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John Clay: To save itself from itself, college football needs to follow the NFL example

LEXINGTON, Ky. — It was the late Art Modell who said of his fellow NFL owners, “We’re 32 Republicans who vote socialist.”

The only thing that might save college football is socialism.

We’re a week into the brave new world where USC and UCLA, a pair of schools in Los Angeles, California, are joining the Big Ten, a conference whose previous geographic footprint stretched from New Jersey only as far as Nebraska.

The reason for this geographic craziness? Money, money and more money. With the Pac-12 having slipped into secondary status, both USC and UCLA decided to hitch their wagon to the bigger and better Big Ten, a league on the cusp of signing a billion-dollar television rights contract.

No sooner had the deal been announced than the Los Angeles Times reported the most important reason behind the move, at least for one school: UCLA’s athletic department was in deep financial trouble. The Big Ten sent the Bruins a financial lifeboat. Just in the nick of time.

So now the SEC and the Big Ten will have 16 members in the near future, both megaconferences who could potentially leave the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 eating dust. Sorry for your luck. Only the strong survive.

But what’s good for the megaconferences isn’t as good for the overall game, especially considering the new rules, or lack of rules with regard to NIL, etc.

The NFL is sports’ holy grail. Just look at the television ratings. One reason for the league’s popularity is competitive balance. Every team has a shot. To that end, the league has a salary cap. Teams cannot spend more than a specified amount of money on player salaries. By the same token, teams are required to spend at least a specified amount of money on player salaries.

That’s not the case in college football. With the help of fund-raising and conference revenue, schools can spend as much or as little as they want on athletics. Most believe they have to spend more to compete. Earlier this week, Texas Tech announced a $200 million project to build what it called the largest college football facility in the sport. Is that really the best use of $200 million?

“We don’t have any guardrails on what we’re doing right now,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said this week. “We have no restrictions on who can do what. Some people are going to be capable of doing certain things. Other people are not going to be capable.”

The result, says Saban, “The bottom line is we’ll lose competitive balance.”

Ole Miss Coach Lane Kiffin agrees.

“What would the NFL look like if two or three teams could pay 10 times more in salary cap,” Kiffin, himself a former NFL head coach, said back in February. “That’s where you’re headed. They’re going to have to do something.”

As for Kentucky, Mark Stoops has been consistent in his message. Just tell us what the rules are, and are those rules for everybody. When we know the rules, we’ll figure out how to compete.

My prediction: Eventually, at least in the major sports, college athletes are going to have be considered employees. Contracts will have to be signed. Deals will have to be made. Players will have to be treated the way administrations are treating the game: Professional sports at the college level.

One more thing: Andrew Brandt is a former NFL executive who teaches sports law at Villanova. His favorite saying: “There will be lawyers.”

For too long every athletic program has acted in its own best interest with little regard for the best interests of the sport. Schools would be better off joining like-minded leagues that would set parameters for NIL money and facility spending. Common sense says the current model isn’t sustainable.

“Some kind of way, we have to reel all of that in and make it the same for everybody,” Saban said.

Will that happen? It better. Without changes, the bubble will burst at some point. And college football will have only itself to blame.

“Joe Bruin,” the mascot of the UCLA Bruins, works the sidelines during a game against the Utah Utes during the first half at Rice Eccles Stadium on Nov. 21, 2015 in Salt Lake City. (George Frey/Getty Images/TNS)

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