 nightmare, they are going to look like they made a big mistake.

While this divergence of opinions may seem typical of college football, this time it’s different. A pandemic is way too serious. Far more serious than equitable recruiting or practice-time rules. Or even how to crown a national champion

What this is really demonstrating, no matter how it turns out, is that the NCAA’s ineffectiveness has reached a new low point. NCAA president Mark Emmert announced Thursday that there will be no fall 2020 championships.

The College Football Championship, of course, is outside of the NCAA's domain. But considering that it is easily the most important collegiate title, that's a pretty loud statement about where the NCAA fits in.

For all the unpalatable consequences college football's split decision might bring, we have reached the time when the Power 5 need to set up their own governing body. Maybe the Group of 5 tag along; maybe not.

But there needs to be a commissioner, or commission, that wields true power to make critical decisions. What we have now is. . . unacceptable. To put it mildly.

What was it Lincoln said about a house divided?

What if, for example, the American League said it’s not safe to play baseball? While the National League was playing baseball?

What kind of World Series would that make?

What kind of national championship would college football have without two of the Power 5? And if the Big Ten and Pac-12 decide to play in the spring and have a second playoff, do we have a split national championship?

Yes, I make jokes about the College Football Playoff being the SEC Invitational. But this would be taking things to a whole ‘nother level.

There needs to be a unified front—whether they play or don’t play. It’s still very possible that none of the Power 5 will play this fall. But not this is not the way to get there.

For three decades, when college football was moving from pure voting for a national champion to the current College Football Playoff, it made things work.

Why? Because it had skilled and wise leadership. There was no formal power-wielding governing body. But commissioners like Roy Kramer and Mike Slive, from the SEC, and Jim Delany, from the Big Ten, knew how to work behind the scenes.

They gathered opinions and reached ``unified’’ decisions. If some people didn’t agree along the way, they were brought into line with compromise or coercion.

Most notably, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Rose Bowl, which originally stayed out of the original agreements, joined with other conferences and bowls to create a No. 1-No. 2 matchup, which led to the current four-team playoff.

That happened because Kramer, Slive and Delany made things happen. The Rose Bowl and Pac-12 were very disinterested in change, until they were ``convinced’’ by Delany.

We don’t have that happening today. And when you think about it, this Covid-19 crisis is far more serious.

There's no getting around it: It's time the Power 5 to speak as one voice. That's especially true because we are nearing the time when student-athletes will have an organization that speaks with one voice. Are they going to deal with five different conferences?

If the three conferences that are still eying a college football season can pull it off, they will reap immense benefits. They will salvage many of the hundreds of millions of dollars that are on the line. They will have the joy of competition. And they will endear themselves to common fans and check-writing boosters.

If, on the other hand, it blows up, they will have a nightmare on their hands—and the prospect of crushing litigation. This is a deadly virus. If not fatalities, there are fears that some Covid-19 victims could have lingering health effects like myocarditis, a rare but dangerous heart condition. How many pandemic flareups, how permanent medical setbacks, how many fatalities are acceptable to justify the decision to play college football? In addition, the litigation possibilities are incalculable.

Imagine lawyers calling medical experts from the shutdown conferences to testify in lawsuits against the conferences that played.

I have no answers for those questions. Who does?

What we do know is this: It makes no sense that three conferences are getting expert medical advice saying that it’s OK to play while two conferences are getting expert medical advice saying that it’s too dangerous to play.

Put it this way: Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and his Pac-12 counterpart, Larry Scott, will be on awfully shaky ground if other conferences can pull off football seasons after they have said it couldn’t be done. Financial disaster. Leadership crisis. It’s all on the table.

Given the importance of college football on so many levels, it looks like Warren and Scott miscalculated the optics of canceling their seasons before all possible ways to play had been explored..

This is a great example of why sports need to explore every possible avenue—for the sake of their fans, their athletes and their bottom lines.

This is still a work in progress, the plan for a college football season. We don’t know yet how it will turn out.

That said, we still don’t know if the SEC, ACC and Big 12 will actually play football. They are telling us that, that they are proceeding with caution, knowing they might have to call things off, too. I credit them with exploring every option and using every second on the clock. But we'll see if any college football actually happens.

What we do know is this. There may seem to be no practical way for the Power 5 to align formally and make unified, wise decisions. But they need to find one. Because the NCAA—largely because that’s the way its membership wants it—does not have the power to be the supreme decision-maker in a crisis.

The Power 5 need to find a better way. Decisions made in a pandemic absolutely demand that—for health and safety, for the bottom line, for every reason in the college football world.

Chaos on the football field is one thing. It makes college football so beloved. Chaotic leadership in the time of a pandemic, though, is beyond unacceptable.

If the NCAA can’t manage a crisis like this, universities need to come up with a governing body that can. The stakes are simply too high.