DA: Big 12 Expansion Is Yet Another Low Point For “Higher Ed”

For five years the Big 12 told anyone within earshot it was more than happy with just 10 members. Then suddenly yesterday the conference reversed course and stated it would be exploring adding up to four new schools. Just as suddenly a parade of suitors lined up at the door. Cincinnati, BYU, Memphis, UConn, Colorado State, USF and others began blinking their eyelashes at Bob Bowlsby (which is always uncomfortable).

Big fish eat little fish in this game of college athletics. So here we go for another round of plundering leagues and backroom deals.

Why the 180 by the Big 12? Let’s follow the green brick road. Having just ten members meant fewer schools to share the winnings with. GOOD MONEY. But the ACC got a twenty-year commitment from ESPN this week gaining stability and elevated status. LESS MONEY. The Big 12’s TV deal says the payouts don’t lessen by adding new members. EVEN MONEY. And more teams also equals better odds to make the CFB Playoff. MORE MONEY.

In the kill-or-be-killed paranoia of modern college athletics, the Big 12 is attempting to be proactive like many other conferences and schools have before it. Syracuse and Pitt jumped at the ACC because they feared the Big East would die. The Terps hopped to the Big 10 so they could pay off a debt. Colorado and Texas A&M waved goodbye to the Big 12 for a fatter wallet. The Big 10 nabbed Rutgers and Maryland to battle market size with the SEC.

Nowhere in this college Game of Thrones did I see “for the betterment of student athletes” or “in the name of higher education.” You’d have to be completely naive (or from a different country like Canada where colleges are not athletic factories woven around flimsy degrees) to believe any of this maneuvering is not solely based upon the financial return.

Last week I had Bill Hancock, executive chairman of the CFB Playoff, on the show. He discussed how the committee will be looking at different dates to play the semifinals because ratings weren’t strong this year. Gotta keep that $7.3 BILLION contract look good with ESPN. Even more interestingly, I broached with him the fundamental problem of asking unpaid labor to keep extending the season. In 1975, Alabama went 11-1, beating Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. Forty years later, Alabama went 14-1, beating Clemson in the national championship game. An Alabama player last season played three more games than it once did, and the reward? The scholarship of course.

“As a father who put two sons through college, I recognize the value of a free education,” Hancock told me. “Which is what these student-athletes are getting. So there’s a lot of value in that, there really is. We’re also doing more for players’ families… And we need to explore ways to do even more for the student-athletes… we’re not the pros, we’re college. We cannot lose that fact. We are part of higher education. When the athletes are compensated we go down a slippery slope, then it becomes you’re not a part of higher ed.”

That’s a fine talking point to keep coming back to. We’d all have loved to go to college free of student loans. This is like Pepsi Co. keeping a job salaried at $30,000 since the ’70s, merely adjusting it for inflation, but making labor work an extra month every year. The old “threat to higher education,” keeps us in this cycle of schools chasing money but insisting the athletes should not.

Without a sound, logical plan to compensate players beyond the scholarship NCAA administrators can keep playing the “slippery slope” card. But the issue is this: We’ve already gone down the slippery slope. It’s just that there’s only adults controlling where we steer and how fast we go. Students have no say. So the adults have become adept at finding more ways to make more money (i.e. conference expansion, weeknight games, league title games, a football playoff), but they haven’t been motivated to share any of it. Why would they? Most people want to make more, not give more away.

But the “higher education” buzzword is beyond distasteful at this point. I asked Hancock, when there’s billions of dollars at stake for a TV can we really say “higher ed” is the guiding force?

“There is a lot of money to it,” Hancock said. “Folks are using the money for a lot of things. Like scholarships for other sports. If it weren’t for college football, we wouldn’t have the things we have.”

But is the Big 12 Bachelorette giving roses to Memphis and BYU just to build up its women’s soccer team? Of course not. It’s to make more cash, and keep the cash it’s already making safe. So in the name of “higher education” the Big 12 readies itself to be the belle of the ball, putting on a fancy dress and letting the boys know she’s looking for a new relationship. And no one can object because the rest of the college athletics world has played the same game before.

D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.

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