Back To The Future: The Post-Unionization Big 12
By Steve Pipps
The National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the Northwestern Wildcats football players recently, allowing unionization and giving them employee status and the right to collective bargaining.
Let's hop into the DeLorean and take a look at the world in 2031...
At the end of the 2015 season, after a long appeals process, the ruling to pay college football players was upheld and private schools across the country had the first employee-student-athletes.
Scholarships lengthened to five years and could not be taken away if a player sustained an injury. Benefits were provided for players, helping to pay bills for surgeries and injuries sustained during any team function. Players received larger stipends of up to $3,000. Baylor won three straight Big 12 titles and contended for the national championship in two of those seasons, winning once.
The College Athlete Players Association didn’t follow suit until 2019, when a heavy push began for public universities to provide the same benefits as private schools. It took another five years for the CAPA to make much headway, but once it did, the floodgates opened.
At this point, the NCAA already was on the verge of collapse. When the first colllege player received money beyond a scholarship and stipend, the NCAA fell apart in regards to Division I football. It would hang around in an advisory manner for non-flagship sports at Division II and Division III schools, but the NCAA of old was just a bad taste left in the many mouths of players and coaches who lived under its devious, and often absurd, rules.
The year before the CAPA earned equal benefits, private schools began paying players more than just a stipend to maintain its edge. It began with bonuses for teams that won bowl games, conference titles or championships. Schools then worked players’ compensation into their contracts with Nike and Adidas, which added to their income.
It was this addition that spurred pubic universities to do the same. Within a year after the first ruling for the CAPA, players at public universities began receiving paychecks. They saw immediate results since the precedent had already been set among private schools.
Without a strong governing body to limit the amount of compensation, big donors were allowed to contribute toward players' salaries — a rule rarely used in the early years of college football player payouts. Oklahoma State became the first school to captialize on the opening, establishing itselt as an immediate powerhouse with the help of T. Boone Pickens’ deep pockets. The first season this was implemented, the Cowboys pulled in eight five-star recruits.
That record wouldn’t be topped as other schools enacted the same program and donors began pouring money into football programs across the country, leveling the playing field. Over the next five years, the salaries for both players and coaches grew until a cap was instituted. Players couldn’t receive more then $500,000 in a given year through salary or use of their likeness.
The one regulation that remained from the days of old? Endorsement deals. Players couldn’t directly endorse any product, but that didn’t matter much with the back channels that corporations used to compensate players.
If a university had a contract with any company, it could add requirements about what players could wear or drink. Nike implemented such stipulations back in 2014 when it regulated what shoes coaches could wear on the golf course during outings with donors.
Car companies, along with insurance agencies, jumped in and began sponsoring universities. Automotive retailers not only plastered their likeness on the sidelines and scoreboard around Texas Memorial Stadium, but also provided “team cars” for the Longhorns to use exclusively.
While on campus at Texas Christian University, players could only drink Dr. Pepper products. Meanwhile Oklahoma players had to wear their team-provided clothes (all of which not only displayed school logos, but also company logos) on campus. It was corporations' not-so-sneaky way of having players endorse their products.
The best thing about all of this was the continued five-year scholarship/benefits deal. Players stayed longer in college and more graduated, as well as declared for the NFL draft. They weren’t in any hurry to make their millions, experiencing the best years of their lives in college and making six figures while doing so. The NFL also raised the eligible draft age to 21. (Ironically, the drinking age was lowered to 18 in 2024, meaning that players could get drunk legally, but not be brutalized on a football field.) This also forced many players who would jump ship for the draft to stay and further their educations.
There were a number of conference shakeups. The five power conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — broke off from the other FBS conferences soon after the NCAA crumbled. The smaller conferences, such as the MAC and Conference USA, were holding back larger conferences with bigger budgets.
During the initial shift in the college football landscape, BYU was able to grow its program. Boosts in recruiting made it a staple in the Top 25, as it narrowly missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons before joining the Big 12.
Cincinnati was a logical fit to bring the Big 12 back to a dozen teams, making divisions possible again. This created a more competitive conference and restored the Big 12 conference game to decide which team would represent the conference in the NCAA national playoffs.
With one week left in the 2031 season, the Big 12 looks to send another team to the national championship and, for the third time in five years, bring home the trophy.
The Southern Division has produced the Big 12 champion for the past five years. Both Baylor and Texas have won titles, with Baylor edging out Texas, 3-2. Baylor has continued to be a powerhouse since its impressive season in 2013. Texas, with the help of donations by Red McCombs and the continued support of fans helping them stay atop the Forbes list of most valuable teams in the country, rose above the private schools of BYU and TCU before the salary cap for players was set. For the last six years, the Longhorns have been the best team in the conference next to Baylor.
Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have had 10- or 11-win seasons for six years in a row. Oklahoma State has played in the conference championship game three times, but has been unable to top the South winner.
Kansas slowly grew from the bottom, making it to the Big 12 championship game once, losing in a close battle to TCU. The Jayhawks have since held steady in the middle of the pack. They have an annual Top 30 recruiting class, but are unable to offer the higher end of salaries to players. Their highest-paid player ever was a quarterback in 2027 at $375,000. Texas annually has no less than five players at the $500,000 cap.
My prediction for the 2031 Big 12 title has a strong Texas team beating Baylor in the division and playing Oklahoma State in the championship game. After winning there, the Longhorns will vie for another national championship against a strong LSU team. Texas is No. 3 in scoring this season, thanks to its high-powered spread offense. Quarterback Philip Barnes can stand strong in the pocket or roll out when needed and make something happen with his feet.
Maybe next year, Baylor.