I’ve always been amused by the term “scholar-athlete.” Many players on college sports teams are accomplished athletes who are “scholars” in the sense that their grades are fudged or they receive free tutoring for what is generally a light course load. There are many exceptions,but it’s a sham when colleges and universities promote large athletic programs in order to improve their academics.
Right now we are in the midst of chaotic reshuffling of athletic conferences, as almost every Division One school jockeys to position itself to get more money from television revenue. The University of Nebraska moves into the “Big Ten” and gets the benefit of more television exposure in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities. The current teams in the Big Ten pick up Omaha; somehow that’s supposed to significantly expand their markets.
There is inherent hypocrisy in much of college sports, at least with the major sports. But the current, temporary free-market period that has opened up to allow for the formation of new oligopolies, brings to light some additional problems. First and foremost, the administrators of our institutions of higher learning might need to put a little more of their own time into subjects that should have been mastered long before anyone shows up on a college campus.
The so-called Big Ten promotes itself as one of the academically elite conferences, and indeed universities such as Northwestern, Purdue, and Michigan may fit that bill. But what confidence can we have in their academic acumen when since 1990 they have continued to call themselves the Big Ten after having added an eleventh team, Penn State, to the conference? Now Nebraska is entering the Big Ten which should accurately make the Big Ten the Big Twelve. The problem is that Nebraska is leaving a conference currently called the Big Twelve; their departure will leave only eleven teams in the league. Actually it’s ten teams and falling because the University of Colorado has now joined the Pacific-10, which means that the Pac-10 now has eleven teams, including a team in Boulder, Colorado which is 1,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean (maybe they are preparing for “the big one” when California falls into the Pacific).
Texas could remain the kingpin of the current Big Twelve, but the Pac-10 is also luring them. We should not be surprised that the supporters of Longhorn football prefer to have more exposure in the markets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Phoenix, even if it means losing Manhattan (we’re talking about Manhattan, Kansas). However, Texas has a long-standing rivalry with Oklahoma, so they want the Sooners to join them in moving west. There may be a historical precedent to this, because during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, many Oklahomans moved to California. Texas may justify itself as being “Pacific” because it longs for one expansive fence along the Rio Grande stretching west to the Pacific, as the new “border states” try to keep Mexicans from emigrating (although there may be exceptions for outstanding Mexican athletes).
Today’s Big Twelve may become something like the Small Five with Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State. However, Missouri lusts to join the Big Ten to make it the Big Thirteen, but the Big Ten really wants Notre Dame, so Missouri joining might make it the Big Fourteen, and the former conference of the Great Plains goes from the Big Twelve to the Little Four.
Sounds a lot like Wall Street to me, and we’d better believe that the off-the-field games that the universities are playing are as cut-throat as they are in that other Manhattan in New York.
All this shuffling may make sense in the end, because universities will be pursuing the two things that are most important to them: money and image. They continue to want us to believe that there are academic benefits to their athletic and financial gains. The marketing departments of the universities may have told the chancellors to do it this way.
All this just reinforces the hypocritical nature of some of our largest universities. I prefer not to be a follower of any team involved in this not-so-subtle maneuvering. I’ll opt for the honesty of professional “play for cash” sports, or the more true amateurism of smaller universities such as Washington University in St. Louis or the University of Chicago.
The pursuit of more money and glamour by our largest universities does not surprise me, but the current Big Ten has had twenty years to figure out that ten plus one is eleven, and they still haven’t gotten it. We can only hope that, when the dust settles from the current jiggering, that the chancellors of each school in the major conferences have a workshop with a kindergarten teacher to review their math, and another workshop with a fifth-grade teacher to learn some geography. Then they can work on that scholar part of “scholar-athletes.”