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Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, Big Money

By Louis Berger

Section: Sports

November 11, 2011

As the West Virginia football team battles its Big East opponents on the gridiron, West Virginia University lawyers will be fighting a different battle against the Big East. The Mountaineers recently accepted a bid to join the Big 12 and leave the crumbling Big East conference, which recently lost Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC, and can not afford another defection. They promptly issued a lawsuit against West Virginia.

The details of the legal battle aren’t relevant but one thing is clear: The number one priority of college athletics is making money. In an economic downturn, everyone has to do what they can to get by but, if this new college sports environment is driven by money, then it’s time to start spreading the wealth to the people who bring it in: the college athletes.

The conference realignment that is occurring this year is truly remarkable. Syracuse was a founding member of the Big East and their rivalries with Georgetown and UConn are among the best in basketball; however, the quality of competition is not important anymore. Could it be because Big East football is just too easy for the Orange? Probably not because Syracuse is 1-3 this year against Big East opponents and 5-9 the previous two seasons.

Pittsburgh has been in the Big East for 29 years as strong competitors in both basketball and football. They too, however, cannot resist the slightly improved fame and fortune that comes with ACC football. Maybe it will be a natural fit; I know I’ve always thought of central New York and western Pennsylvania when I think about the Atlantic Coast Conference.

With the impending vacancies in the Big East, the conference is desperately searching for new members. It is likely that Boise State will join as a football-only program, with Navy and Air Force possibly following as well. Were the players and coaches of the Big East consulted for this decision? No, because I doubt that Rutgers’ football players would like to travel to Idaho and Colorado for an in-conference game or that Boise State players would be excited to travel across the country three or four times a year. In addition, Missouri and Texas A&M plan to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. Nearly two years of this dizzying conference realignment has left us with 12 members in the Big Ten, 10 members in the Big 12, the SEC, which will soon have Missouri, a school most geographers would consider in the Midwest, and the Big East, which may eventually include two western schools in Boise State and Air Force. If conference identity is so important to schools today, then at least make the names more accurate. Maybe try names like “The every state but California Conference” or “The North American Conference” and if money is a problem, maybe the Big East could get McDonald’s to sponsor their conference and rename it “the Big Mac.”

If conference realignment seems like a mess, that’s because it is. What is even more of a mess though is the way that Division I college athletes are treated. We think that paying for their tuition and room and board is more than enough because they’re students first and athletes second. This isn’t the case anymore and we the fans are responsible. We’re the ones who put them on national television, in our video games, on our jerseys and elevated them to national icons. Their names, faces and talents are out in the open for our benefit, and the universities and the NCAA reap enormous profits. Earlier this year, the NCAA reached a $10.8 billion deal with CBS for March Madness, and ESPN and the BCS made a $500 million deal for the next four years. I’m sure the BCS and NCAA wouldn’t go bankrupt if they took a small portion of their profit and distributed it among the athletes responsible for filling up stadiums and attracting television viewers.

What will critics of this argument say about the other athletes like swimmers and soccer players? And what about Title IX? The answer is simple. The athletes who generate the most revenue will earn the extra money. This is how our country works: Brad Pitt makes more money than an extra and a college professor makes more money than a college janitor. There is no reason why capitalism shouldn’t apply to college sports.

If you still don’t see the problem in college sports today, then look at what has happened to Ohio State. Five players were suspended for five games this season and coach Jim Tressel ultimately resigned because these athletes sold memorabilia they earned from winning football games. We vilified these players like they had robbed from the church collection basket when, in reality, all they did was sell things they believed they had earned. These trophies, jerseys and rings aren’t the property of the NCAA once they’re given to a player, so who can blame the Ohio State football players for trying to make a buck from them? They certainly didn’t stand a chance of making money by simply playing football.

Full-ride scholarships may have been enough decades ago but today college athletes are too exposed and exploited not to receive more compensation.

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