the BigAmateurism monologues

A series of events over the last 18 months—some unforeseeable—have created a perfect storm that will change college sports forever. The NCAA's bait an…
Apr 9th, 2021 | 1:07:16

The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” (Part I)

In response to a question from US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on why the Power 5 conferences shouldn’t just be left alone to decide whether to offer the limited education-related benefits permitted by the district court’s injunction in Alston, NCAA attorney Seth Waxman said “…this is a classic example of a…prisoner’s dilemma in which national agreement is the only solution. There is no doubt that what has happened with respect to the pay of college coaches and other professionals will happen if conferences or individual schools are permitted to remove these restrictions.” The “prisoner’s dilemma” is a decision analysis that asks the question whether it is best for multiple interests with some conflicting incentives are better off cooperating for the greater benefit of all members or whether they are better off turning against each other and pursuing their individual self-interests. In essence, Waxman said that the only way for the NCAA to secure its monopoly and the Power 5 to preserve its cartel within the NCAA umbrella is to be protected at the national level (i.e., through a broad Supreme Court or Congressional antitrust immunity). Embedded in Waxman’s revealing metaphor is the shaky scaffolding of the relationship between the NCAA and Power 5 and among the Power 5. This episode explores the nature and evolution of these relationships—both between the NCAA and the Power 5 as a unified cartel and among the individual Power 5 conferences—going back to the 1950s. I use Keith Dunnavant’s 2004 book “The 50 Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS” to frame the historical analysis. I examine four eras, the first two in this episode and the next two in the following episode: (1) 1951-1981—the NCAA TV monopoly years and the cold war between what is now the Big Ten/Pac-12 on the one hand and what is now the ACC, Big 12, and SEC on the other hand ; (2) 1990 – 2010—the chaotic post-Board of Regents television market, the death of the College Football Association, conference realignment fever, the fragile financial interest convergence in football among the Power 5, the “reunification” of the Big Ten/Pac-12 with the Southern football conferences, and the creation of the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Championship Series; (3) 2010 – 2020—the solidification of the Power 5, the seeds of the greatest bull market in college sports history, the rise of the Power 5 commissioners and the decline of college presidents, the expansion of Power 5 market share, and the reckless spending in college sports; and (4) 2020-2021—how COVID exposed the cracks in the foundation of BigAmateurism, how the Power 5’s breathtaking political might influenced the NCAA’s/Power 5’s quest for the Iron Throne of college sports regulation in Congress, and how the January 5th special elections on Georgia fundamentally altered the NCAA’s/Power 5’s strategy.