As pretty much everyone who follows college football even slightly is aware, conference expansion has become the hot topic of the summer. It seems like every week there’s a new report of what the Big Ten is up to, from Colin Cowherd’s “inside sources” to a Kansas City radio station’s recent report ( link here ) that the Big Ten offered membership to Missouri and Nebraska, among others, to the new rumors that the Mountain West offered membership to Boise St ( link here, see 2:30 of clip), to various other rumors floating around the internet.
Just as you don’t have to look very hard to find the latest juicy rumor, you don’t have to look very hard to find denouncements of the entire process. Ray Ratto recently wrote a piece ( link here ) likening conference expansion to “Europeans carving up the African land mass for colonies in the 18th century”, and accusing the conferences of “acting as a cartel in a way that would make Roger Goodell whistle with admiration”, among various other invectives. And while he certainly seems the furthest over the edge on the issue, he’s far from the only critic. The Washington Post ( link here) also weighed in, as well as various other bloggers, internet forum posters, etc. So with so many people telling you how horrible this all it, it must be really bad then, right? Right?
Well, actually, no. Is this largely driven by greed? Probably. So what? Why, exactly, is this a problem? The powers of the Big Ten want to consolidate their influence, and to increase their revenues. And schools like Missouri, Nebraska, and pretty much everyone in the Big East, want to really bump up revenue by hooking up with the Big Ten Network. Yes, it might feel a bit icky, but remember, college football IS a business, and an important side effect of all of this is to give the relevant athletic programs more money, some of which they’d give back to the universities (which actually educate people, kind of an important mission) or the non-revenue sports (things like rugby, fencing, swimming, and volleyball don’t exactly fund themselves).
But let’s go beyond simply the Big Ten adding whatever number of teams. Let’s assume they go to 16, and then the SEC goes to 16, and the domino effect continues until there are either four or five super-conferences of 16 teams each. Let’s go even further and assume that these super-conferences then decide to bail on the NCAA and form their own organization, shutting out all of the “little guys”. Wow, we’ve really stumbled on some super-evil stuff now, right? Right?
Well, actually, no. Oh sure, it would suck for the many programs left out of the brave new world, but lest we forget, colleges aren’t people. They aren’t owed equal treatment, money, opportunity or anything like that. If Michigan is a better school than Eastern Michigan, then it’s normal, natural and fair for them to get more state funding, more students, and to generally be given preferential treatment in education. EMU may feel bad about it, but the public good is served, especially if more money to Michigan helps them add more students who would otherwise end up at EMU, thus greatly helping those students.
The same sort of thing is true for college sports. If consolidation of the college sports powers leads to more good regular season games and fewer bodybag blowouts, that’s overall a win for the public, not a loss, even if the people at EMU aren’t happy. And while we’re at it, those small schools left behind would finally have a realistic shot at a national championship against schools that are actually on their level. There are worse things for Troy than to win national titles at a new 1-A compared to being irrelevant at the current 1-A, which is where they are right now.
And, of course, such a move could well lead to a college football playoff, something that the bulk of fans would like, another win for the public. Once you cut down the number of teams and the number of conferences, suddenly a 4 or 8 team playoff becomes doable. There’s no guarantee that it would happen, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to run a playoff out of 5 leagues and 80 teams (or 4 / 64) than it is to run it with 10 leagues
I probably haven’t convinced many of you yet that this isn’t a bad thing, much less that it would actually be a good thing. So let’s take a look at the real evil in college football: the treatment of the players. But first, let’s switch gears and take a look at some extremely disturbing studies about the health of former NFL players (I haven’t found any similar studies on ex-college players; if anything is out there I’d love to see it):
Congressional Report Identifying Serious Health Concerns
Retired NFL Players at Increased Risk for Heart Problems
Heavy NFL Players Twice as Likely to Die Before 50
Retired NFL Players Have High Rate of Brain Damage
Why NFL Players Suffer Dementia, Depression
35 NFL Players Qualify for Dementia-Alzheimer’s Assistance
Depression Among Retired NFL Players: Pain Compounds Symptoms
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Former NFL players have a pronounced tendency to suffer serious mental and physical health problems, and to die earlier than normal adult males. I’d guess former college players don’t have it as bad, but common sense dictates that they don’t have it good either.
And what of current players? Medical technology is better than before, but players are faster and stronger than ever before, which leads to bigger collisions than ever before. Players get needed care while they’re enrolled and in uniform, but once they “graduate” (and let’s face it, there are too many players who are really getting bachelor’s degrees in football and little to nothing else), if they actually do (many players don’t graduate, and I can guarantee you that a definite minority are because they’ve gone on to the NFL), they’re basically cut off.
And if, ten years later, they need decades of care because of health problems, hopefully they learned something useful in class, because they’re no longer the university’s problem. In fact, since it doesn’t seem like anyone’s been tracking them, they’re probably not even statistics.
Is this OK? Is this even remotely acceptable? Of course not. Does conference expansion fix the problem? No, but it might be a first step in that direction. If all of the programs left after ditching the weaker ones have a lot more money, then maybe they can finally do something about it instead of just giving lip-service to the welfare of student-athletes.
Subsidizing the health care that current and former players need as a direct result of playing football is a start, but there’s more that needs to be done. Big-time college football needs to look in the mirror and ask itself whether players are student-athletes or professionals.
If they’re student-athletes, then there needs to be real value given to education. That means meaningful penalties to programs that don’t bother to graduate their players. That means guaranteeing scholarships for a player’s entire eligibility, only cancellable with cause (and by “cause” I mean the sort of thing which would get a player suspended or expelled from school, not for failing to develop into a good player or landing in a coach’s doghouse). That might mean mandatory freshman redshirts. And it might mean more reforms as well, like expanding roster sizes, guaranteeing an extra scholarship year after eligibility has been exhausted, and adding an extra scholarship year if a coach burns a player’s redshirt. And if any of that conflicts with Title IX, then change the law to exclude football from its accounting. Football provides revenue for those other sports, and football comes with unique hazards. Unless you start seeing swimmers who can’t walk past 50, or fencers with dementia in their 40’s, there’s no reasonable argument against it.
The other option is to treat players as professionals. Throw in a free education as a bonus, but also pay them minimum wage at an absolute minimum. If that leads to bidding wars for the best players, then so be it. Amateurism would be dead, but at least we’d all be honest about it.
Those are the two options: decide players are student-athletes and legitimately treat them as such, or decide players as professionals and legitimately treat them as such. The current system of pretending they’re all getting educations and kicking them to the curb when eligibility is done is nothing short of despicable and the real blight on college football today.
So while everyone else whines about how conference expansion might be “unfair” to Iowa St and Boise (both would probably be fine if it was 80 schools, both would probably be left out if it was 64), or New Mexico St and Buffalo (outside looking in under any reasonable set of circumstances), or whoever else might get “screwed”, I say that if it leads to fair treatment of players, bring it on. Hell, bring it on today. I’m ready. You should be too.
Mr Pac-10's 2009 Blog
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