On Monday night, the Alabama Crimson Tide will face off against the Clemson Tigers in the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before. Alabama and Clemson have faced off in two of the last three national championship games, with Alabama winning in 2016 and Clemson winning in 2017. In 2018, the two programs faced each other again, just one round earlier, in the semifinals. Since the College Football Playoff system began in 2014, it has been the Alabama and Clemson show.
As former Clemson Student Information Director Tim Bouret pointed out on Twitter, after Monday night, either Clemson or Alabama will have won 11 of the last 12 College Football Playoff games that have been played.
At the end of the National Championship game on Monday night, 12 College Football Playoff games will have been played the last four years. Clemson and Alabama will have won 11 of the 12.
— Tim Bourret (@TimBourret) January 4, 2019
This lack of parity is nothing new. Since 1998, as many as 42 schools could have conceivably sent a team to a national championship game. Instead, just 17 have made an appearance.
One of the excuses frequently cited by defenders of the NCAA’s rules on amateurism — the system which prohibits predominantly African American men’s basketball and football players from earning any money, while making millionaires out of the predominantly white coaches and administrators that surround them — is the concept of a “level playing field.”
The NCAA, elite coaches and administrators, and even congressional leaders would have you believe that limiting the players to scholarships, not salaries, promotes parity across teams and divisions, and keeps a few big-pocketed schools from dominating the landscape.
There’s one glaring problem with this notion: the wealth of certain football programs already has a huge impact on the college football landscape. Six teams have won a national championship in the last 10 years. Five of those teams currently employ coaches who are among the top eight highest-paid coaches in the country, according to a USA Today database. The sixth team, Florida State, is 12th on that list. (Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban is the highest-paid NCAA coach in the nation, currently making $8.3 million per year. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney is 7th, making only $6.5 million. Florida State’s Willie Taggert earns a paltry $5 million.)
It is not in dispute that schools with the biggest-spending boosters and lucrative corporate sponsorship deals are able to pay for the highest-profile coaches and the nicest facilities and player amenities, which in turn gives those programs a significant competitive advantage over the rest of the field. And as these rich schools continue to find success in the postseason, they earn even more money, which, of course, is funneled back to ever-expanding coaching salaries or wholly unnecessary facility renovations and expansions to help attract elite recruits.
In short, there is no such thing as parity in college athletics.
The rich keep getting richer, the playing field keeps getting more uneven, and the players remain broke, putting their bodies and brains on the line all while being “paid” with an education they aren’t even permitted to prioritize due to the rigors of their football schedule.
Paying college athletes wouldn’t make the playing field any more uneven; all it would do is ever-so-slightly tip the balance of power in the direction of players. That seems to terrify schools, coaches, and NCAA officials far more than competitive imbalance.
None of these arguments are new. This particular myth has been thoroughly debunked before, most notably by Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist and partner at OSKR, an economic consulting firm specializing in expert witness testimony. In a 2014 article for Deadspin, “The Competitive-Balance Argument Against Paying Athletes Is Bullshit,” Schwarz did a deep-dive statistical analysis to test the balance of college football recruiting. His conclusion?
“Fixing the price of a year of a college athlete’s service to be comparable across all schools does not result in anything like competitive balance, and statistically, the level of imbalance has been growing over the last six years,” Schwarz said. “It’s time to stop using that as an excuse why college football should be allowed to collude its way out of paying market rates for talent.”
In fact, he takes it a step further, and argues that a free market or some sort of pay-for-play model might actually increase the competitive balance.
“If anything, the economics of price competition argue that as you let schools use money directly as a tool in attracting talent, you may empower mid-level schools to splurge on a would-be starter who might otherwise accept an offer at a top-tier school and end up riding the bench,” Schwarz said.