College sport redux

On the chance you haven't noticed, fans, major sporting history is being made over these last blissful days of the summer of 2011. But like all history there will be two versions when all is said and done.

There will be the one etched by those who win and quite another from those who lose. It's all about the struggle to control big-time, high-stakes, college sport which is no longer called "amateur" except by those who have a very rich sense of humor.

For you see, the entire realm is being reconfigured and twisted into a monolithic colossus layered with super-conferences and when the rapacious empire builders are done with their mischief, six or seven dozen universities will have lowered their standards sufficiently to qualify for membership in this elite league of academic rogues.

Henceforth, their lock on all the television money, and all the bowl games, and all the related amenities, and above all the total control of the battalions of rugged kids who are essentially employed by them as gridiron grunts and/or court jesters, etc. will be permanent and uncontestable and if you don't like all of that you can go join the Patriot League.

Still further, you need to understand that in recent years the total annual football receipts from all sources -- including ticket sales, TV dough (mainly), concessions, licensing, merchandising, etc -- has been averaging over a billion bucks a year for the major conferences like the SEC, Big-Ten, Pac-Ten, etc. And with the rapidly emerging now creating giant conferences those revenues are expected to at least triple. This is not some dumb little discussion about the games we play. It has nothing to with "sis boom bah." It is a big deal; a very big deal.

Presiding over all this rather gravely, the NCAA -- considered by its critics to be the last totally unregulated runaway and illegal cartel in all of American business -- will bless the cynical alliance and proclaim a brave new age of highly refined order and enormous profit. It took them about a half century to pull it off. But the cads and cheats have finally triumphed. Their hour of deliverance is at last at hand.

After this past year of scandal and controversy had tainted so many people and programs you might have thought the power-brokers of college sport would judiciously recede into the weeds for a spell. Disapproval is genuine and widespread.

For example, "The Wall Street Journal" declares, "College sport -- particularly football -- is a fetid swamp that needs to be drained and disinfected."

"The Atlantic Monthly," our oldest and most esteemed journal of weighty opinion on political and cultural subjects rarely dabbles in sport. But this month the Atlantic profiles the issue in a cover-story headlined, ''The Shame of College Sports.''

But then these guys we're talking about have no shame? So instead of lying low, the hustlers of the dodge are coming on stronger than ever. Hey, the best defense is a good offense, both on and off the field. They seek to reconstitute the realm, according to their own needs, whims, and lust for profit. The result is the ongoing spectacle of teams jumping conferences and conferences seducing teams with all the requisite and sordid wheeling and dealing as billions of bucks are waved about like so many flash-cards in the under-grad cheering sections. The sight of great citadels of learning trying to co-opt one another like so many ruthless corporate buccaneers is not pretty. And it's getting uglier by the hour.

And so we discover that when Texas A and M sneezes all of college football amazingly comes down with pneumonia. "This way madness lies," as the bard would say.

Ironically, the ongoing convolution presents especially grave problems for the prestige schools that cling to their high standards and lofty reputations while continuing to play footsie with the sporting big boys. It's a high wire act and there is no way you can do it year in and year out without getting bruised sooner or later. How much longer can the likes of Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Rice, Tulane, Vanderbilt and like-minded brethren put up with this nonsense, do you think?

Reportedly, Notre Dame is currently wavering and may yet join the conference that used to be called "the Big Ten" but may soon consist of about 20 gridiron Goliaths thanks to the swelling of the new conferences. This would be a huge concession by Notre Dame which has forever fiercely insisted on remaining independent. But for those who still wish to be big-time is there survival outside of the emerging re-alignment? Maybe not! Boston College may now feel safe in the ACC but they are fooling themselves at the Heights if they don't recognize that sooner or later they too will be faced with difficult choices.

Meanwhile, the Universities of Pittsburgh and Syracuse -- comparable schools -- are prepared to jump from the Big East to the ACC with that overwhelmingly ambitious upstart, the University of Connecticut, poised to feverishly follow. All of which probably amounts to the total destruction of the once distinguished "Big East," although such sentimental considerations are obviously mere trifles.

Then again, Pitt and Syracuse could spurn the ACC and succumb to the Big Ten's seductions; that is if "the price" proves right. Properly alarmed, Florida State might then jump the ACC and go to the SEC which might make the ACC begin to look like a sinking ship and that might tempt the likes of North Carolina and Virginia to jump too like so many scared rodents. It would be at this point that Boston College might find itself hooked on the horns of a frightful dilemma. After all, nobody wants to be still standing when the music stops.

Mind you I am not predicting any of this, only suggesting that in the current absolute frenzy no conference is safe. BC never belonged in the ACC in the first place.

So, on and on it goes. It's rather like a monstrous game of dominoes and once the pieces start falling no one knows where it will end. At this very moment, the presidents and boards of directors of some of the biggest universities in the land are immersed in the madness up to their eyeballs because they know they've reached one of those once in a lifetime cross-roads with billions of bucks on the table and no matter how drenched they may be in the traditional academic pieties they fully appreciate that it's all about the money.

And there only remains the interesting question. What does any of this have to do with Higher Education?

If your interest in this fascinating issue is keen, may I heartily recommend the aforementioned essay in the October Atlantic. It is a moose; nearly 20,000 words long and both exhaustively researched and brilliantly composed. This is no hit and run mass-media swipe. The writer is Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian.

Most treatments of the subject are like this one -- tiresome rants from old Boys who are disappointed that so much has changed so badly since the good old days of their flaming youth. Worse still are the works of the modern media cheerleaders who prop up the brave new world of college sport with their mindless adorations completely devoid of considerations about the ethics of the matter. There are people in my business who would sell their souls for a holiday fling at the Orange Bowl or a week with the Final Four; all expenses paid, of course. It's a disgrace.

Compared with all that, Branch's work is important, even seminal. His central thesis holds that much of the corruption might be curbed by simply paying the athletes. He writes: "The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, it's that more of them are not." It makes the system something akin to slavery and as one of our foremost civil-rights historians, Mr. Branch does not take that term lightly.

It's an argument I would have rejected as poppycock only months ago. But no longer. The time has come to talk seriously about this. It's vital.

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