Amateurism is dead: How the past 16 months have permanently shaped college football

·6 min read

What a wild time to be a college football fan.

Covid-19 stormed into what was shaping up to be a casual 2020 offseason and ripped everything apart. Now, in July 2021, the game has changed so dramatically that there is no return to what once was. Change can be unsettling. Change can be uncomfortable. But change happens all the same.

When I was standing here in 2015, it was my first time to be the commissioner for SEC Football Media Days, and I opened with a song lyric from Bob Dylan way back in 1963, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” You may recall that Dylan spoke of you in one of the verses in that song: Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen. Keep your eyes wide open, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no telling who that it’s naming, because the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a changin’.

If you wonder if I pick songs that have some meaning, I think I got that one right, maybe a little early because the times are changing.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, July 2021

And in the past 16 months, the game has transformed. Amateurism is dead, and the college football world will never be the same.

So how did amateurism die?

Rewind to March 12, 2020. The Southeastern Conference canceled the rest of its league basketball tournament because of Covid-19 concerns. The NBA had just announced the night prior that it canceled the rest of its season, and the world slowly ground to a halt. Throughout the rest of the spring and summer, collegiate athletics as the United States knew it was in danger of being canceled for the foreseeable future. However, as the summer marched on, there was optimism within the Power five that a college football season would be played. Quickly, the SEC, Big 12, and ACC formed individual plans for their respective teams. College football would exist in some form in 2021.

Eventually, the rest of the Power five followed suit along with the Group of five. But the season would have to be restructured. Players would have to be tested. Fan attendance would have to be regulated. And during rescheduling, some interesting topics were discussed. Should we do away with conference divisions? Should the SEC finally move to a nine-game conference schedule? Will we ever see Ohio State make it through a full season without a blowout loss to (insert random Big Ten basement dweller here)? Should Notre Dame join a conference? The answer to the last question was yes, but only for a moment- just to sneak into the College Football Playoff and get destroyed yet again. Discussions surrounding conference alignments seemed to rumble in the background of the college football landscape.

Fast-forward to a year later to March 2021. Covid-19’s rampage came and went within the United States. Alabama (unsurprisingly) won the national title. Word spread of a bill that California had passed in 2019. This was a bill that would allow college athletes to be paid. California started pushing the bill hard and within a couple of months, other states passed similar bills of their own. During this time the transfer portal was alive and active and introduced a new rule: athletes could now go wherever they wanted once without penalty. College football’s version of free agency.

Then on June 10, 2021, the College Football Playoff committee announced that a sub-group of the College Football Playoff’s management committee presented a proposal to change the current four-team format to a 12-team event. Bill Hancock, Executive Director of the CFP, said that the board of managers will make the final decision, and that decision will not come before the fall. Fanbases across college football were shocked. Finally, there might be parity in a system that seemed to favor a handful of Power five schools. A celebration from the Group of five ensued. I find it entertaining that the same thing was said back in 2013 when the BCS system was thrown away and the CFP was introduced.

Action surrounding NIL continued to pick up steam and on July 1, 2021, college athletes could finally be compensated. Add it to the list of major turning points this offseason. And then, during SEC media days, massive news broke right before Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher took the podium to answer questions from the media.

Texas and Oklahoma were trying to join the SEC?

A wild concept, for sure. Initially, I thought there was no validity to the rumor and continued about my day. However, steam picked up quickly, and before SEC media days came to a close, word had spread that the Sooners and Longhorns were expected to announce the plan within a few weeks. Immediately, the realignment theorists emerged from the shadows with models for a 16-team super conference. SEC Network shared its own model, composed of a four-pod system that would force the SEC to move to a nine-game conference schedule. It’s interesting that the network had a specific model prepared and proposed so quickly.

So how did amateurism die in the last 16 months?

It started during the pandemic. Covid-19 gave commissioners time to think about potential models and plans for conference realignments, whether that be within its own conference, or possibly bringing in new schools to compete. I can imagine the loss of revenue made the SEC hungry to make it up. The fastest way to make it up? Bring in two of college football’s wealthiest programs. It also gave the United States time to decide on compensating college athletes. It gave the College Football Playoff committee time to come up with a model that benefited everyone. It gave the NCAA time to bolster their newfound creation, the transfer portal, by allowing athletes to go wherever they wanted one time without penalty.

Today’s game collectively resembles college football’s professional counterpart, the NFL. The National Football League had a 12 team playoff until earlier this year when they expanded it to 14, because of money. The NFL compensates its players to compete. College athletes aren’t being paid directly by the schools but boosters, local businesses, and markets factor into which universities thrive over others.

The NFL has free agency. College players can’t come and go as they please like the NFL’s free agency, but the “recruiting” process is similar because money/NIL deals are a factor. The NFL also uses a four-pod system for its divisions within the AFC and the NFC.

Gone are the days of amateurism in college football and eventually collegiate athletics as a whole (presumably). The SEC is leading the charge in a monumental shift in the way the game is fundamentally played. It’s professional football on a smaller scale. There is still so much to learn in the coming months as we are given more information about conference realignments.

Oh, the times they are a-changin’.

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