As NCAA celebrates college basketball, football sets course

A general view of player chairs on the court during a practice session the day before the Final Four of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium.

A general view of player chairs on the court during a practice session the day before the Final Four of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Final Four has taken over Houston, where even the light rail trains are wrapped in the NASA-inspired logo, alongside the logo of one of the NCAA’s “corporate champions,” of course. It’s the same thing in Dallas, where all of the signage at both airports leaves no traveler unaware that the women are in town.

The Men’s Final Four – the additional branding introduced last year after 2021’s gender-equity debacle in the women’s San Antonio bubble – is the biggest event on the NCAA calendar, the conclusion of a tournament that is its biggest revenue engine, a celebration and convention as much as a championship.

The Women’s Final Four is catching up fast in terms of interest, if not yet financial reward. That’s now an untapped oil field of money ready to blow when the NCAA’s television deal covering most sports other than men’s basketball expires in 2024. That deal, signed in 2011, pays the NCAA only $34 million a year, pocket change in a billion-dollar industry. Women’s basketball has never been bigger, and the next television deal will reflect that.

And yet even that will be a rounding error compared to the College Football Playoff’s next deal, post-expansion, and all four basketball teams that survived the two weeks of randomness and chaos that is the madness of March to make it to Houston have had, and will have, their long-term destinies shaped not by basketball but by football.

Football, the all-conquering, all-powerful economic engine of college sports, a plague of locusts that consumes everything in its path.

Connecticut was in, and then out of, and then back in the old and new Big East as it followed the path set by its football team, whose complete failure to gain any traction paved the way for the basketball team to get back where it belonged.

San Diego State has spent the past two weekends publicly angling for admission to the Pac-12 as a southern Californian team to replace UCLA and Southern California. Those schools defected to the Big Ten in the latest spasm of nonsensical conference realignment, an untamed chain reaction that started with the ACC’s original plundering of the original Big East to shore up its football situation.

That unlicensed poaching included the addition of Miami, which despite Jim Larranaga’s best efforts and the multi-million dollar NIL commitments of the rare Hurricanes booster who cares about men’s and women’s basketball, would have many of its fans prefer to trade this trip and the 2013 ACC title for the barest whiff of a long-sought College Football Playoff bid for the – when in Houston, etc. – all-hat, no-cattle football program.

And Florida Atlantic had its long-term destiny set when Howard Schnellenberger started a football program from scratch in 1998 and will, next year, ascend to the American. The basketball program has been just fine in Conference USA — which has provided the NIT and CBI champions in 2023 — but the AAC is another rung up the football ladder.

Especially in this Final Four, absent many of the usual suspects, from blue-bloods (although Connecticut comes close) to McDonald’s all-Americans, it doesn’t help generate interest when not one but two of the basketball teams are from football-obsessed South Florida.

“I was just talking about this with one of my relatives, how football is really South Florida,” said Florida Atlantic forward Giancarlo Rosado, who is from West Palm Beach. “Like you know that. Football. When you think of South Florida, you think football.”

NCAA lost in crises

The NCAA, too, is at the mercy of football. It curates the rulebook and proscribes practice regimens and prosecutes recruiting violations, but the vast sums of money generated by the CFP remain under control of the conferences and the bowls, the latter increasingly an appendix on the bloated colon of college sports. Football swings its arms around like a toddler in an airport gift shop, caring not of the items knocked from the shelves, and the NCAA has to run around cleaning up.

It’s like driving a car where the NCAA steers the wheel and controls the wipers and the turn signals and the radio, but football has its foot mashed on the gas pedal, and all the NCAA can do is try to vaguely direct the course of that hurtling piece of machinery away from crowds.

So many of the existential and epistemological issues facing college athletics – from the ridiculous spending on salaries and facilities to the conference realignments that have torn apart the rivalries that make college sports great in the first place – stem from football, which would happily scavenge the rest of college athletics to glorify itself.

