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Save College Football

This past weekend, sports fans across America cheered the NFL Draft as the best college football players in America embraced their new status as rising professionals.

But for many of these players, they are already effectively pro athletes. Most of them are already paid to play; a few of them earn giant sums of NIL, “name, image, and likeness” packages.

The actual pro league, the NFL, thrives. TV ratings soar, fantasy football and sports gambling become deeply ingrained in American culture, and even the springtime draft creates a football frenzy. But if the college game continues on its current trajectory, this cherished American institution of college football will be ruined.

Why?

Because right now, college morphs into a junior, inferior version of the pro game. Through bad public policy from above and poor decision-making by schools, college football loses the particular appeal and magic of the game, including regionalism and generational rivalries.

Those rivalries transcended sports. In the golden era of college football, with the old leagues like the Southwestern Conference, the Big Eight, the original Big 10, and the Pac 10, football games grew into showdowns of state and regional pride that involved entire populations and extended families, not just fervent sports fans.

But in contrast, college football now risks becoming a commoditized, watered-down NFL, but with much worse structure than the pro league. Specifically, the current combination of unlimited NIL money plus open-ended transfer portal ability creates a toxic combination that is akin to a pro league with zero salary cap with open free agency—a disaster.

So, what are the fixes to this mess, and why should Americans care, even if they are not college football diehards?

First, recognize that this whole bind was born in California, where Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation in 2019 on the ridiculous premise that permitting NIL payments was a civil rights issue. As often happens, California unfortunately set the trend for the rest of America.

The issue was then accelerated with an illogical Supreme Court case that effectively designated college athletes as “employees” of the schools rather than students earning free benefits through talent, just like academic merit scholars or talented musicians do.

The results have been an unmitigated disaster. The pressure to keep up on the NIL front and open transfer portal created the financial impetus for massive conference realignment, which has made a mockery of the regionalism that once defined the sport.

Once regionalism and traditional rivalries are lost, college football simply downgrades to a less talented version of a pro league. But even worse, without rules to control pay and switching between teams, college football forfeits the allure and brotherhood that always differentiated this game from pro ball.

These changes so bothered iconic University of Alabama coach Nick Saban, that they prompted his retirement from his legendary leadership of the Crimson Tide. At a Congressional roundtable, Saban relayed a conversation with his wife, who asked, “Why are we doing this? All they [the players] care about is how much you’re going to pay them.” Coach Saban further remarked that “all the things that I believed in for all these years, 50 years of coaching, no longer exist in college athletics.”

Thankfully, plans created behind closed doors seem to address many of these problems. A blueprint for a college football “super league” was leaked to Sportico News. It proposes that the largest programs leave the corrupt NCAA and form a 70-team organization that returns to regional conferences, spreads NIL money more evenly among players, and places material limits on player transfers.

This proposal represents a big step forward, but federal action still beckons. First, because this plan only fixes problems for football rather than for all sports. Second, the wrongheaded Supreme Court precedent could imperil such a super-league without legal clarifications, preferably federal legislation. Third, without federal reforms, states like California would once again torpedo any workable solutions, so they must be precluded legally.

Now, critics might ask why the government should have any say in college athletics. Well, federal law is already deeply involved in college sports, especially via Title IX. But more importantly, we taxpayers massively subsidize these schools, into the hundreds of billions of dollars, in both direct payments as well as tax breaks. That huge taxpayer largesse flows to both public and private universities, as meticulously documented by the government transparency group, Open the Books. So, since we fund it, we get a say—a major one—in how these institutions operate, including sports.

There is political opportunity here as well. College football represents a uniquely American phenomenon, a cherished rite of fall for generations in our country. Preserving this game will earn the deserved political rewards of grateful fans and alumni.

President Trump is perfectly positioned to pursue this issue. Back in 2020, when the fate of that college football season was very much in doubt due to the overreactions of the COVID panic, I went to President Trump and made the case to intervene.

I was working as senior advisor to his campaign that August as the conferences debated the upcoming season. Other than the Southeastern Conference, all the major ones teetered back and forth. I made the case that the country needed the confidence boost of returning to football. To his great credit, Trump instructed White House and public health officials to directly lobby the conferences to play and brief them on the data that supported playing football.

Now, President Trump has a less dramatic but still vital similar opportunity. He can back the basics of the Super League proposal and promise that he will fix this issue from the Oval Office. Specifically, he could pledge a high-level White House commission on college sports reform and ask notable sports leaders like Coach Saban to serve on it.

College football is not the NFL, nor should it be. It is different and much better in many ways, especially since it has not been politicized and bowed down to wokeness like the pro league. From here, smart policy reforms can save this game that is so beloved by tens of millions of Americans—and reap a political windfall in the process.

Steve Cortes is former senior advisor to President Donald Trump, former commentator for Fox News and CNN, and president of the League of American Workers, a populist right pro-laborer advocacy group. He played college football at Georgetown University.

 

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About Steve Cortes

Steve Cortes is the founder of the League of American Workers. He formerly served as a senior advisor to President Trump, and a broadcaster with Fox News, CNBC, and CNN.

Photo: Ames, Iowa - September 9 : Former President Donald Trump waves to the crowds before the start of a NCAA college football game between Iowa State University and the University of Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept 09, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)