by Jim Litke
Associated Press Writer
(AP)—Who says college athletes aren’t getting an education?
Three weeks ago, in the wake of yet another scandal, we wondered where so many of them got the idea that taking fistfuls of cash from boosters and agents was OK. Now we know: from their university presidents.
Welcome to college sports’ annual “Shakedown Week,” or as it’s called in ivory towers across the land, “conference realignment.” It’s when the high-minded presidents who reside there pretend to be bothered by the question, “what’s in it for me?” and then answer it the same way the kids do. Small wonder loyalty is in such short supply.
Keep that in mind as events unfold this week, as Syracuse and Pitt, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and who knows who else start wriggling their way out of contracts that were negotiated just a few years ago by conferences trying to head off exactly this free-for-all. Every school will say it’s only trying to do what’s best while at the same time grabbing dollar bills with both hands.
“Obviously, we do not want to continue to have these kinds of situations where our membership in a conference has to be revisited every year,” Oklahoma President David Boren said—even though that’s exactly what his school was doing.
It’s one thing to say this behavior takes place in the business world every day, that universities are businesses and their presidents are CEOs charged with overseeing billion-dollar budgets and must respond to the demands of the marketplace. But so far, it’s hard to see who’s going to benefit when all the conference shape-shifting is done.
Established powers such as the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and fast-growing ACC? Check. The TV networks? Double-check. The Bowl Championship Series? Check, for now. But once the conferences figure out they’re paying a middleman to run a postseason tournament they could run themselves, maybe not.
Fans and players? Definitely not.
Texas Coach Mack Brown didn’t need a poll—commissioned by rival Baylor, no less—to tell him three-quarters of Big 12 fans are against the conference splintering. He didn’t sound crazy about the idea himself. Brown understands it’s one thing for his team to charter a jet to play on the West Coast several times a season and another for players’ families and Longhorn fans to follow.
“College football’s as great as it’s ever been,” he said during the Big 12’s weekly conference call, “but we better keep considering what’s in the best interest of the players or at some point they’re going to get so frustrated it won’t be fun for them.”
Fun might have been the idea behind college football when it started all those years ago, but like amateurism, it was an outdated idea once it kicked off. Everything about the game has become increasingly professional since, except the kids who play the game. Finding a way to keep them from taking money under the table was atop the agenda at an NCAA retreat earlier this summer, along with discussions on how to handle the next wave of conference realignment. Judging by what’s taking place this week, the presidents still think a few kids taking tattoos or free passes to strip clubs remains the game’s biggest threat. They might learn otherwise. College football is already the NFL’s de facto minor league. Conversely, the more it looks like the pro product, the less appealing it’s likely to remain. It’s already a two-tier system, and this latest wave of consolidation looks less like realignment than yet another step in the direction of superconferences divvying up the landscape, establishing a championship and postseason monopoly that will make it impossible for outsiders to crash the party.
NCAA boss Mark Emmert says that’s just conjecture, but considering how ineffective he’s been at settling every other issue that’s confronted the organization, it may be a safe bet.
(Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke.)