Here we are in July, fully in the doldrums of college athletics. The final cheers of last season’s contests are long over, and the opening of the next matches are far ahead. In my opinion there is no better time to analyze where we are headed, especially in light of the recent conference realignment developments by the Big Ten.
The Big Ten and Fox Make Their Move
If you don’t follow college athletics, especially college football, you may or may not be aware that the Big Ten, an ostensibly mid-western league, announced that it would be admitting two new schools to their already misnomered roster of teams, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
No matter which side of the fence you sit on regarding college football superleagues, this move raised a lot of eyebrows, and likely makes the long standing NCAA amateurism defense even more preposterous.
Let’s be perfectly clear, this was a decision made entirely for media rights and the millions of dollars that ensue, and institutional relevance in college football. I single out football, because it’s hard to imagine any logical scenario in which the power brokers made any consideration for, let’s say UCLA’s track and field team having to fly to New Jersey for a meet with Rutgers. A word of advice to those scholar athletes, pack your cleats in your carry-on.
Et Tu, Brute Buckeye?
This move is certainly not unprecedented. Every decade or so since at least the early 90s, if not before, has seen some collection of schools defect for greener pastures, sending a chain of realignment or full blown whole cloth inventions of new leagues. However, this move looks a lot different than the methodical creep westward of the Southeastern Conference as they have added Arkansas, Texas A&M, Missouri, Texas, and Oklahoma over the past 30 years.
Don’t get me wrong, those moves are as much about money and relevance in the dominant sport as the LA schools are for the folks in Indianapolis, but they do at least make regional geographic sense, and only caring about money and football to the detriment of the “scholar athlete” fits the modus operandi of what the media and fans expect of the SEC.
The Big Ten, as I have spilled much digital ink over before, has a certain brand they would like to sell you. They’re the adults in the room who “win the right way” and “care about the scholar athlete as students first.” Gaggles of Northwestern journalists lamented their decision to play football in 2020 while COVID was raging unchecked by vaccines as “the darkest day in Big Ten sports history,” which even at the time, was an incredibly bold claim to make only two years removed from the Larry Nasser trial, and less than a decade removed from the Jerry Sandusky abuse revelations and subsequent Joe Paterno cover-up scandal.
Adding two schools who are 1500 miles away from their closest fellow member institution does not strike me personally as a decision focused on academic excellence, no matter how highly ranked UCLA is in the U.S. News and World Report public university ranking*.
*I’m sure this doesn’t bother the fine people at Michigan one bit. Nope, not one bit.
Amateurism is in the Eye of the Purse-holder
Unless you are adding Hawaii, the only motivation for adding schools over 1500 miles away is cold hard cash and relevance (which leads to more cold hard cash). I for one am glad the Big Ten has finally removed the mask, and publicly demonstrated, if not admitted, they are as much a puppet of Fox Sports as the SEC is of ESPN.
Making money moves is a part of sports on all levels and always has been, but it rarely has as many knock on effects as it does in college athletics. For example, when the Rams picked up their stakes and moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles, the Cardinals, the Blues, or maybe more accurately the local ultimate frisbee club team weren’t forced to follow.
I’m sure I will get used to the new reality, as I have gotten used to all of the others, but I will miss seeing a top ten ranked USC just absolutely eat the pavement on a Thursday night against a pesky Stanford or Oregon State on national TV with no counterprogramming. I hope some of this new cash will make it into the pockets of these “scholar athletes” too.