Ratto: The Library's Last Stand


College football coaches across the country have been pushing back against the idea that university presidents actually run their universities, which if you strip away the emotion of your desire for he games. And now, we're at that intersection.

The presidents of the Big 10 and Pacific 12 held firm against coaches in various states of unhappiness today and are taking the autumn off in all sports, to nobody's surprise. In addition, Connecticut and Old Dominion have already done it on their own. The reasons run the gamut from not wanting to give students longterm heart disease to avoiding legal and fiscal liability if they catch COVID-19 somewhere else. A number of coaches have pushed back with not-so-subtle reminders of who brings in the money, and Nebraska's Scott Frost all but said he'll take his team and play anywhere. That is, of course, before, the Big 10's announcement.

HIS team. With someone else's equipment, and someone else's travel budget and someone else's support staff. HIS team.

Now that clears everything up.

Of course the idiocy and danger of playing is clear. For every Scott Satterwaite of Louisville who says his team has tested often and is absolutely safe, there are 11 teams his players have to play whose testing and disease protocols he can't vouchsafe. In VirusWorld, "I'm good" isn't good enough.

But let's ignore the arrogance and focus on the arrogance. The idea in play here isn't that coaches know more about virology, but that the teams they have been hired to coach are actually their property even though the universities whose logos they wear pay for everything and everyone, and everything includes the real estate upon which they play and practice and dress and video study. This may look like a debate about the safety of football, which of course isn't safe at all and is at the moment even more dangerous than it has ever been, but what it really is is a fight about power and property.

Just like everything else.

At first glimpse, it would seem like the presidents hold the upper hand, since they hired and pay and could therefore fire the coaches and technically have legal control over all the things a football team needs. But they have to be willing to wield it, and in many places, they have allowed the coach to be the public face of the school, and coaches are naturally predatory about using the press conference/pulpit and the money it attracts to get what they want. All they have to do is get their players to win games for them.

So the presidents have to weigh how much financial and emotional damage the coaches can wreak on their way out the door while they are reminding said coaches about the organizational table and who sits atop it. Some may just opt for the football money and avoid the fight altogether; others might push back and work out some kind of tenuous agreement with the coaches which is just capitulation with suiteholders' rights. Some will do as the Big 10 and Pac-12 did, and wait to deal with any blowback from the employees. Six FBS conferences — the Big 12, SEC, ACC, AAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt, plus five independents (Notre Dame is aligned with ACC for the moment) — remain.

However the rest of the nation, including Divisions 2 and 3, decide to approach the problem, this is still bloodsport in the end, at least for schools with a sufficiently large athletic budget. if a coach picks the fight, he either must be fired or the president must resign, and as an extension of that basic fact, that university either remains a place of learning or becomes a private gym. And we know how many gyms are buckets of disease these days.

Every other discussion must ultimately bow before that essential truth, and while it has its appeals as chaos in a chaotic time, it is hard to televise, unpleasant to watch and nearly impossible to bet. In any event ESPN can't bankroll that many teams. If it could, it would have bankrolled the NFL — fewer operations, more income per franchise.

We've always joked about universities as football stadiums with a library attached, but now we are about to see if there are some places in which the library can be laid off as just another unnecessary expense. The Big 10 and Pac-12 made their choices. We await further developments, and soon.