You can’t read much about the “Name, Image, and Likeness” era of college sports without the terms “Wild West” or “chaos” popping up. The Star Tribune has published an excellent series of articles about NIL, and maybe the only thing that’s clear is that nobody is willing to say the thing that seems obvious to me.

This whole thing is going to collapse.

I should stress up front that I don’t oppose NIL. It is the first honest thing that’s happened in college athletics since Princeton and Rutgers started playing rugbyish football in 1869. It is common sense; if college athletic departments can use athletes to make money, of course the athletes themselves should be able to, as well. The same is true with loosened transfer rules; if literally everyone else in a university can transfer to other universities with no penalty of any kind, it only makes sense that athletes should have the same privilege.

The NCAA is into a second century now, and for most of its existence, its main job has been to provide a veneer of respectability to cover up the shamateurism and conflicts of interest that were inherent in college sports. This was true when Walter Byers was cracking heads and fighting off the AAU in the middle of last century, and it remains true now. The entire point of the NCAA is to allow every university to pretend that its playing fields are level, that Minnesota and Minnesota State are the same (at least on the hockey rink).

It didn’t matter that literally everyone knew that this wasn’t true. Fans, coaches, administrators, the athletes, everyone knows that the playing fields aren’t level. The NCAA didn’t try to level them, because that would have required restraining its member schools from spending whatever they wanted, and this was never going to happen. Instead, they focused on making sure that the athletes themselves had no power, and no money, and no say.

This is why everyone hates the NCAA, of course. It’s their job to be hated. But now the NCAA is in the strange position of being unable to level any playing fields, and therefore having no reason for existence. Which means it’s going to go away, except as a marketing agency, selling TV rights for national championships.

But there is a second problem here, and it’s the thing that is sooner or later going to topple college sports as a whole.

Right now, the universities themselves are (almost by accident) running one of the greatest sports cons ever. They are the ones that get the money from the TV contracts. They are the ones that sell the tickets to the fans. But they have, for the moment at least, managed to convince the fans - and themselves - that it’s up to the fans to pay the athletes.

Some of these things are more overt than others. Gophers football coach PJ Fleck, never a man to feel much in the way of public shame, was quoted saying that the fans needed to pony up some money or they’d become a Triple-A team. He isn’t wrong, but it was never going to be a good look to have the highest-paid state employee, who somehow manages to get a new contract every year, begging fans to find their pockets.

On the flip side, you have the Gopher men’s basketball team, which is experiencing Fleck’s dystopian future on a yearly basis. Learning the names of Gopher men’s basketball players is now like naming the sheep on the farm; it’s only going to make you feel more sad when they depart. Every season is like an expansion season for the Gophers; if they bring back even three players who contributed the previous year, it feels like a miracle.

This is not the first time that college sports have run a con like this, of course. They’ve long had a version of the same “personal seat license” nonsense that allowed the Vikings to charge their fans to build U.S. Bank Stadium, for example. If you want decent seats with your Gopher season tickets, you’re going to pony up a required donation to the “Golden Gopher Fund,” which “funds scholarships,” in the sense that the money goes to the University of Minnesota, which is also where the scholarships come from. And they have also leveraged those same season tickets to pull in donations for new facilities, like when they raised money for TCF Bank Stadium.

Sports fans in general have always paid money to watch their favorite teams on TV. They’ve always paid money to go to the games. They’ve grown used to paying to help fund the stadiums. And at the college level, they’ve accepted paying extra to help pay the athletic department’s bills.

And now the universities are asking them to pay the players, too.

So far, fans are once again doing their part, and ponying up. The TV contracts are growing. The Big Ten and the SEC are accumulating more and more power. Athletes are finally getting some money for their efforts, money that’s finally acceptable and above-board.

But we aren’t far from the incredible shrinking NCAA finally shrinking enough that, like a lake drying up in a drought, the things that were buried below that veneer of respectability begin to be exposed.

Maybe it’ll be the NCAA’s rules about the athletes having to be actual enrolled students at the university, that are making progress toward graduation.

Maybe it’ll be the NCAA attempting to limit the number of hours per week that athletes are required to play their sport.

Maybe, and perhaps most likely, it’ll be the NCAA requiring that equal resources are given to both male and female athletes.

There will be more changes. More restrictions will be removed, and every barrier that falls will take things further away from the heyday of the NCAA, when they successfully helped the universities pretend that athletic departments weren’t baby pro sports leagues at all, but were in fact student clubs with basketball arenas.

And at some point, the emperor will have no clothes left, and the young boy shouting from the side of the street will be too loud to ignore: fans are paying the players and fans are paying the athletic departments, and what they’re getting in return is a weird, U23, minor pro sports league with little semblance of organization.

I recognize that most of this isn’t new. I recognize that history is a powerful force, and that it’s hard to imagine centuries of sports tradition just disappearing, and that college sports fans have put up with this sort of thing for a long, long time.

But we are through the looking glass, now. Paying the players and giving them freedom is right, and good, and obviously the right thing to do. But it removes the last reason that we can pretend that the playing fields are level, or that the players care about our favorite schools as much as we do, or that football is in any way the same as track and field.

Legally, and in life, it’s better not to pretend. But now college sports have to collapse, because pretending was all that kept them together in the first place.