Letter From a Former Editor: The Big (Game) Question

Jason Cole ’84 was a managing editor for sports at The Stanford Daily in 1983. He shares his thoughts on Stanford and Cal’s move to the ACC ahead of Big Game.

The daunting question surrounding Big Game this year is not who will win.

It’s whether the Stanford and Cal athletic programs will survive in the fast-changing world of
college sports.

Most fans have moved on from the collapse of the Pac-12 Conference and migration of our
programs to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). The events were written off as sad eventualities of an economic system that most fans neither understand nor want to unravel.

Understanding the future of college football in a name, image and likeness (NIL) world while media companies, such as ESPN, go through turmoil is just too much business to worry about. After all, most fans view this as just a game for bragging rights.

But that’s a dangerous view that could endanger every sport at both schools, not just football. Here’s the sobering reality that Stanford and Cal collectively face: If we don’t take the business of college football and, by extension, all college athletics seriously, we won’t be part of it in the next three to five years. Our respective athletic programs, including all the great Olympic and professional athletes we take such great pride in, may disappear like dew under a morning sun.

If we continue to let the likes of FOX, NBC and ESPN control the college football landscape, the more than 100 teams that currently play Division I football will be reduced to somewhere between 32 and 64 very quickly. The demise of the Pac-12 has already left Washington State and Oregon State as homeless discards. Their athletic programs are about to decline without the kind of money that comes with being in a major conference.

As it is, both Stanford and Cal are essentially paying for the right to be in the ACC just so we can continue what is an elaborate game of musical chairs. The truth is that many schools in the ACC didn’t want us. Not just because they loathe the inconvenience of the travel; it’s more about how they don’t want to share the money.

What Stanford and Cal, as institutions that share more than a century of rivalry both on the field and in the classroom, need to understand is that college football needs fundamental change. I’m not talking about controlling NIL. That’s a small issue in the grand scheme.

What I’m talking about is the fundamental approach to whether big-time college football (and, transitively, big-time college athletics) is a game for only 32 schools that really care or if it can exist on a larger level.

In other words, do we get to be part of the party or not?

Traditionally, we want to be there. It’s in our DNA as institutions to want to compete at the highest levels of everything we touch. That’s why Big Game is symbolically important even if it rarely means much in the grand scheme of college football.

Stanford and Cal are the academic equals of any institution you can name. Harvard, Yale, MIT, CalTech … we bow to no one. Where we differ from those schools is that we want to take on the challenge of being great in athletics — all athletics, from football to women’s basketball and anything else we play. We may not be like Alabama or Ohio State or USC when it comes to football tradition, but that doesn’t mean we’re afraid to compete.

That is what makes us unique. We all have respect for Harvard, Yale, MIT and CalTech, but we want to be Stanford or we want to be Cal. We want to blaze our own trail in the world of human performance and achievement.

Many people will leave this problem to be handled by athletic directors Bernard Muir (Stanford) or Jim Knowlton (Cal) and whoever takes over for former Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne or the next chancellor after Carol Christ leaves Cal at the end of the academic year.

That’s the wrong approach. This is a problem that will require their expertise in navigating relationships with other colleges. But this is multi-billion-dollar problem that requires a much bigger approach. College athletics is big business.

We need our sharpest business people and our best lawyers. We need to use our extensive contacts in the media world, particularly at places like Google, Amazon and YouTube. Frankly, we should be leading the way with those companies since we helped build them. We need to map out a future in which colleges control their athletic product the way the NFL protects its product.

More than anything, we need people who are emotional stakeholders in Stanford and Cal. We need people who understand what athletics means to us, and that Big Game is a symbol of something greater. We need people who stole The Axe, painted the “C” red and/or painted bear tracks all over The Farm.

We need the energy that will be on display Saturday to carry us through the much greater battle for survival.