The Big N Conference and Athletic Realignment

Mentioning the name “Big Ten” evokes certain sentiments in the minds of many Americans. Although the conference is much more than just smashmouth, low-scoring football games played on chilly November days under gunmetal skies in places as exotic as Iowa City, Ann Arbor, and West Lafayette, football certainly does rule the roost in the conference. But there has traditionally been much more to the conference than big-time football.

As a doctoral student and a fan of so-called “minor sports” such as wrestling, I appreciate the other benefits of the Big Ten. The academic wing of the Big Ten (plus the University of Chicago, a former conference member in athletics before moving to Division III), the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, is an outstanding resource that helps make accessing research materials from other member colleges much easier. And the runaway financial success of the Big Ten Network helps make athletic programs a more free-standing enterprise, reduces student subsidies for athletics, and provides coverage of a wide range of sports besides football and basketball.

Few other conferences are as financially stable as the Big Ten—the Pacific 12 and Southeastern Conferences are the only other truly stable conferences. While the ironically named Big Ten swallowed up its twelfth member (Nebraska) in the last round of conference realignment, the Pac-12 added Utah and Colorado while the SEC added Missouri and Texas A&M. Three other large-school conferences (the ten-member Big 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Big East Conference—which also has members who do not play football) have been trying to survive, as one is unlikely to remain near the top of the athletic pecking order in another round of realignment.

The current conference order seemed fairly stable (minus the strange moves made by the Big East Conference) until this week. I was watching the Ohio State-Wisconsin football game Saturday afternoon when I saw an item on the bottom of the screen mentioning that the University of Maryland was in serious discussions to move to the Big Ten from the ACC. Sure enough, that move was made official on Monday, with the clear reasons for the expansion being Maryland’s large budget shortfall in athletics and the goal of adding more TV revenue in the next round of negotiations. Rutgers followed on Tuesday, with a big move from the struggling Big East Conference.

The fourteen-member Big Ten (let’s just call it the Big N, shall we?) may not be done adding members. Sixteen members is an appealing number, with potential candidates in the Universities of Virginia, North Carolina, Kansas, and Connecticut as well as possibly Notre Dame, a longtime point of discussion. Despite the increased amount of travel that college athletes must endure and the weakening of regional rivalries (such as Wisconsin versus Iowa in football), superconferences appear to be the way of the future. It is likely that the SEC and Pac-12 will add members to get to sixteen schools, with some merger of the ACC and Big East making up the fourth power conference. Everyone else will be fighting for scraps at the proverbial kids’ table.

I would love to hear predictions for how the big-time college conferences end up shaking out and whether academic factors will continue to be important for the Big Ten. Your comments and predictions are encouraged!

Majoring in Football?

Unlike some in the higher education world, I am often a fan of big-time college athletics. They do provide important benefits to both the university and the broader community, such as social cohesion, increased levels of public support, and (under the right circumstances) economic development. However, my support is limited to when the following conditions are met:

(1)    Athletics must interfere with academics as little as possible for the broader campus community. I understand that athletes’ schedules will be difficult to maintain, but let’s can the nuttiness of weekday evening football games. Other sports can have evening events during the week, but they don’t shut down campus like football does.

(2)    Students must not be forced to provide massive subsidies for athletics programs, as is often the case at non-BCS (think directional state universities with Division I athletics) colleges. Here in Big Ten land, passionate alumni bases giving oodles of money to athletic departments and the successful Big Ten Network have reduced athletic subsidies to a minimum.

(3)    Athletes must care about academics as much as other students (which may not necessarily be that much). Here at Wisconsin, I’ve interacted with a fair number of athletes and nearly all of the experiences have been with students who clearly appreciate the value of a free education and take their academics seriously.

I was extremely disappointed to learn about the case of Ohio State third-string freshman quarterback Cardale Jones,  who clearly violated condition (3) above. He unwisely tweeted the following statement last Friday:

“”Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS”

Jones was suspended for last Saturday’s game against Nebraska, in which the Huskers were shucked by the score of 63-38. Although Jones would have been unlikely to play, at least Ohio State took some action.

Individuals like Jones are likely in college in the first place because there is not a serious minor league system in football, unlike in baseball and hockey. But given the fact that he is playing at a state-supported university of higher education, he needs to keep his thoughts to himself. Plenty of people in college don’t care much about classes, but they don’t have the same public stage as a Buckeye football player.

As a side note, the comments on the Inside Higher Ed note on this situation are worth a read.