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Vol. 49, No. 1 • November 2011 • .pdf version
Money talks as schools, conferences continue to walk
By DANA O'NEIL / espn.com
That money rules college athletics ranks right next to the breaking news item of a dog biting a man. Once a dirty little secret, it is now an accepted tenet in our games' handbook.
Butler's back-to-back appearances in the national championship game was more than a nostalgic throwback to the days of yore. It was a stunning upset of the financial hierarchy, like pulling the rug on college sports' own Ponzi scheme.
But even the most cynical among us, those who realize that amateurism is a relative term, has been stunned at the latest lesson in athletics' economics.
It is dollars with little sense.
The conference realignment merry-go-round has overtaken the coaches' carousel, spinning universities, their teams, their fans and their alums to far-flung and often geographically nonsensical regions of the globe.
Colorado in the Pac-12?
Sure, explain that to your second grader.
Twelve teams in the Big Ten? Doesn't even compute with the new math.
We will survive this, of course. I was a student when Penn State announced it would join the Big Ten and was convinced that it would be the end of the world. Ohio State as a rival? Michigan? What of Syracuse, Maryland and all of those Eastern teams we'd played for years? And no more Pitt-Penn State series?
Yet, here we are.
But this isn't about one team making one move only after it exhausted every attempt to convince others on the Eastern seaboard to join forces.
This is about seismic shifts and tectonic movements that will leave a fault line.
None of us will be the better for it.
Because while this certainly isn't about basketball, it's frankly not about football, either.
This is about chasing down the highest bidder.
When a detective is trying to solve a crime, the old adage – follow the money – usually works and the same Presidentis true here. For the crime being perpetrated on college athletics, simply follow the money.
The promise of big television revenues has essentially changed the college landscape for good. The conferences that we've known, the rivalries that we've cherished are slowly but continually disappearing to be reborn into a mishmash hodgepodge of mascots.
(Full disclosure. I work for ESPN and ESPN is in charge of many of those big television revenues, including the straw that broke Texas A&M's back – the Longhorn Network. Is the network culpable? You bet. Is it the lone or darkest of the black hats in this rodeo? Absolutely not. If ESPN didn't pay the money someone else would).
Plenty of people have pointed out that what colleges and universities are doing is merely following the American dream, of going after the greener pastures of profit.
Which would make sense if the university presidents who are making these calls made decisions that affected them and only them. Instead their choices affect thousands. By moving Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the ACC to the Big East, Nancy Cantor and Mark Nordenberg effectively put the first nail in the 32-year-old Big East's coffin, handed their Olympic sports teams travel itineraries designed by masochists, trashed the allegiances their alums have felt for years and cast aside traditions and rivalries like yesterday's leftovers.
What makes all of this especially galling is that everything that is happening right now in college sports flies in the face of what college athletics pretend to be about. We ask our "student-athletes" to compete with integrity and to show collegiality. They cannot profit off of their own successes or even their own likenesses.
Yet the people who sit in the ivory towers on campus have shown about as much integrity and collegiality as Democrats and Republicans. They have bickered like petulant children and defended their own actions by blaming others.
Eight years ago, Boston College left the Big East for the ACC, leaving behind ill will that still exists even today. Some of the remaining Big East members were so infuriated by the Eagles' audacity that they threatened a lawsuit to stop the departure.
"This is a case that involves broken commitments, secret dealings, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, the misappropriations of conference opportunities and predatory attempts to eliminate competition."
Those were the words opined by none other than Nordenberg, the president now leading Pitt down the same Tobacco-lined Road Boston College once followed.
Nordenberg said he is different. He is doing this for the betterment of his university.
Truth is, the ACC doesn't offer better football and certainly not better basketball. There aren't any natural or long-standing rivalries here. Travel will be a nightmare.
But reading the accounting ledgers as well as the tea leaves revealed one shining nugget: the ACC has a $155 million television contract. The Big East does not.
And now more than ever, money talks.
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