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The real problem in college athletics

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Feel the earth move today? If you're a fan of college sports...the Big East in particular...it's still moving.

Right into the toilet, it seems.

Don't get me wrong - I love college athletics.  I've been involved with school sports most of my life, either as a fan or a professional in the media.  But I have to say I'm wondering where we're going with all of this.

I don't like it - but we'd best get used to it.

The ridiculousness of the changing college landscape shifted into pure lunacy with Rutgers announcing Tuesday it would join Maryland as new members in the Big 10 Conference.  The same Rutgers that has brought ZERO to the table within the Big East over the 20 years it has been a member, except for an alleged presence in the New York market.  The fact that an austere group of institutions such as the Big 10 Conference would actually ask Rutgers to join them is astounding, really.  

What exactly does RU bring to the table?  A TV market?  Academics?  Winning football?  Winning anything?  Here's what they bring - the chance to sell New Jersey sports fans subscriptions to the Big Ten Television Network, who will buy into it because their beloved Scarlet Knights might be on it.  Occasionally.  But the Big Ten doesn't care.  They only care that they can now turn to cable companies and advertisers and say "look, we added New York!"

Completely preposterous.  That's like saying colleges are actually institutions of higher learning these days.  They're not, of course.  Colleges and their presidents care about the bottom line - money.  Lots of money.  You want the true culprits in this changing landscape, blame the college honchos.  They could care less about the burdens they place on their "student athletes," their coaches or administrators.  Why else do you force them into seemingly unnatural relationships? 

Because of money.  Lots of money.  The presidents turn to their regents and say "look at me, look what I did for our future!"  What exactly did they do for their schools' future?  They might have helped the present, but they have also mortgaged any future that might exist.  In many ways, the world of college athletics now mirrors the problems we're having in every day life - chasing after the almighty dollar, and not being able to sustain that growth.  Hey, it's great for these schools that grab the cash...can't blame them in the least.  But what happens to your school - and your teams - when the money runs out?  Is this atmosphere currently awash in cash going to continue forever?

Of course not.  And in the process, athletic programs enter into irrelevancy...if they weren't forgotten already.  Take Boston College for example.  How is their move to the ACC working out athletically?  They may have some cash...but they certainly don't have the wins to show for it, do they?  Syracuse and Pittsburgh had best take note.  They'll be right there with BC, having alienated their eastern brethren, in another five years...or less.  These schools can't recruit on Tobacco Road in the ACC against the ACC, and athletes still want to play where friends and family can see them play.  Hey Rutgers, prepare to have New Jersey poached and picked clean by your new competition.  You open the door to leave, others will step in, to be sure.  It'll be over for you before it ever starts.  

Here's what I'd like to see.  A school president - anywhere - to stand up and say "this isn't right for us, it's not right for our students, our athletes or our fans."  Someone with the character to actually admit "you know, $15 million is a pretty good windfall.  We don't need $20 million at the cost of unnecessary strain on our travel budgets, not to mention the stress put on our students."  Or better yet - "we want to put our student athletes first, without renting them out like pack mules."

Which is precisely what these presidents are doing.  Will these athletes actually see any of the windfall?  Of course not.  There are facilities to pay for...travel budgets to pay for.  You know, I might just give in to the madness if I thought schools like Rutgers might actually make some of their newly-found cash available to students who can't afford ever-increasing college costs these days.  But no, sadly, that won't happen either.  Because Rutgers has already mortgaged its future trying to remain relevant in the Big East by building up a football program that was one of the worst in America a few years ago...and they've got bills to pay.  

If the Big East wanted to stop the shaking, perhaps using a football analogy might work here - take the ball, and run.  With Maryland leaving the ACC, even for an apparent $50 million exit fee, that's got to leave an unsettling feeling for schools like Duke and North Carolina.  Clemson, Florida State, Virginia and maybe even ex-Big East schools Miami, Virginia Tech and BC have to wonder if there's a better situation out there, where they might thrive out from under the large shadows cast by the Blue Devils and Tar Heels.  If I'm Big East commish Mike Aresco, I'm knocking on some doors and making calls...to see if a return to the East might be warranted for some.  Syracuse?  Come on back, we hardly missed ya.  Why?  Because there's still a huge demand for product from the sports networks out there...and the Big East does have a very good product to offer.  Still one of the best in basketball, and as good or better this year than the ACC and Big 10 in football.  

Stop the insanity - and come home.  There's still plenty of money to make right here.

What about renewed regional relationships - and renewed rivalries - to offer?  That's a bit of a novelty these days.  Relevancy to their fans and local communities.  Reduced costs to travel to see your team play.  Do these schools hiring moving vans really believe their fans will follow them all over the country year after year after year?  Even Rutgers fans aren't that dumb.  It won't take too many trips to Iowa City, IA or W. Lafayette, IN to figure that one out.

Unlike my GoLocal colleague Scott Cordischi, I don't believe the Big East is imploding.  It will exist in some form, but no one knows what that will be today.  Or tomorrow.  The catholic "non-football" schools, like Providence, are best served by waiting this seismic shift out a little further.  Revenue streams still revolve around football.  They've discussed alternatives, believe me.  Could a basketball-centric conference work again, like the Big East did 30+ years ago?  Only if there's no other option, and if there's a willing TV newcomer to the party...kind of like 30 years ago, when ESPN was in its infancy - along with the Big East.  

That newcomer exists today.  Better to wait this out a little longer.  

I won't be surprised if UConn or Louisville decides to follow Rutgers out of the Big East house.  It's crumbling, sure.  But how about fixing the problem, rather than adding to it and dumping on everyone else?  I recall a wise man (the Iceman, George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs) once told me - "hey, don't worry about it.  What goes around, comes around."  In time, the dearly departed will wonder "what did we really do?"

So, enjoy your newly-found gain, Rutgers.  Be happy with your new schools and partners, who really don't want YOU.  They want your alleged TV households.  Same for Maryland.  And as for the earth-moving thing?  Don't worry.  That's just the door hitting you on your way out.  


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