College Football in the Time of COVID-19

Molly Franklin
Associate Editor 
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022 

Fall of 2020, like most of 2020, is looking different for everyone. While some schools are resuming in-person classes, other schools have chosen to resume online classes; while some people are returning to offices, other businesses have announced that employees will continue to work from home until at least July of 2021. The uniformity of our daily lives is gone, and that it is exactly what is happening with the different college football conferences for Fall 2020. With the National Collegiate Athletic Association “NCAA” having no control over college football, it was up to the Power Five Conferences to independently decide what each conference’s season would look like this fall.

Why the NCAA has little control over college football

When it comes to college football, major decisions lie in the power of the individual commissioners of the Power Five Conferences: Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, Big 12, and SEC, and not with the NCAA. The control that the NCAA once had over college football, like they continue to have over most other sports, was lost in 1984 when the Supreme Court ruled against them in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. Colleges were unhappy with how the NCAA was controlling which team’s games were being broadcasted because it limited the revenue that the better college’s sports teams could bring in. In response to this issue, many colleges joined the College Football Association to negotiate television contracts on behalf of the teams. The NCAA was not happy with this, and they threatened to ban these colleges who joined the Association from competing in all NCAA competitions, not just football. This threat by the NCAA caused the University of Oklahoma and University of Georgia to sue the NCAA, and the Supreme Court found for the colleges. The Court ruled that the television rights of college football games belonged to the schools, and that the NCAA’s actions of controlling which games were being broadcasted was a restraint of trade. After this ruling, the NCAA ultimately lost control of college football because it no longer controlled where the college’s revenue was coming in from, and colleges no longer had to listen to the NCAA. Unlike college basketball, where the NCAA has revenue and influence, they ultimately have no control over the 2020 college football season. Thus, all major decisions remain with the commissioners of each conference.

The split of the conferences

Prior to announcing their decisions on if a 2020 season would take place, the Power Five commissioners had an emergency meeting in early August. Was uniformity a goal of these meetings? If it was a goal, it was definitely outweighed by the demand of college football from students, fans, and most importantly the athletes themselves. For the first time in American College Football History, uniformity seems to have been dispersed, much like the nation’s response as a whole to the current pandemic we are in. 

The Big Ten Conference was the first to announce their decision to cancel the 2020 football season. The Pac-12 quickly followed, issuing a 12-page document detailing their decision to also cancel the 2020 season. The Pac-12 not only cancelled college football, but they announced the cancellation of all sports for the rest of 2020 and that they would reevaluate for these impacted sports on January 1, 2021. However, the remaining three conferences, the Big 12, SEC, and ACC, have all decided to continue on with their season, although things definitely won’t look the same as last season.  

What the season looks like

The plans for the three conferences continuing all look different from one another. The ACC will begin their season on September 10th, and their schedule is set for an 11-game football schedule with 10 of the weeks being conference games. The SEC is beginning their football on September 26th, and will only have a 10-week seasons, all being conference games. The Big 12 will also have only a 10-week season starting on September 26th, however, one of those weeks will be a non-conference week. This lack of uniformity is all feasible due to the NCAA’s lack of control over college football.

As for fans being in stadiums during the games, the conferences once again have chosen a lack of conformity. They have decided to allow the individual schools within the conferences to decide attendance stadium guidelines. However, for many of these schools, it is really up to the state’s and which phase they are in on if fans can occupy even a small portion of the stadium.

When the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 against the NCAA, it is unlikely that they thought of the extreme repercussions that would follow. In a time of an emergency, is it a good thing to leave the powers up to the individual conferences? Or should the NCAA have had more control in this season, like they had in the pausing of the 2020 basketball season and as they will have in the 2021 basketball season?