College Sports: Killing the Golden Goose of Tradition and Rivalry

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College Sports: Killing the Golden Goose of Tradition and Rivalry
Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty Images

It is the worst kept secret in college sports that its entire structure is being radically and systematically reconstructed in the brazen pursuit of nothing more than increased access to money.

As depressing as that is, given the nature of humanity and the current economic conditions, such a development was pretty much inevitable.

After all, almost all of humanity’s greatest creations have eventually been corrupted to the point of no longer being recognizable (recent prime examples: movies, music, political commentary, news media and the NFL).

As a realist, I may despise this truth, but I also accept its inescapability. It is all too obvious that most people, when given the opportunity, will sell out. Unfortunately, college presidents are obviously no exception.

But what I don’t get is how and why so many allegedly smart people are so quickly willing to sell out in a way which simply won’t work in the long run.

It is one thing to give up your integrity in an attempt to increase your financial return, but is an entirely different level of insanity to kill your golden goose while also selling off your principles.

Make no mistake; this is exactly what is happening before our eyes with college athletics.

The most frustrating element of this bizarre form of suicide is that it is so obvious what is happening and yet those in charge, as if crazed on drugs, don’t seem to even realize what they are doing.

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Inexplicably, the primary reasons that college football and, to a lesser degree, college basketball, are so lucrative for certain “academic” institutions are the very qualities which are being most threatened by the changes being implemented and proposed.

Obviously, the incredible popularity of college sports is not based on the notion that you are seeing an athletic endeavor being performed at its highest level. That is why we have official professional sports leagues.

Instead, the money which flows into athletic departments is founded primarily in the idea (real or imagined) that players who chose on their own to attend a certain school are representing that institution in an endeavor about which enough people care so that their positive performances can provide those associated with the school pride.

In other words, college sports is the about only accepted way for the average person to be able to own legitimate bragging rights over their friends.

The power of this force can not be overestimated. Regional rivalries spark the passion which fuels almost the entire college sports engine. Heck, the highest rated local radio show in the entire country talks almost exclusively about the Auburn/Alabama game literally all year long.

And while much of this popular notion is based on romantic fallacies, at least some of it is indeed authentic.

Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty Images

 

At the very least, no matter how fraudulent a sports program may be, the players do live at the school with which they had enough of a connection to sign with voluntarily, and they all experience the very same time-honored traditions which previous generations of that school’s players did.

At best, you still have a huge percentage of athletes who attend a school because they have been life-long fans, are actually on pace to graduate, and would happily play on behalf of the name on the front of their jersey even if they didn’t receive a scholarship, or anything else, in return. You certainly can’t say any of that about the NFL or NBA.

This is exactly why the two big current developments in college sports (conference realignment and the movement to pay athletes) strike right at the heart of what created this cash machine to begin with.

Since the advent of the modern age of college sports (marked by true national television broadcasts in color), we have already seen many of the best rivalries killed off by conference realignment, motivated by nothing but avarice. Among them, Oklahoma/Nebraska, Pitt/Penn State, Texas/Arkansas and Notre Dame/Miami, all of which were once considered sacred, currently do not exist on a regular basis.

Similarly, Ohio State/Michigan has now been diluted by being put in separate Big 10 divisions, leaving the chance that they could play two weeks in a row (a fate which could also befall Alabama/Auburn), while Texas/Texas A&M, West Virginia/Pittsburgh and Georgetown/Syracuse are all seemingly on life support.

 

Looking further down the road, if super conferences become a reality, you can now even see a day when the Texas/Oklahoma football game is no longer the centerpiece of the Texas State Fair, Alabama and Tennessee don’t dominate every fourth (formerly third) Saturday in October, and where USC/Notre Dame is not an annual pilgrimage.

Perhaps even more in jeopardy would be classic rivalry games between teams in separate conferences like:  Florida/Florida State, Georgia/Georgia Tech, Clemson/South Carolina, Louisville/Kentucky, Iowa/Iowa State, Colorado/Colorado State, Brigham Young/Utah and even, God forbid, Army/Navy (how could Army possibly compete in the long run with Navy if they aren’t in a major conference and the Midshipman are?).

Some laughably claim that new rivalries will be formed, but that is simply not realistic. You can’t change or create history overnight and you obviously can’t alter basic geography, which is the root of almost all rivalries.

No matter how you spin it, Texas A&M/LSU is just simply not going to be Texas/Texas A&M.

