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Bob Ryan

A rapidly changing landscape means college sports will be in chaos even after COVID passes

College sports coasted along for decades proudly proclaiming to be an “amateur” pursuit.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Ask anyone in the know to describe the current state of big-time college athletics — i.e. football and basketball — and the answers that come back 99.999 percent of the time are summed up in one word:

“Chaos.”

Oh, this has nothing to do with the otherwise dreaded “C-word,” meaning “COVID,” of course.

COVID-19 has upended our lives. We all know that. Football was a mess. Meanwhile, it’s a triumph for anyone to just get a basketball (or hockey) game played. (And, yes, I know there are many other less-publicized intercollegiate activities.)

But the COVID crisis will pass, and when that cloud lifts we will be confronted with a radically different collegiate landscape than the one that we who happen to love college sports have been accustomed to.

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As a preface, I must point out for the zillionth time that no other country does what we do in America, and that is to have major institutions of higher learning provide entertainment for the masses. It’s an unknown concept in Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia. Canada, you say? It’s a Division 3 activity, at best. There are no comparable Alabama football or Kentucky basketball scenarios north of the border.

College sports coasted along for decades proudly proclaiming to be an “amateur” pursuit. The players involved were cleverly declared to be “student-athletes” by the legendary Walter Byers, who ruled the NCAA in imperial fashion for many years. The idea was to make sure the players would not be identified by the government as “employees,” with all the accompanying legal ramifications.

What the players were supposed to get out of all this were full scholarships, which satisfied the public as a fair reward, particularly if a fan happened to be one of the millions who have written hefty checks to universities on behalf of their non-athletic offspring. Trust me, I know how that goes myself.

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This compact between the university and the players worked until, for a number of reasons, the coaches involved began to draw enormous salaries stretching in many cases well into the seven figures. At the same time many absurd restrictions were placed on the players to perpetuate the sham that they were engaged in a strictly “amateur” activity. A football stadium seating more than 100,000 people or a basketball arena seating more than 20,000 folks looked to be quite professional to the players whose blood, toil, tears, and sweat provided the revenue that would be distributed to everyone but them.

Thus, the agitation grew and grew. Players thought they deserved a slice of the financial pie. If this were ever to take place, the logistics to make it work would be tricky. For example, does the starting quarterback get more than the backup defensive end?

A second player agitation was the fact that coaches routinely moved on to presumably greener pastures, while if players chose to transfer to another school, they would be forced to sit out a year before resuming play. In addition, there were circumstances in some cases in which a player was not permitted to transfer to a school in the same conference.

Brian Kelly (center) left Notre Dame in December to become football coach at Louisiana State University.Jonathan Bachman/Getty

It’s a reality that a high percentage of highly sought-after players in football and basketball do not select a school as much as they do a coach. When a coach leaves they feel betrayed and abandoned. Now, I must confess I have denounced those type of players in the past, saying they should have been choosing a school for high-minded reasons. On a 1-to-10 scale of naivety, that’s about a 9.5. It hadn’t even occurred to me that in my own days at Boston College a primary reason we had suddenly come up with tournament-worthy, nationally ranked teams was that our best players had chosen BC because they wished to play for the hallowed Bob Cousy. So, mea culpa to all those individuals I may have smeared in my, well, youthful days. Playing for a specific coach has long been a part of the deal.

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OK, so where are we?

We are not in a collegiate world where players are being paid directly. But we are in a collegiate world where athletes may now profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). The problem is that the NCAA fiddled and diddled and dawdled, until this was all thrust on it from the outside. Thus, different states will have a say in how this will work. Aggressive boosters with deep pockets will become frightening power brokers. The NCAA will never get a handle on it. Prized prospects will be lured to certain schools in certain locales (hello, SEC). Those people born and bred in New England simply have no conception what goes on in the Heartland, where colleges, not pros, reign supreme.

People often talk about the law of unintended consequences. That’s not the case with this NIL business. We will be invoking the law of predicted consequences. NIL will be a divisive factor on many teams. Go to the bank on that one.

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Now we come to the infamous transfer portal. Players have been allowed for more than a decade to use the final one of their four years of collegiate eligibility to transfer as a graduate student to a different school. The kicker was that you were supposed to be going somewhere to pursue a study not available at your previous school. Really? Well, OK, if you say so.

We’ve now gone one better. Any player may enter a so-called “transfer portal” and go somewhere without being forced to sit out a year. (You may only do this once, however.) There are now annually more than 1,000 players in each transfer portal. It is madness. Coaches who already had enough to deal with now must devote hours and hours protecting their own players while scouring the land for potential transfer additions. It’s the Wild, Wild West, and it’s 24/7/365. Why anyone would wish to become involved in the big-time college coaching profession in this atmosphere is a mystery to me.

Look, I still love the games. But if you’re going to remain a fan of college sports, the old sausage factory analogy is more relevant than ever.


Bob Ryan can be reached at robert.ryan@globe.com.