The Pandemic Has Accelerated What May Be Permanent Change In College Sports

The SEC plans to begin play on Sept. 26. Will there be fans and how many?

Tony Barnhart

Back on May 15—which now seems like a lifetime ago—I wrote about a conversation I had with Vince Thompson, one of the top sports marketing experts in the country. The topic? How will the pandemic ultimately impact college athletics?

Our conversation started with a basic premise: Thompson’s belief that when a life-altering event like this occurs, it takes trends that were already in place and accelerates them.

“In the industry of college athletics we were hurdling toward a seismic shift anyway,” he said. “This pandemic may accelerate the process that process by 5, 10, or 15 years.”

Let’s go back and look what has happened in the past 83 days:

**--The relationship between the NCAA and Power Five: We have long understood that when it comes to FBS football, the Power Five conferences run the show apart from the NCAA. That relationship, for the most part, has worked. Before the pandemic we believed the Power Five would ultimately form their own governing body but that it was still down the road a bit.

But some additional cracks in the façade are starting to show.

When the NCAA Board of Governors—the group of presidents who make the final decisions on policy—contemplated shutting down the Fall Sports championships (other than football), the Power Five, according to various reports, discussed holding their own championships.

The NCAA eventually laid out some guidelines to hold the Fall Sports. But this episode again revealed the conflict between the two bodies.

**--Name, image and likeness legislation: It is going to happen. In fact, should players choose to opt out of this season due to concerns about the virus, they will be eligible to start taking endorsement opportunities immediately. The NCAA has tried wrangle Congress into giving it an anti-trust exemption for the NIL legislation it proposes. That would keep the athlete from suing if he or she felt he had been mistreated by process.

The NCAA is also proposing that athletes cannot be classified as “employees” thus taking away their rights to unionize.

In this environment the public empathizes more than ever with the players who are being asked to play under these uncertain conditions. NIL is going to happen and it’s going to happen in time to be voted upon in January.

**--Athletes rights: Before the pandemic there had been various movements on this front. Now things are moving at warp speed.

In the past few days the athletes of two Power Five Conferences (Pac-12, Big Ten) have presented a united front asking—actually demanding--a whole host of benefits. 

They want extended health care for six years after they leave school, so that they don’t have to pay medical expenses for football-related injuries.

They want a third-party decision-maker on health risks who has no connection to the athletic department.

The Pac-12 athletes said they want 50 percent of the revenues generated from college football to be paid directly to the players. That’s not going to happen for a host of reasons. But the boldness of the request is something we would not have seen before the pandemic. Does this movement grow?

Players who are concerned about the virus have been given the ability to “opt out” of their season and still retain their scholarship. Would that have happened before the coronavirus? Don’t think so.

**--Football scheduling: As we sit here today, we don’t know if there will even be a college football season. But if there is, it will be one of radical change. Four of the Power Five conferences have committed to playing 10 conference games (the Big 12 will play nine), significantly upgrading the product for their television partners and the fans. The SEC is playing a 10-game conference-only schedule, something that was unthinkable before the pandemic.

Fans have long complained about the cupcakes on the football schedules. In response the schools have improved non-conference scheduling that kicks in a few years from now. But because of the pandemic, this change had to happen now. Will it last beyond this season? My sense is the fans are going to really like all of those conference games.

**--Athletes and social justice: In the past college athletes have sometimes used their platforms for public good and to raise awareness for special causes. But the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police on May 25 changed the country. And it changed the way college athletes view their purpose.

In the process this group of college athletes has found its voice and are going take advantage of it. The NCAA cleared the way for athletes to wear patches with social justice messages on their jerseys during competition.

The smart coaches have already learned that they must support their players in this effort. This is not a short-term change. This change came fast but it is permanent.