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Dennis Dodd / CBS Sports

It's hard to categorize the earth-shifting events over the last five months. We have gone from no NCAA Tournament to considering … no NCAA. Players are becoming a third rail in the college athletics power structure, seeking a seat along with coaches and television.

The earth shifted through a combination of two battles -- COVID-19 and social justice. The pandemic not only caused a budget crisis, it exposed a leadership vacuum.

Into that vacuum may have stepped the players themselves, the labor force this enterprise is entirely built upon.

Whatever you thought of the college athletics model, it has officially and permanently changed. The rules are being rewritten in real time. This week is ending with the largest schools in the nation's second most-popular sport literally divided. Whether to play in the fall or spring, for starters.

The situation has become philosophical, medical, financial. Who even is leading? Forget ripping the NCAA for a moment. When are we going to feel safe enough to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbor in a 100,000-seat stadium again?

Some of you will sign up right now. But the pandemic dictates you can't. The pandemic rules everything.

As of now, major-college football is being played in two semesters. That endeavor itself may further stratify the sport's power brokers.

Consider that if the Big Ten and Pac-12 aren't able to pull off a spring season in 2021, they will have gone 21 months without snapping a ball. That's assuming a fall 2021 season kicks off on time.

Meanwhile, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are attempting to play on time in the fall (though starting a bit late). You can see how this is setting up -- yet another "right" vs. "wrong" discussion regarding the coronavirus.

Depending which way the wind blows, a "told you so" of monumental proportions awaits from one arrogant fan base or another.

For now, the competitive implications alone are ominous.

There is already a danger for the Big Ten and to losing players via transfer to schools playing in the fall -- if space is available. Imagine having to recruit while watching rivals play games and win championships. 

Two-semester football might be a model for the future. In 2017, CBS Sports detailed how that might look.

"It's never been done before, but there's been a lot of talk about having split seasons anyway for the Group of Five," Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier said. "If there is some way to highlight what we do, this would be a great beta test. A forced beta test because of COVID-19."

The future is going to include a lot of beta tests.

Will an attendance crisis lead to the construction of smaller, boutique stadiums?

Will the budget shortfall impact escalating salaries of coaches? Should it? Those handsomely paid coaches oversee programs that generate 80% of an average FBS athletic budget.

Will athletic life go on as usual when we emerge from this insidious pandemic?

Long-term athletic budgets a major concern

Liability guides every decision these days. At the highest levels, a lost football season will cost upwards of $100 million. Believe it or not, schools are already down the road financing those losses.

"I've had any number of bankers contact us to see if they could loan us some money," one FBS AD told CBS Sports.

Those losses will be financed much the way you take out a 15-year mortgage on a house. Except that most Power Five schools have debt service on existing facilities to cover. A bank will still lend that money because, eventually, the university will back it up the loan.

For some, chasing that football revenue through the pandemic is cheaper than a campus shut down.

"We're trying to get as much of the $50 million in TV money as we can," said a source within the Big Ten, "but we're risking hundreds of millions of dollars on the other side."

There's further liability. It's doubtful whether the return of college football can survive a mere hospitalization. The optics are different in college where players have little say in COVID-19 treatment that didn't exist six months ago.

There are long-term effects to be considered on two levels. The decision to play (or not) largely centered around the long-term effects of COVID-19.

"Why do we think that we can protect all these fans and players any better than one of the largest monopolies in the world [the NFL]?" a Power Five AD told CBS Sports.

Meanwhile, how many of the 130 FBS teams will even be around when we come out of this? That's the ugly truth of carrying that much debt. During the pandemic, Georgia bragged about having $100 million in reserves. It is an outlier.

At the bottom end of the sport, some programs essentially play football so they can continue playing football. That's one way to describe athletic budgets built on guarantee games, student fees and state subsidies.  

"We're going to lose institutions," Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick predicted. "We're going to have a number of member institutions who won't be involved in college education in 3-4 years."

The crisis has further revealed how athletic departments live paycheck to paycheck. Because they are mostly nonprofits, in theory, they have to spend every penny they bring in.

In a July letter to fans, Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard put in stark perspective what a fall without football would mean. His athletic department would have $41 million in "unfunded expenses." Since the pandemic began, the university itself is in the process of losing $73 million through Aug. 23.

