It was Thomas Jefferson who once wrote, "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing." It’s a great quote for anyone who values a bit of uproar, upheaval, shaking up the establishment. If you’re somebody that likes to see authority questioned, that wants to see changes in the status quo, the Father of the Declaration of Independence was on your side. Which brings us, naturally, to NCAA football.
So, yes, change is in the air. But for fans who value fairness, and humanity, and being able to sleep at night, the most promising developments are still on the horizon. Finally, mercifully, we appear to be on the verge of a major revolution in college football, the kind that Jefferson would have approved of. The momentum, which has of course, been building for years, is finally starting to bear fruit. There’s the unionization movement at Northwestern, where some pretty impressive young men have put forth the notion that maybe they should have a say in their own college career. There’s the O’Bannon decision, which, although there are plenty of appeals ahead, was an unequivocal rebuke to the NCAA, and the value they place on amateurism. And there’s the approval of "autonomy" for the Big Five conferences, which could lead, in the very near term, to cost of attendance scholarships, stronger health insurance, and less restrictions on a player’s ability to earn money outside the game.
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To summarize, things look like they’re going to get better for the athletes that have been generating billions of dollars of income for other people. Is it good enough? Not by a long shot. But it’s progress, and it’s good to have something to point to as we gear up for a playoff system worth about $470 million dollars in television rights fees alone. For anyone who builds their Saturdays around football, (and if you’re reading this, you’re probably in that group), it was getting harder and harder to justify your fandom, when the men who toil, and sweat, and often suffer for the good of their program, were becoming mere pawns in a game that was making coaches, administrators, and television executives incredibly wealthy.
Imagine a world where we can watch the Rose Bowl, buy a Jameis Winston jersey, purchase a video game with Johnny Manziel on the cover, and still sleep soundly at night. It isn’t miraculous; it’s just a matter of finally making an unjust system a little more equitable. And as the system finally begins to course correct, it’s important to recognize exactly why it’s happening. It’s not because the NCAA suddenly saw the light. It’s not because the college football power structure suddenly became more charitable. And it’s not because Mark Emmert’s heart suddenly grew three sizes this day.
True, meaningful, significant change, isn’t handed out, it has to be fought for. It’s important to remember that, amidst the chorus of voices that suggest the players, and their advocates, ought to slow their roll. You’ll hear plenty of people suggest that the best thing for student athletes in this country isn’t to form a union, or file a lawsuit, but to simply let the adults handle things, and be happy with a few more scraps from the table. This is nonsense, of course, and always has been. You can’t "work within the system" when the machine is rotten to the core. The NCAA model, as constructed, generates wealth on the backs of talented, vulnerable young men and transfers it to powerful, opportunistic older ones. The script needs not just a few edits, but a complete and total rewrite.
Thankfully, there’s plenty more fighting, plenty more revolution, still to come. Although the O’Bannon lawsuit has generated more headlines, sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler’s antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA poses a more direct, more complete challenge to the cap on athlete earnings. It’s yet another front in the battle over the future of college sports, and although it will likely be playing out for months, a few more dents in the NCAA’s increasingly shoddy armor can only be a good thing.
So give thanks, this weekend, not just for the start of a new season, but for, hopefully, the beginning of a more equitable era of college football. Contrary to what you may have heard, the games will still be just as exciting, the rivalries just as fierce, and the fans just as rabid, once we realize that this "amateur" sport has been quite professional for quite a long time. We all love college sports. Now, thanks to "a little rebellion now and then", we can hopefully begin to live with it.