The NCAA is the body everyone expects to find a path forward that preserves the beloved spectacle of college sports and the academic opportunities it creates for athletes while wrangling with the question of how that’s supposed to work, now that the great shibboleth of amateurism (which can be whittled down to “billions for everyone … but the athletes”) has been debunked. But the NCAA is in a time of transition as well, with a new president – the former Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, who managed to get elected and govern as a Republican in a blue state – and not exactly in a position of strength.

There’s nothing the NCAA does better than run big events, so the self-inflicted wounds in the San Antonio women’s basketball bubble in 2021 cast light on the great yawning void at its core, deficiencies that started at the top with ineffective then-president Mark Emmert and extended to the NCAA’s self-immolative legal strategy that led to epochal defeats in state legislatures (NIL) and the Supreme Court (the Alston decision, which created a grand antitrust dilemma that has paralyzed NCAA governance to this day).

All those optimistic appeals to protect the welfare of its athletes – the ban on events in states that flew the Confederate flag, the staredown with North Carolina over HB2 – have evaporated. It was always less about politics than holding championships in places where athletes could be comfortable, but the NCAA no longer has the gumption to take a stand on their behalf.

Baker takes over at a time when the NCAA has lost its way, stuck in a legal quagmire, lacking vision, feeling blindly for a new paradigm. The only answer anyone has is to ask Congress for help, when these are all matters that a more effective, functioning group of schools should be able to solve themselves if they were honest about what the outcome was inevitably going to be: there are still a million different roads ahead, but they all lead to some form of collective bargaining with college athletes that sets terms and conditions amenable to both sides.

To be fair to the NCAA, that may not even be a question it can answer as long as football continues to run its own race.

Will change beget change?

Football commands the attention of the television networks. The television networks deliver money. And that’s all this generation of college presidents cares about. The worst idea Bill Friday ever had – and he had so many good ones, heeded and unheeded – was to entrust university presidents with the oversight of college athletics. If they were all like him, upright and principled and good-hearted, fine. But he never foresaw a world where the ability to prise money out of donors’ pockets was the primary consideration for academic advancement.

University presidents today are either salespeople with doctorates determined to squeeze every nickel out of college sports or, worse, craven fanboys and fangirls who are unwilling or unable to face up to the college-athletics industrial complex with any backbone. (Legislators, too, as witnessed by the garish displays of brainless fandom at the congressional NIL hearing last week.) And it’s not just their limp oversight of their own schools, it’s their limp oversight of the NCAA: N.C. State’s Randy Woodson voted to extend Emmert’s contract as a member of the NCAA board of directors a year before that same board ushered him out. That epic failure of corporate governance will be taught in MBA classes someday.

Baker arrives with a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker and common-sense businessman but he’s going to learn very quickly that his many bosses – these money-grubbing, pennant-waving presidents – will be his own worst enemy, and the real fight will be fought not in Washington but within the labyrinth of committees and layers of bureaucracy that exist – “transformation” aside – to maintain the exploitative status quo.

So the show goes on at the Final Fours, the NCAA’s greatest events, and reliably so. While Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is busy in Dallas creating a cohort of women’s basketball fans who swore they would never watch women’s basketball, it doesn’t matter whether Kansas or North Carolina or Duke is in Houston or not.

The presence of Florida Atlantic is not a rounding error but exactly the anything-can-happen that makes all of this so compelling and is all but absent from college football, where a massive school like Cincinnati qualifies as a party-crasher and the biggest mystery annually is whether the SEC will account for a quarter or a half of the semifinalists.

That may change as the CFP expands, but expansion is only going to concentrate more of the real money and real power with football, an uncontrollable force unconcerned whether it’s tearing college athletics apart. This is tremendous spectacle, in Houston or Dallas, and tremendous basketball, and it’s what the NCAA actually does well. Figuring out the rest of it isn’t so easy.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock joined The News & Observer in 2000 and has covered six Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He is the current president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, was the 2020 winner of the National Headliner Award as the country’s top sports columnist and has twice been named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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