Time for Power 5 football bubble and further break from NCAA

I’ve already been wrong about one aspect of college sports during a pandemic. I’d love to be wrong again.

That would mean college football games are played in a “bubble” this fall with participants safer from COVID-19 infections. It might eventually lead schools that play big-time football to drift further away from the “amateur” model that exploits athletes in money-making sports. That’s a two-fer for me.

In April I believed that, in a way, athletes would be protected by the amateur sham. A key part of the NCAA’s longtime argument that athletes are “amateurs” is that they are students who happen to play sports. If schools decided it’s not safe for all students on campus, then athletes also would benefit from that protection.

I should have known better. There’s a lot of money for schools in big-time college football, but there’s a lot more in tuition and housing. It’s clear that the plan for many colleges is to bring students back to campus with weak COVID-19 plans, then blame students for the outbreaks because they ... behave like college students.

Recently, I opined that the conferences that are still planning to play football won’t put players in a “bubble” away from the general student population. Pro basketball, soccer and hockey have had success with that model. But I figure the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 would never seal off players from other students because it would make it harder to maintain the fiction that athletes are not employees.

I might be wrong about that, too. Three Power 5 schools with COVID-19 outbreaks already seem bubble-curious for football.

North Carolina ceased in-person classes for undergraduates after less than two weeks because of outbreaks. A day later, Notre Dame suspended in-person instruction for two weeks after school president the Rev. John I. Jenkins said he initially considered sending all students home. The day after that, N.C. State moved to online-only classes for the rest of the semester because of virus outbreaks.

All three programs say they plan to play in the fall. UNC paused sports activities. N.C. State didn’t. Notre Dame canceled practices after five players tested positive and six others were quarantined, but said practice will resume once medical staff give the OK.

Those schools haven’t created true bubbles for athletes. Other students still are on campus. There aren’t nearly as many, though. And athletes clearly aren’t being treated like all other students. Notre Dame went so far as to exempt athletes from a rule that prohibits students who live off campus from returning to it.

Football players at those campuses are being treated like essential employees because that’s what they are. Severing sports from in-person classes is in tension with the NCAA’s claim that athletes are integrated with the student body. It’s only a degree away from playing games on empty campuses, which would give away the whole game for the NCAA.

As of Friday, no other Power 5 schools had canceled in-person classes. But the fall semester is just getting started at many schools. Chances are some of them also will have to decide whether to keep playing sports without in-person classes.

I’m hoping that every Power 5 school that scuttles in-person classes keeps the athletes working. Keep the players around even if other students go home. If that happens then it’s possible a court of law might one day rule, finally, that college players are employees. That’s the quickest way to dismantle a system that enriches coaches and administrators while schools can collude to deny athletes their basic economic rights.

Many college coaches and administrators view threats to the system as existential. The end of it would mean competing with athletes for compensation on a free market. Preserving the model requires maintaining the myth of athletes as regular students.

That’s why, in May, ACC commissioner John Swofford was among the officials who scoffed at the idea of playing games on empty campuses. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick also said it wouldn’t happen.

But now it’s August, students are returning to campus and outbreaks are happening. Suddenly, Swarbick’s position seems more flexible. Two other schools in Swofford’s league also are inching toward a quasi-bubble.

This is a good trend for athletes now, when COVID-19 safety is a real concern. It hints at a future where they have full rights as workers.

Social and political changes are putting pressure on college sports. More players players are challenging the authority of coaches and threatening to organize. Politicians are taking up their cause. Eventually, schools no longer will be able to pretend athletes aren’t employees. If the NCAA cartel is dismantled, schools would have to bargain with players for compensation and working conditions or lose them to competing leagues.

If that happens, some schools may decide that paying athletes doesn’t fit their educational mission. That’s fine. They can switch to the Division III model of no athletic scholarships. That choice would mean giving up the substantial gate receipts from packed stadiums and (especially) the massive TV money — ESPN paid about $5.64 billion for the broadcast rights to the College Football Playoff.

I believe that, sooner or later, those Power 5 schools that most value football will split from the NCAA to form a league that pays players. That would continue the trend of football schools doing their own thing. It started in the 1970s, when they created an association to maximize TV revenue. Eventually, the Power 5 conferences (and Notre Dame) started making their own TV deals.

In 2014 the NCAA, feeling pressure after losing part of an antitrust lawsuit, approved a governing model that gave Power 5 schools more autonomy. They adopted rules to give athletes more benefits, such as a “full cost of attendance” stipend beyond scholarships. But the collusive “amateur” model stayed mostly intact.

The NCAA has argued that paying players would hurt its product. That’s an immoral justification for denying players their basic economic rights. And the NCAA’s case is undermined by the continued popularity of football and basketball despite numerous “extra benefits” violations at programs. Everybody knows the best college players are paid under the table, and fans still watch the games.

Creating a bubble now might begin the disintegration of the NCAA model over the long term. In the short term, it would satisfy all stakeholders in college football. That includes administrator who need as many games as possible to fill revenue holes.

A bubble would ease the concerns of players who’ve expressed doubts about safety. Yes, they have the option to sit out and retain their scholarship for this school year. But scholarships aren’t automatically renewable. The power imbalance means coaches can use pressure points, like reduced playing time, to coerce players to do what they want.

Coaches also would benefit from a bubble. Separating players from the student body would provide coaches more of two things they covet: certainty and control.

"Even with not going to classrooms, that helps us create a better seal around our program and a better bubble," North Carolina football coach Mack Brown told reporters. "The NBA model's working. They've had very few distractions, and that's what we're trying to do is make sure that our players and our staff understand that we've got three months here where we cannot go outside for social reasons or to eat or anything else if we want to have our season."

A bubble would be a win for football fans, too. Those who are genuinely concerned about the health of players would know they are safer when separated from other students. For those fans who don’t much care about the health of the participants, a bubble would provide the selfish benefit of reducing the chances of postponed games because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Putting college football players in a bubble-like environment is the best way to ensure the games are played this fall. College sports officials see that as a slippery slope to athletes gaining rights as workers. I think that’s why the ACC, SEC and Big 12 won’t do bubbles. I hope I’m wrong.