This weekend, most college football teams begin playing their conference rivals, presenting some of the most riveting matchups in sports. Also this weekend, the presidents of Big East universities will meet in Washington -- wondering whether their conference will continue to exist.
A frenzied reshuffling of conference alignments is under way among college football programs, with worrisome implications for the balance of sports and academics at the nation’s schools.
The Big 12 has lost Texas A&M to the Southeastern Conference, the University of Nebraska to the Big 10 and Colorado to the Pacific 12; Pittsburgh and Syracuse have followed a stampede from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference; and several other big schools, including Texas and Oklahoma, are weighing their options. Some pundits see college football moving inexorably toward four 16-team “superconferences,” with any school not preemptively moving finding itself left in the cold.
The most immediate result of this process is that the current conference lineup is unstable, leading the weaker vestiges of the ailing conferences to consider increasingly desperate and illogical alignments. (Baylor -- of Waco, Texas -- is reportedly considering the Big East, while Texas Christian has already joined it.)
A Mixed Outlook
The longer-term outlook is mixed. For top football schools, a superconference arrangement looks wondrous financially -- the more teams in a conference, the more leverage to negotiate television deals and the more opportunities to show off packed stadiums to potential sports and scholastic recruits across the country.
But for smaller and less athletically focused schools, the economics are not so certain. They would probably see increased TV revenue in a superconference. But travel costs would rise steeply as student-athletes journeyed across country to play their conference opponents. The arms race for coaches’ salaries, support staff and high-tech facilities would only accelerate.
Many of these teams would probably see their game-day attendance, TV audience and merchandise sales diminish when it became clear they couldn’t compete -- year after boring year -- with the bigger schools in their superconference. And as the regional rivalries these schools built up over decades under the old conference system wither and die, so too would excitement and fan loyalty.
Student-athletes, always an afterthought, will face more demanding schedules, more time out of class and no added compensation for their sacrifices. And other sports, even popular basketball programs, may be dragged along to new conferences through football’s economic might.
Still, some form of realignment, however haphazard, looks inevitable. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, ostensibly the governing body of college sports, won’t enter the fray, afraid of antitrust liabilities.
That leaves college presidents, who should have assumed a more active role in managing athletics long ago. They can take a few steps now to impose sanity on whatever conference system is eventually hammered out -- and, more important, to ensure that sports and academics remain firmly and lastingly connected.
First, if schools are going to operate vast commercial enterprises blessed with tax advantages conferred by their educational mission, they need to become far more transparent and detailed about what they spend on athletic programs. They should publicly divulge exactly how much money they receive from television deals, sponsorships and other means of profiting off their putatively amateur players.
Universities should publish much clearer figures about how their academic and sports-related budgets are growing than they’re now required to. And, as Charles T. Clotfelter of Duke University writes, donations to booster clubs that support athletic programs should no longer be tax-deductible.
Then there’s the “student” side of the student-athlete equation. The Knight Commission, a nonprofit group that advocates for the educational mission of college sports, has recommended that a proportion of revenue from football and basketball be directed into a fund and then dispersed to schools according to their rate of academic success. This seems wise.
The terms of athletic scholarships should no longer be limited to one year, which allows schools to cut support for players who become injured or whose prowess declines. Finally, when recruiting infractions occur, the most serious punishments should fall not on players, but on the coaches and athletic directors who bear ultimate responsibility for the direction and character of a sports program.
College athletics hold a deservedly special place in American culture. But institutes of higher learning have a responsibility to more than the bottom line -- they must also educate and treat fairly the students who so thrill the rest of us on game day.
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