Keith Strudler: The Mason Dixon Line Of College Football
If you’re tired of seeing Clemson play a team from the SEC every year for the college football national championship, then I have some bad news. Because at least at it stands right now at this particular moment, that’s the most likely outcome of what could be the most unusual season in college football history. That’s because two of the Power 5 football conferences, the Big 10 and Pac 12, have already cancelled their fall sports seasons. Three – the Big 12, SEC, and Clemson’s ACC, are still moving ahead. Beyond those, the rest of major Division I is split – the American, Sun Belt, and Conference USA are in, but the Mountain West and Mid-American are done. Oh, and Nebraska wants to play even if the Big 10 doesn’t, which may or may not work.
In other words, it’s a hot mess.
This is, of course, where we are today. Which could be entirely different from where we will be tomorrow, next week, or certainly early to late September, when conferences are tentatively scheduled to being play. While the sports world may have slowed down, the planning process is in hyperdrive. Things that used to take two years – like creating a schedule – are now done overnight written on a napkin. Which means that it’s unlikely that the current plan is what really happens.
The Big 10 and Pac 12 cancelled for obvious reasons – they didn’t see an easy path through Coronavirus, not one that created more upside than liability. Even if UCLA and Ohio State did manage conference only seasons, it would happen without the revenue from crowded stadiums and with the added cost of constant testing, cleaning, and possible quarantine. At some point, I’m sure they started to wonder exactly what it is they were fighting for.
The Power 5 conferences that remain are probably doing so for equally obvious reasons. Cutting football isn’t simply a line item, but also an opportunity cost. So for Alabama and Texas, it’s not simply what it costs to play – it’s what you lose by not playing. And that quotient is up to the interpretation of college presidents, coaches, AD’s, and seemingly everyone ever nominated for public office. But in the eyes of many, skipping football is something akin to cancelling Christmas – which I’m guessing is on the table as well.
It’s easy to say that this divide comes along the Mason Dixon line, or something close to it. That’s not entirely true, although southern and red states seem far more inclined to play, while northern and blue ones are more likely to sit out. Perhaps it’s simply a reminder of the cultural importance of college football in certain parts of the country as much as an indication of whether people believe in the seriousness of the virus. To be clear, there’s plenty of folks partying at the Jersey Shore without masks. So it’s probably not worth further politicizing the process.
There’s also a theory that the Big 10 and Pac 12 cancelled to squash a growing player unionization movement, where athletes from the two conferences have demanded greater influence and representation, including some accountability on how universities would keep players safe. While there could be a shred of validity to that idea, I think it’s marginal at best. If nothing else, this crisis, and the resulting sports cancellations, have simply reinforced the often-dysfunctional co-dependency between Power 5 universities and elite college football players. And while players have long been undervalued, it’s clear they equally need university partners to play. Reform may be needed, but it hasn’t caused this cancellation.
But what’s not yet clear, and the biggest question of all, is what this year does to the entire landscape of big time college sports. We are very likely to experience our first year without a real college football season – months after missing our first college basketball tournament. In this process, university models will evolve, budgets will shift, and priorities may change by necessity. College football will return – if not this year, then next. But might some schools downsize, while others stay the course? Might the Power 5 split away from everyone else, who’ve realized that their financial model was as stable as a powerline in Bergen County during this last storm. Might 12 months off the gridiron right-size the game, particularly as schools realize they can exist without professional sports on campus. Might this be the end of the current arms race – which is a good thing – keeping universities from the tail from wagging the dog.
Those are the real questions. At least in the long term. But for now, it’s who does Clemson play in the SEC in for the championship.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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