Inside the US’s NCAA American Football League

North American sports leagues function a bit differently than most others around the world. First, season champions aren’t selected based on a points system. Instead, teams advance into a single-elimination playoff tournament that concludes in a championship game or series.

Second, it’s not just professional sports leagues in the mix. The US has one of the strangest amateur systems in the world, in which college students compete in a variety of sports while on academic scholarships. While earning a free degree, they attempt to catapult their university into national championships, then segue their time into a pro sports career.

The most popular NCAA sports are football and basketball, with the latter occupying a type of cultural and historical significance in certain areas. Football teams from universities like Notre Dame and Clemson are renowned countrywide by football fans, with some fandoms stretching back generations.

Each year, 130 schools participate in the top tier of college football. For context, the ten largest stadiums in the US don’t serve the NFL, but the NCAA. Fans buy out season tickets annually, while also wagering on college football odds from wherever they catch games. They buy merchandise, tailgate in droves, and travel thousands of miles to catch end-of-season bowl games.

Still, the nitty-gritty details surrounding the league’s structure and format are aspects not every diehard fan understands. Keep reading for the basics of the US’s NCAA American football league.

Supporting Student-Athletes

The NCAA looks to encourage academic and athletic excellence by organizing sports competitions between three divisions of universities, which are based on attendance. Division I (DI) is the highest tier, with FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) the uppermost tier within the DI competition.

Scouts from universities scour the country for leading athletes, then offer them academic scholarships in the hopes the student-athlete will ‘commit’ to their school. The better a university performs in athletics, the more resources it can leverage to appeal to top athletes looking to find a college, from great coaches to leading facilities.

The idea is that a student will choose a competitive university athletic program that will help them prepare for the big leagues. In both the NBA and NFL, players enter the draft after fulfilling eligibility requirements related to the NCAA. In other words, it’s a preparatory league for professional sports.

A Question of Profits

Historically, student-athletes aren’t eligible to receive payment for their work in an athletic program. Instead, they’re offered a free undergraduate education and leading resources to develop their talent. However, universities stand to make huge sums of money from their athletic programs, which has led to recent policy changes.

For example, the Ohio State University Buckeyes football program is one of the most competitive in the US. In 2019, the school’s athletic budget was $109 million, which they use to fund 36 varsity teams. That same year, the school raked in $233.9 million (according to Ohio State financial reports) from these programs for a profit of over $100 million.

The NCAA pays out millions each year for top-performing teams that make it to the College Football Playoffs.

Recent NIL Changes

As mentioned above, this scheme has led to some sports fans and pundits raising their brows at the ethics of the NCAA. Is it ethical for players to receive no payout despite helping their university rake in hundreds of millions in profit? Or is it a fair trade-off for the experience and resources they’ll develop in preparation for a career in the big leagues?

It looks like the NCAA wants to cover its bases. Earlier this year, the organization announced a policy change related to player benefits. Now, athletes can benefit from the usage of their name, image, and likeness (NIL). So far, some players have penned deals worth tens of millions of dollars, such as Kayvon Thibodeaux of the University of Oregon and Ga’Quincy McKinstry of the University of Alabama.

However, the changes have already raised a new set of questions. Though players can now leverage their talent into a pre-NFL payday, it could add unneeded stress to their already-difficult set of responsibilities. In fact, some players have hired agents specifically to handle their NIL offers.

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