The conferences grow, the game shrinks.
There’s some monumental stuff on the horizon in college athletics. So before Nebraska tips the dominoes this week, I’d like to thank the NCAA and friends for again reminding us what the entire deal is about: avarice. Thank you for diluting rivalries; for eschewing the academic and athletic significance of geography; for eradicating tradition in the Almighty Dollar’s name.
You guys are the best.
Evolution and expansion have long been markers of advancement and regression in the amateur ranks. The Big Eight and Southwest Conference begat the Big XII, and the result has been good. The Big East and Conference USA begat the Big Monstrosity — The BEast — and the result has been bad. Taken chronologically, those instances were of organizations inching toward some euphoric realization of power.
Bowl games. March Madness. Exposure.
And the Big T1en drove the football with a dedicated television network — a brilliant marketing ploy that expanded the league’s influence and reach. (Seriously, you can find the damn thing in New Brunswick. Yeah, that Canada.) Though other conferences haven’t mimicked such media, there’s the SEC on ESPN, or on CBS, depending upon the sport; ACC Wednesday; Pac-10 hoops on Fox Sports affiliates across the nation; hell, even the Horizon League has an internet station.
This background doesn’t connote a + or a – but a huge freaking neutron; the biggest particle of a particularly hyperactive collegiate atom. The conglomeration of universities, the commercial outreach, the corporate deals — all things the top dogs do to become their trade’s equivalent of the Big Swinging Dick. Snowballing is but the next logical step. Any number of schools wait on the hillside whilst the Big T1en and Pac-10 roll with no regard for human life.
And the basketball village sits below.
There’s the once-charming schoolhouse already riddled by growing sizes of scandal — the players have become better, the successes have paid more, the checks have been cut higher, and the accusations have grown louder. Make what you will of one-and-done; it doesn’t promote academic achievement. To DeMarcus Cousins’s credit, a basketball court isn’t a classroom and Coach Cal isn’t teaching Voltaire. But their program, the gravitational center of the student-athlete’s universe, produced some subterranean GPAs, and 2010 Tourney participants like Baylor, Maryland, New Mexico and West Virginia — all among the top 16 overall seeds — revealed graduation rates that lag below 50 percent.
So is it really all that wise to risk perpetuating the educational stereotype that NCAA hoops cares little for grades by stretching weekday travel schedules? That’s what happens if, say, Texas and Oregon all of the sudden find themselves battling [for sixth place in the conference].
Let’s not forget the house that tradition built, either. Indeed, we’ve seen the havoc wreaked upon baseball by its metaphorical Luddites, but opposition to league mega-expansion isn’t stubbornness for stubbornness’s sake. The tectonic shift to come won’t dissolute our most precious yearly tussles, but what happens to Syracuse versus Georgetown if the Big East is a dodo bird by month’s end? I mean, are the Hoyas going to start an intracity series with the Wiz?
This cash-grab shows a blatant disregard for the sport itself. And though Pitt-Ohio State may yet become a Big … 16 or whatever fixture, the hot dog process of encasing money-loaded, top-25 caliber schools in mass flustercucks forces the average fan to swallow unnatural rivalries and witness a selection Sunday that features the ACC, Big 16, Pac-16 and SEC — regionals.
Maybe the looming changes won’t prompt Armageddon. Maybe this is simply a monumental reshuffling and not the annihilation of a system that would comparatively feature an exospheric level of parity. That conclusion will take years to write; though bottom lines will improve immediately, will the game’s betterment be commensurate?
Whatever the ends, the means never sought to augment the sport’s quality, but to fatten the pocketbooks of the ones who jerk the strings. Does intent matter if the dawn of the Sprawling Conference Era creates a better experience for both the consumer and the supplier?
Actually, it does.
The large, powdered wigs keep trying to place college athletics on a supermarket shelf. So to an extent, the good guys have lost a small measure already.
Follow Chris Deaton on Twitter: @ChrisDeaton