Unlike with their current Thanksgiving rival, the Aggies are never going to have a bonfire before playing the Tigers and the LSU marching band will never do a moving tribute to those who died the last time they took part in that tradition at College Station. It won’t be big brother vs. little brother. At best, it will be two distant cousins meeting once a year at the family picnic.

The significance of this issue goes far beyond just the dozen or so games mentioned here. These contests represent “one game seasons” which are not only huge communal events in their own right, but they also enable those teams (and their fans) having disappointing seasons, who would ordinarily have very little to play for, to maintain their focus and enthusiasm until that season-ending climax. Without that, many players (along with media and fans) will simply quit.

After all, they aren’t getting paid.

 

This brings me to the other big topic of conversation in college sports: the movement to start paying athletes some sort of salary.

There is no doubt that, at the very highest levels, college football and basketball stars are being taken advantage of economically by staggering proportions. Tim Tebow, for instance, was obviously worth millions of dollars more to the University of Florida than the value of his scholarship.

There is also little doubt that one of the best ways around the problem of corruption is to simply make it open and legal. Therefore, some have suggested that college football players should be able to earn money from their celebrity in any way possible.

Their argument goes something like this: If Cam Newton can get a booster to pay him to transfer to Auburn, then good for him.

If Terrelle Pryor can exchange awards given to him by Ohio State for some tattoos, there should be no problem with that.

A.J. Green should not only be allowed to sell his own uniform jersey, but he should be getting a percentage of the profits Georgia currently gets for doing the same thing.

I totally get it. The hypocrisy of the current rules is astonishing and taken to their natural progression they are totally absurd (I keep waiting for the day in which a player gets suspended for using his status as a star athlete to receive the “extra benefit” of a date with a cheerleader). However, I have yet to hear a proposal to pay players that is remotely workable.

First of all, we seem to have forgotten that there is a law called Title 9 which would make paying athletes directly virtually impossible to do legally. Not even the biggest football power could justify paying its women’s teams the same as their men’s if the stipend was any more than lunch money.

 

 Secondly, because relatively few schools make big money on sports, (and those who actually do make tons) just about any method of paying players would exacerbate the chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots” exponentially at warp speed.

How in the world would Mississippi State possibly compete with Florida or Alabama if the floodgates were opened and the heavyweight schools could not only offer prestige and television exposure but also cold hard cash? Instantly, there would be about 25 schools who could compete and another hundred who would have absolutely no shot.

For this system to even theoretically “work” it would at least require all the schools in the same conference to come up with the same “salary cap” along with the type of revenue sharing plan that so far has been beyond the grasp of the Big 12.

But even if all of that was somehow done, it would still essentially create a totally separate division of college athletics which would only include the members of the four or five super conferences with everyone else relegated to greatly inferior status.

Unfortunately, this appears to be exactly where we are headed, at least in football.

Some think it is not necessary to directly pay players (and, by the way, how do you justify paying an All-America the same as the backup punter?) because you could simply make them free to take advantage of their own marketability.

To those who mistakenly think that such rules can somehow be enforced in a vacuum with no unintended consequences, this would supposedly reward only the players who were really creating value for the university. 

However, the reality is that forming any such loophole in the rules of amateurism for college athletics would produce an opening so large the Sooner Schooner and the Colorado Buffalo could easily glide through it.

For instance, what would keep the big schools (or, more likely, their boosters) from subsidizing the sales of the jerseys of every player on the team instead of just buying the stars?

 

Of course the ultimate irony of any plan to pay athletes is that, in both the short and long run, it would drastically reduce the (already overrated) profitability of college sports.

Not only would costs skyrocket (without a shred of product enhancement), but putting the last nail into the coffin of amateurism would eventually have a catastrophic impact on the very passion which generates most of the income to begin with.

With the illusion that the players are “student-athletes” gone forever, there would be no other reason than memory to follow college sports instead of the NFL/NBA and in a generation those recollections would fade away and with it so would the fervor (we are in the process of seeing the same thing happen with what the BCS has done to the venerable New Year's Day bowl system which has stripped the games of their traditional conference tie-ins and needlessly rendered all but one game meaningless).

Some claim that the evolution of the Olympics is proof that this won’t happen, but the difference is that the Olympics, while no longer a bastion of amateurism, are still the highest level of competition. Conversely, college sports would eventually be seen as more like minor league baseball.

Things don’t have to turn out this way. The greatest and most American of sports doesn’t need to be slowly stripped of what made it such. There are many ways to maximize profits while maintaining some semblance of integrity.

Of course, much like with our country as a whole, there is little indication anyone in charge has the wisdom or courage to make them happen.

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