What college football teaches us about competitive (im)balance in college sports

When a flimsy construct of amateurism combines with a broken College Football Playoff system you have a perfect example of the competitive imbalance in college sports.

Alabama won its sixth national championship in the Nick Saban era in a year they were barely even challenged. Following a season that arguably should have never happened in the middle of a year characterized by uncertainty, the start of 2021 confirms that some things are still all but guaranteed — death, taxes and a Power Five football team winning a national title.

Still, at least for a little while, this past season looked like it could have broken the love affair between the College Football Playoff committee and Power Five programs, as we watched Group of Five teams like Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati pulls off perfect regular seasons, beating nationally-ranked teams in the process. Just as UCF went undefeated in the regular season in 2017 and 2018, both Cincy and Coastal were knocking on the playoff door at the close of the year.

But nobody answered the Group of Fives on Selection Sunday. Neither Cincinnati nor Coastal Carolina even made the top six and were instead beaten out by one-loss Texas A&M and two-loss Oklahoma for the five and six spots, respectively. We can argue the strength of schedule and ensuing bowl outcomes all day, but one thing is clear: Group of Five schools aren’t welcome to compete for a national title in college football. And in spite of the glaring evidence that suggests this is true, last month when asked if a Group of Five team could ever make the Playoff, CFP Selection Committee Chair, Gary Barta replied, “yes.”

The College Football Playoff is a rigged system

History suggests otherwise. Since the CFP format was adopted in 2014, no Group of Five team has ever made the top four, and this dynamic was the same in the BCS era, which never crowned a Group of Five national champion. It’s no surprise that people have called out Barta for suggesting teams like Coastal and Cincinnati can make it into the Playoff when the data reveals the opposite is true—there’s no such thing as competitive balance in college football in spite of any insistence otherwise.

Case in point: According to ESPN, there is a $4 billion revenue gap between Power Five programs and Group of Five programs, and richer schools tend to blow their excess cash on luxuries like “private jets, on-campus perks like barbershops and bowling alleys, on biometric gadgets for athletes, and on five-star hotel stays during travel,” or even flight simulators in the blueprints of their football team’s future locker rooms, to appeal to top recruits.

It’s no wonder that in 2020, all 31 five-star football recruits in the country committed to a Power Five program, and, in basketball, 24 of 28 five-star basketball recruits signed with Power Five schools. When lucrative programs (like the newly-minted national champions) tweet out pictures of their lavish football locker room renovations — another constant even in the middle of a pandemic — it’s hard for 18-year-olds to resist the siren call of nice things. It also goes without saying that the Power Fives like to fund outrageous coach salaries so they can hire the best in the business, which makes these programs all the more tantalizing — and successful.

The spending gap between the Power Fives and the Group of Fives also seems to have an effect on college basketball. Since the NCAA recognized a national tournament in 1939, only 14 Group of Five schools have ever won a national championship, even though the playing field is much bigger and underdog victories are more common. And while it’s fun to watch UMBC upset Virginia or Steph Curry lead Davidson to the Elite Eight, the consistent Power Five dominance in college basketball is just as obvious as it is in college football.

Amateurism is a flimsy construct

Even so, the NCAA likes to argue that its amateurism policies, which bar college athletes from profiting from the use of their names, images and likenesses, are imperative to maintaining competitive balance in collegiate athletics. In the past, the association has maintained its defense that the “collegiate model maintains a competitive balance among schools and across conferences.”

In 2013, former Baylor University president Kenneth Star also argued in favor of the NCAA, suggesting that the inevitable result of amateurism repeal “would be that schools that were able and willing to pay the most money would be able to recruit the best athletes, resulting in the strongest teams getting stronger and an erosion of fair competition,” a sentiment that persists today.

The only problem with that logic is that Starr’s nightmare is already happening, even under the NCAA’s current, amateurism-friendly structure. The proverbial arms race for young athletes is already well underway, and a “level playing field,” however romantic, simply doesn’t exist in the NCAA.

A construct as flimsy as amateurism is powerless to stop boosters from tipping the odds in their team’s favor by funding salaries and facilities, especially if that money can’t go toward paying athletes. And it’s not even a secret for some programs — the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide Foundation’s website states a key goal of its current 10-year, $600-million funding initiative is to “transform our facilities and provide the environment necessary to recruit and train the best student-athletes and position our programs as nationally competitive in the future.” It appears to be working, equity be damned.

We shouldn’t be too surprised by the lack of competitive balance in college football and men’s basketball — the NCAA’s collegiate model glorifies inequity off the field as well, and its own research proves this is true. For instance, according to the NCAA, women’s sports in FBS programs only receive 18 percent of operating budgets, 30 percent of competitive opportunities, 41 percent of scholarship funds, 46 percent of championship opportunities, and 29 percent of overall recruiting dollars. Another aptly-titled NCAA publication called “Where are the Women?” highlights employment gaps in women’s sports — only 40 percent of women’s college teams are coached by women, down from 55 percent in 1981.

Due to potential overlap between indoor and outdoor track, only outdoor track athletes are counted in this total to avoid double-counting athletes. Overlap may exist between cross country and indoor/outdoor track, so this total is an estimate.

A separate NCAA publication reports that the coaches, administrators and teammates of LGBTQ athletes “often exhibit heterosexist and homophobic attitudes,” and that “hostility toward gay men and lesbians exists on nearly all teams and at all the case study sites” of another study cited in the report. Play around with the NCAA’s Demographics Database, and you’ll find that only 3,408 Black female athletes compete in head count sports, where athletes are allowed to receive either full-ride scholarships or nothing at all, as opposed to 6,886 white women.

Additionally, 3,541 Black women compete in outdoor track — an equivalency sport where partial scholarships, are the norm — alone. Add in the other equivalency sports, and the numbers reveal nearly 6,000 Black women compete in sports in which full rides are incredibly rare. The numbers don’t lie, and the competitive imbalance we see in college football is a reflection of the overall culture of inequity in college sports. The NCAA knows this — it just doesn’t care enough to change things.

So, while it feels like Groundhog Day as we watch the same college football teams land on top of the heap every season, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. How can we expect a level playing field from a rigged system?

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