The NCAA's Pocket Universe Is CollapsingS

Everywhere is crisis and change, but mostly a constant questioning of what college football has been for a generation: an amateur sport that makes a lot of people a lot of money. The attacks are coming on all sides at the same time, and they are rapidly becoming too much for the sport to survive without addressing. The events of 2011 are more than an embarrassment to be moved on from; they are signs of an environment becoming inhospitable to how the NCAA likes to do business. We're in the death throes of an era.

Remember the educational film Powers of Ten? A Chicago picnic pans out to become the universe. Here, everything that's wrong with college football starts with money. Money going to the wrong people, money not going to the deserving, and that money is the universe, even zoomed all the way out.

You build it all around money, the basic unit of matter. You take a player blessed with talent and you tell him all his life that this talent will make him a lot of money. You show him everything money can buy: state-of-the-art stadiums, locker rooms, nightclub outings, rich boosters and alumni. You get him to come to your school, and he makes money for you, but one day he's offered some money for himself.

You tell him it's his fault that you built an entire system designed solely to make sure he can't take that money.

The Terrelle Pryors and Cam Newtons, the star players who get caught collecting star benefits, are made out to be the bad guys, and they're not. Maybe they're bad guys, but there's no morals clause in life. What they are is free labor, so they're perfect patsies for the cops-and-robbers games of the NCAA. The coaches aren't the bad guys either. They're still beholden to the laws of the universe, even if they're allowed to take the money they're offered. Think of Bill Stewart, using the media to protect his own ass and paycheck. Or Jim Tressel, loyal to the last.

Zoom out, and we remain at Ohio State. The athletic director never used to be a household name, but Gene Smith is a celebrity. Now Gene and his colleagues are part bureaucrat and part spin doctor, deflecting blame from their bosses. They read out the companiest of company lines, their job to keep the sports problems within the sports realm and stop them from sullying the hallowed educational half of student athletics. Beset on all sides by reporters smelling blood, they are overmatched. And when they fail, we zoom out even further to college presidents like Gordon Gee and Donna Shalala, talking football.

There is enough scandal to employ reporters whose sole job is to bust college football programs. Charles Robinson and Yahoo have embraced the opportunity well, to an almost exploitative degree—their slickly packaged Miami takedown was flawed but devastating. The nut graph is designed for maximum stopping power:

Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro described a sustained, eight-year run of rampant NCAA rule-breaking, some of it with the knowledge or direct participation of at least seven coaches from the Miami football and basketball programs. At a cost that Shapiro estimates in the millions of dollars, he said his benefits to athletes included but were not limited to cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion.

That is attempted murder of an entire program. It did not work, but that does not blunt the attempt. It was a rare killing stroke in a world where Boise State fans joke about finally making the big time when they receive NCAA sanctions.

Zoom out, and our bonds of matter are being torn apart. The Big 12 is dying, collapsing before our eyes, its components being swallowed by the two giants on either side. Not too long ago we naively called this "realignment," a quaint-sounding pseudogeographical term that makes it sound like the natural order of things. In the end it's violent and messy and some programs thrive at the expense of others. There will be superconferences, and all decisions made will cater to them, and this is the inevitable way of the world. Only this time we hear about it because Baylor is taking its legitimate grievances to the court of public opinion. It's part hostile takeover, part divorce, all playing out daily in the media.

The bowls remain the superconferences' pieces of silver (35 pieces of silver at last count), rewards to keep everybody in line. And even those are so lightly policed that bowl CEOs can pay themselves what they deem appropriate; men become millionaires without once meeting the athletes who bring in their money. Just this bowl cycle, the Sugar Bowl successfully lobbied to reinstate players declared ineligible—for its own ratings and prestige, not as a reward to the players—and the Fiesta Bowl was called out for shenanigans and shady accounting and taking some of that pot of football money and giving it to politicians.

You can be sure when a bowl is brought low, the higher powers will distance themselves. After the Fiesta Bowl scandal, the BCS pretended to have a long discussion over whether to kick them out of the BCS club. They quietly decided against it. But how is it, in a world where rave-worthy cover story from Taylor Branch in The Atlantic is the natural culmination of a year of attack, and it is ruthless and complete. Its author, its platform, its content, and its timing may represent a tipping point of NCAA scrutiny. Frank Deford called it "the most important article ever written about college sports," but it is not sports writing. It is a history, written by a historian, and it clinically demystifies how we got to where we are today in college sports. It is almost cruel in its moral ascendancy: "Without logic or practicality or fairness to support amateurism," writes Branch, "the NCAA's final retreat is to sentiment."

And what more sentimental catchphrase than "student-athlete?"

"We crafted the term student-athlete," Walter Byers himself wrote, "and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations." The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen's-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a "work-related" accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school's contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was "not in the football business."

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA's signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

Using the "student-athlete" defense, colleges have compiled a string of victories in liability cases.

Just as Powers of Ten concluded by zooming back in and entering the subatomic level, Branch's polemic splits the very heart of American amateurism, and finds only more money.

College football has been around for nearly 150 years. It's been through many stages, and is still evolving. It's in an era of scrutiny that really only began in 1986, with both SMU's death penalty and a Pulitzer for a story on a collegiate scandal that made it sexy to bring down programs. It's 25 years later now, and maybe the end of the last era of players not getting paid.

What comes next after the heat death of college football? We don't know. The schools don't know, and Mark Emmert and Bill Hancock and Mike Slive and Gordon Gee and Ian McCaw and Al Golden don't know, and some 18-year-old kid in a small town who just got handed a hundred bucks because he made a nice tackle on Saturday, he sure as hell doesn't know. Everyone's just trying to adlib their way to survival. But the death throes of this universe are the birth pangs of the next, and it's not too late to fight for your stake in the new world.