Now multiply that in some form by 130. 

Football will survive and thrive in any altered form. Sooner or later, ADs will wake up to the silly contracts they keep giving out. 

James Franklin's $7 million salary at Penn State represents about 7% of the university's annual athletic budget. If the school president got 7% of Penn State's tuition money, he'd be making $119 million. In actuality, Eric Barron makes about $1 million per year.

Hey, they say you're worth what someone will pay you.

Professionalization of college athletes on the way

College football and basketball will almost certainly will be more professionalized in the future. That doesn't mean the game will necessarily be distasteful. Fans will still pack stadiums even when the next Trevor Lawrence is making $1 million from his name, image and likeness -- from his social media accounts alone

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray won a Heisman Trophy in 2018 while enjoying a $5 million MLB signing bonus. (He eventually repaid it when choosing the NFL.)

It's clear that players will have a seat at the table making key decisions on their education, welfare and compensation. But coaches and administrators will have to adjust, getting used to sitting across the table from marketing agents.

The #WeAreUnited movement had an immediate impact with a threatened boycott. The NCAA already adopted two of their demands, though it seemed to be headed that way beforehand.

A players' "bill of rights" being developed in Washington, D.C. would dramatically expand name, image and likeness opportunities. Such a bill would essentially remove all restrictions, allowing athletes to become just like their peers on campus -- able to earn unlimited compensation for their fame and intelligence. Those federal legislators are not-so-quietly aligning themselves against the NCAA.

NCAA president Mark Emmert and his organization have asked Congress for antitrust protection to implement NIL. Some of those legislators have blown past that concept. They are questioning the NCAA's ability to put any restrictions on athletes earning power.

"It is long past time that the NCAA should have acted on these issues," Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told ESPN. "I'm looking for legislation to obligate the universities to have rules that protect athletes."

NCAA's questionable power weakened

These past five months have had the cumulative effect of draining the NCAA of its once unimpeachable power. The association has largely sat on the sideline at key times while the conferences have wound their way around the pandemic in a return to play.

"All of those things are snowballing," said player activist Ramogi Huma.

We are now seven months away from the NCAA Tournament. A second straight March Madness impacted by the pandemic could be a stake through the NCAA's heart. Tournament revenues provide for more than 80% of the NCAA's annual budget.

"It's their nut, but it leaves peanuts for the rest of us [if the tournament is canceled]," a Power Five administrator told CBS Sports.

The stakeholders are getting closer to negotiating directly with athletes on certain aspects of their experience. That doesn't necessarily mean a union. It means more engagement, more of a partnership. Is that bad?

"The narrative has been, in the past, we've been bred to believe we don't have any rights," said Oregon State defensive back Jaydon Grant, part of the #WeAreUnited movement. "The unwritten rules of college athletics where you can't really question higher ups."

Consider Justin Fields' situation. A year after arriving on campus as a Georgia backup quarterback, Ohio State's Heisman finalist (and one of the top players entering 2020) may have played his last snap. His school's conference has decided to try to play in the spring amid the pandemic. Whether Fields will risk his body and future playing a shortened schedule immediately before the NFL Draft remains to be seen.

This has highlighted the eternal struggle between the for-profit business model and the school's academic mission. Stanford cut 11 sports. Akron slashed its athletic budget 20%.

As of late June, more than 130 Olympic sports had been cut across all NCAA divisions during the pandemic. Only 57 had been cut over the last three years combined.

The Mountain West tried unsuccessfully to urge the NCAA for a moratorium on the sports sponsorship minimum (16). The end game may be schools sponsoring enough sports to satisfy Title IX concerns as long as football and basketball remain healthy.

If the Big Ten and Pac-12 do play in the spring, they will get a look at their reconfigured worth in this new normal. They will have to figure out how to play two seasons in one calendar year. By that time, they may be negotiating with a players' organization on the final decision.

Those two leagues are linked academically, philosophically and athletically (in the Rose Bowl). But they have lagged in the CFP era.

The Big Ten has one national championship since 2002. The Pac-12 hasn't won since 2004. Both plan to play in the spring, but it's a gamble, just like everything these days.

It bears repeating: If two of the richest, most prestigious conferences aren't able to play amid the coronavirus, they risk going almost two years without competition. 

What will college athletics look like then?