College sports made marginal sense at the get-go a century and a half back, and they make even less sense now. They are a "historical accident."1 They lead a "schizophrenic existence."2 They have a "fundamental contradiction of being."3 Talk of reform is therefore sort of folly on face. How to "fix" college sports? Easy. Eliminate them. No other country in the world does this.4 Uncouple academic advancement from athletic enhancement. Or at least abolish athletic scholarships and make everything Division III.
Obviously, though, neither one of those things is going to happen. Too many people are making too much money or want to. The system is too entrenched.
Here's the argument for superconferences: The BCS would die.
No need to expound here on the ways in which the BCS is an unjust farce. Suffice it to say the current method of selection of college football's "national champion" is determined by one cartel (the BCS) loosely affiliated with another (the NCAA). Go team.
Four superconferences? It just looks like a tournament bracket. Each of the four conferences could have four divisions, and the division champions earn berths into a year-end, 16-team seeded bracket. One weekend is the round of 16, the next gets down to eight, the next gets down to four, and the next is the championship game. Every game counts, all season long, and isn't that what they say?
Some discussions about the possibility of superconferences involve the schools breaking away from the NCAA. Careful. Outright secession would be unwise.
The superconferences could threaten secession, and probably should, and almost certainly will, but secession would be a real hassle when they can just band together and strong-arm the association while still using it for its established infrastructural advantages. Affiliation is important. The NCAA remains the publicly endorsed auspices under which member schools can keep player compensation artificially low. Break away from the NCAA, and that could lead to a loss of legal loopholes, which would trigger the potential necessity of total, transparent payment of labor. Those schools don't want that. Way too expensive.
But this concentration of power inevitably would lead to a loosening of rules for those top 64 schools. Those $2,000-a-year cost-of-attendance stipends? Knock 'em up a bit. Various eligibility standards? Knock 'em down a bit. The NCAA wouldn't say no because the NCAA would know who's in charge.
One result of this superconference setup, then, would be at least some sort of pay for play, a more honest, more defensible version of "big-time" college sports — the start, at least, of what longtime critic Murray Sperber calls "punting the pretend."
Another, maybe even more important result? It would widen the already considerable gap between the schools that are currently in the BCS and the schools that are not. The have-nots would have even less.
Big-bucks lightning strikes are college sports' alluring illusion. That's all they are. The vast majority of even Division I schools lose money.
"There are always going to be schools who are going to want to be a part of that highest level," said Welch Suggs, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia and an expert in the business of college sports, "no matter what it costs, no matter how it disadvantages them."
Which means they need help making the right choices.
This is that help.
The creation of superconferences would let all the other schools — nos. 65 to 300-plus in the Division I hierarchy — basically stop trying to keep up with the Joneses and get back to more responsible athletic expenditures in a system that looks more like Division III.
"It finally would provide a way for those other teams to gracefully exit the rat race," said John Gerdy, the author of Air Ball: American Education's Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics and a former SEC associate commissioner for compliance and academic affairs.
Sperber saw this coming. In 1990, in College Sports Inc., he wrote:
"... the hundreds of athletic have-nots will have to decide whether to abandon their dreams of big-time sports glory or to throw more money into their attempts to compete with the elite. In the worst-case scenario, most of the also-rans will pursue the athletic chimera. In a more positive outcome, most will come to their senses and scale down their sports programs, returning them to their real students."
North Texas could stop trying to be Texas. A long shot would turn into no shot.
Would four 16-team superconferences bring in more money than the conferences the way they are now? Maybe. But maybe not. Would this work for football only? Football and men's basketball only? What if it didn't include all the other sports, especially women's sports, that are such money sucks? Could it? Wouldn't that open the schools to additional scrutiny of the already shaky legal standing of the entire enterprise of college sports that wants to be simultaneously amateur and commercial? Yes. Of course it would. So: Title IX issues? And antitrust issues? And workers' comp issues? And tax-exempt status issues? And coming courtroom challenges with heavy implications? What about congressional subcommittees? Questions to consider. People have been predicting for decades that TV rights fees for sports can't possibly keep going up. They keep going up.5 But will state budget cuts keep hitting higher ed? Will tuition keep going up? Student activity fees that go toward supporting sports? Coaches getting huge raises when professors aren't getting any at all? When will students start protesting? Will they? Why aren't they? And what happens when even more research piles up showing that football wrecks brains? How long can institutions of education continue to sponsor an activity that not only doesn't improve their students' intellectual potential but actually and demonstrably worsens it? Worth pondering in any reconsideration of college sports.
Guaranteed: The status quo will not stand.
Some point to Pitt and Syracuse in the ACC and Texas A&M and Missouri in the SEC and Boise State and San Diego State in the Big East, and they call all this an unseemly cash grab.6 They see something that's ugly. Chaos, they cry.
But if it leads to four increasingly semi-professional superconferences and de-emphasis elsewhere, Gerdy said, "I think it's a positive reform."
"Less hypocritical," said Sol Gittleman, a professor at Tufts University and outspoken critic of college sports.
"Incredibly reasonable," said John Cheslock, a professor at Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education.
"It seems to me at this point to be almost inevitable," Michael Oriard said last month from his office at Oregon State, where he's an associate dean and writes books about sports and football in America.7
It's the beginning of the end. That's progress.
Michael Kruse is a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times and a contributing writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.
Previously from Michael Kruse:
Crash Davis Rides Again
How Does Oregon Football Keep Winning?
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James Michener in Sports in America.
Andrew Zimbalist in Unpaid Professionals.
Michael Oriard in Bowled Over.
Murray Sperber in College Sports Inc.: "An anomaly of American history — that intercollegiate football and basketball began before the professional versions of those games and excluded viable minor leagues in those sports — has created a situation that is unknown and unthinkable in other countries." John Gerdy in Air Ball: "... no examples in other countries where the responsibility for developing elite athletes and teams rested with the educational system. The marriage of highly competitive, elite athletics and the educational system was a uniquely American experiment." Taylor Branch in his much-discussed piece in October in The Atlantic: "The United States is the only country in the world that hosts big-time sports at institutions of higher learning."
The NCAA's $10.8 billion deal with CBS and TNT for March Madness, the new Pac-12's $3 billion deal with Fox and ESPN, Texas' 20-year, $300 million agreement with ESPN for the Longhorn Network: "The appetite for programming around the live event," Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said last month, "grows and grows and grows." Lucky sports.
You think? Some say this past year's been a bad one for college sports. No. It's been fascinating. The two biggest stories were Penn State and conference realignment. They're not unrelated. Penn State happened because the money stakes are so high that preservation of reputation trumped protection of children. Conference realignment is happening because college sports continues to sort itself more and more into haves and have-nots and nobody wants to be the latter. NCAA president Mark Emmert said in September that college sports are "not a business." What a hoot. Cue Ricky Fitts.
"There's no doubt that we're looking in the next three, four or five years, at most, of seeing conferences from 14 to 18 members," former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey told the Birmingham News in August. "I think that would be bad," current NCAA president Mark Emmert said last month in New York at the Intercollegiate Athletics Forum.