By Dennis Dodd CBS Sports
The likelihood of the 2020 college football season being played this fall just entered another DEFCON level. Call it what you want — a tipping point, high alert, Judgment Day.
On Friday, the NCAA Board of Governors is scheduled to consider voting on whether to cancel fall championships. One source told CBS Sports that is the only agenda item for the NCAA’s highest governing body.
In essence, Friday could become that go/no go moment for the college football season.
While the vote — in the moment — would have no direct or immediate impact on the FBS, the implications of such a decision are significant, layered, complicated and maybe tragic.
While the season probably isn’t going to go away Friday, it soon could. Through that board — mostly presidents and chancellors from all NCAA divisions — the association has more leverage than ever over major-college football, a sport of which it has largely lost oversight.
The FBS — particularly the Power Five conferences — has mostly been autonomous from the NCAA for years. The NCAA doesn’t stage an FBS championship. That is controlled by the 130 teams, their conferences, their commissioners, ESPN and the College Football Playoff.
With Friday’s vote, the board could win back some of that lost turf while backing the FBS football into a corner.
That corner? Well, how would it look if the NCAA isn’t staging fall championships in 22 sports but those 130 FBS programs decided to soldier onward, basically on their own?
Answer: not good.
It’s tremendously bad optics, for starters. Several conferences and teams in lower divisions have already decided not to play at sports at all in the fall.
Meanwhile, for months, the Power Five and the rest of FBS have been balancing the “need” to play — and earn the revenue that comes from those games — with the wisdom of playing at all amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The players are still, after all, amateurs with little say in how they’re returning to play in the fog of COVID-19.
“We are watching a slow-motion disaster,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said Thursday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Perhaps. Some of the game’s power brokers in the FBS have aggressively urged the board not to cancel fall sports because they know how it would look.
West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons — current chair of the NCAA Football Oversight Committee — wrote to the board this week: “Feedback has consistently indicated that preserving a football season in the fall in some format is strongly preferred.”
Yes, but at what cost? FBS football had already been moving, in fits and starts, toward an ultimate decision that may come next week or two.
However, the Power Five has shown a willingness to kick the can down the road before it has to delay, postpone or cancel the season. A late start, two-semester football, even football in Spring 2021 are on the table.
Before any of that transpires, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have already moved to conference-only schedules. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 will supposedly decide their near-term futures by the end of the month.
Few expect any of them to postpone the season. Not yet.
“The impact of the virus can shift dramatically from week to week,” Lyons reminded the board.
Whether hope is a strategy in that regard remains to be seen.
Both the NCAA and big-time football have long been criticized for favoring profit over academics, athletes’ rights and safety. The pandemic has separated them into different silos in this moment.
Blumenthal was part of a group of legislators this week who grilled NCAA president Mark Emmert regarding name, image and likeness legislation. Emmert continues to ask Congress for an antitrust exemption in implementing NIL.
“You’re asking us for antitrust exemption … and time is not on your side,” Blumenthal told Emmert.
It’s not like major-college football can’t afford it. Football remains the financial driver of major-college sports. Football revenue accounts for 80% of the average FBS athletic budget. Overall, it is a $4 billion enterprise.
We may need football for our mental well-being, but there are schools that need football to continue operating an athletic department.
Among those 22 fall sports that could effectively be canceled by the NCAA are FCS, Division II and Division III football. Those divisions stage playoffs, just not ones as lucrative as the College Football Playoff.
You see, if there are no fall championships, there may be teams and conferences in those 22 sports that just don’t play. And who could blame them?
Then, how would that look if big-time football kept going? That’s why Friday is becoming an inflection point. Right and wrong meet corporate politics.
The coronavirus has already heightened an existing uneasiness between the Power Five and the NCAA. Could this be the issue that causes those schools to eventually break off on their own?
If so, at what expense, if this becomes perceived as a sort of power play and even one player becomes hospitalized?
Meanwhile, the NCAA can rest comfortably on the moral high ground. It swiftly canceled the NCAA Tournament followed by winter and spring championships in March after the pandemic hit.
No one can argue against that. The board’s latest decision is about more than safety. This time, the right thing to do not only involves prudence, ethics and health but also football-shaped dollar signs.
“The decisions that the board of governors make … will be very, very pivotal,” Emmert said Wednesday.