April 17, 2024


Like All Trades

In college sports, too much change is happening too fast

To paraphrase Kevin Garnett, anything is possible in college sports now. Players get compensated for their talents through Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) agreements. The transfer portal has become the equivalent of unfettered free agency. The arms race between the Big Ten and the SEC is spurring radical conference realignment and remaking the Mount Rushmore-like face of college sports with TV money trumping geography.

But it feels like we could be entering the French Revolution “Reign of Terror” phase of the college sports revolution. Too much change, too fast without a coherent vision and planning can descend into chaos. Not everyone is going to survive with their heads.

Now is a good time for the cooler heads among school presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners, television partners, and what’s left of the toothless NCAA to unite and plot out a long-term vision for college sports.

Even mercenaries will work together if it’s in their best interest.

Right now, everyone involved is just scrambling for the last lifeboat off the Titanic. No one is plotting the big picture.

College football and basketball, American passions, are too big to fail. But if they become too big or too hard to follow with the typical fervor and allegiance, harm could come to the head of the golden goose.

As expansion runs wild, moving toward 20-team mega-conferences, some school and fanbase is going to realize it’s merely filler and fodder for the Alabamas and Ohio States. That it traded competitive opportunity and relevance for cold, hard cash.

Then what? These forming mega-conferences could break apart as quickly as they were assembled if a streaming giant promises a better price and more visibility for erstwhile haves turned have-nots.

The SEC has an iron grip over the rest of college sports.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Power Five conference — SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Atlantic Coast Conference — cannibalism is going to leave some recognizable brands out in the cold. Whither Oregon, Washington, and Stanford now that USC and UCLA have pulled up stakes?

Imagine a sports world where Duke and North Carolina don’t meet twice a year in college basketball, all so North Carolina can land in the SEC, where its respectable football program will have no chance of winning anything consequential.

Power Five college football feels like a game of musical chairs; everyone is petrified of being left without a seat.

Could you blame the ACC, which harbors the most unfavorable TV deal with rights tied up until 2036, if it tried to buttress its position, morphing into the TCC (The Coasts Conference)? It could do that in a desperation ploy by picking the Pac-12′s carcass for Oregon, Washington, Stanford, and Cal.

Never mind the horrible travel for the athletes or that there still might not be enough marquee names and games in this theorized super-sized 18-team league (19 if you count Notre Dame’s participation in non-football sports) to feed all the TV money-hungry mouths.

Bigger is better.

Maybe, more folks should take their cues from South Bend, Ind. Old Notre Dame can shift the balance of power in college sports with the stroke of a pen if it ends 135 years of college football independence. They’re the Big One.

But the Golden Domers, who have a scheduling alliance with the ACC, aren’t in a rush. They’re taking a beat, assessing the situation, and figuring out their future circumspectly.

This is the approach that college sports should be taking instead of behaving like a panicked shopper at the grocery store before a blizzard hits, grabbing any items left.

Any of the headwinds of change buffeting college sports — radical conference realignment, NIL, and the transfer portal — alone could make for challenging times. The three concurrently have unmoored college sports, especially with the NCAA defanged and deemphasized.

It’s all go, go, go: to another school, to another conference, to another TV contract. No one is heeding the stop signs, or slowing down at the caution lights. That’s bad and ultimately untenable.

Can the NCAA get ahold of conference realignment run amok?Andy Lyons/Getty

Two of these issues appear fixable. No one advocates for the freedom and financial agency of college players more than I do. However, even a free market needs some guardrails.

The NCAA and the colleges desperately want Congress to pass national NIL legislation. Right now, it’s like the wild, wild, West, varying from state to state with rules made up on the fly.

The portal could also use a governor, so coaches have reasonable roster stability. Coaches constantly having to re-recruit their players is exasperating and exhausting.

My suggestion: Players must spend at least two years at a school, including a redshirt season, before they can transfer without sitting out a season.

We know 18- and 19-year-olds are still developing, as athletes, adults, and decision-makers. They’re susceptible to whim and impetuousness. This could slow the process instead of the portal being the magic-bullet solution to any and every obstacle they encounter.

However, there is no slowing down the bullet train of conference realignment. That’s a Eurostar.

There remains a realignment tipping point where the value of the schools being added takes more money away from the existing members than it adds, where the increased income for a school isn’t worth the decreased relevance and competitiveness.

If the college sports chaos continues without forethought or collaboration, some school and/or conference is going to learn that lesson the hard way.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.