My favorite quote about UCLA and USC joining the Big Ten came from USC athletic director Mike Bohn, who might have injured himself trying to elevate a business decision to a higher realm.
‘‘Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports,’’ he said. ‘‘We are excited that our values align with the league’s member institutions.’’
Values? If TV money and survival are values, then, yes, USC, UCLA and the rest of the Big Ten are an absolute feast of principles. A values meal. This development has about as much to do with educational ideals as a Brink’s truck does.
Progress marches on, but let’s not kid ourselves: The Big Ten as we knew it is gone, just as college football as we knew it is gone. All of it has been gone for quite some time. College football is another major sports league, along with the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. It’s not the minor leagues, not a feeder for the NFL. The talent level might not be big-league, but the money and public interest are.
The only thing missing are paid college athletes, something that has been missing for decades while the adults in the room raked in the money. With the arrival of NILs (name, image and likeness) a year ago, some of that cash is going back to the ‘‘student-athletes,’’ but not nearly enough.
When USC and UCLA join the Big Ten in 2024, the conference will be the first to stretch from coast to coast. Nothing says ‘‘major league’’ quite like Rutgers traveling from New Jersey to California for a game in L.A.
When the dust finally settles, two super-conferences, the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference, likely will be left standing. Everybody else will be fighting for table scraps. There might be a lot of nostalgia for what used to be, but there’s no good or bad here. There’s only what is. This is the natural progression of the money grab that has been going on for years in college sports. There will be two super-conferences because there are two networks, ESPN and Fox, that are shelling out enormous amounts of money to televise college football and basketball games.
Talking about values in the middle of this is like discussing Thomas Aquinas at a strip club. To pretend that shared educational values sealed the deal for USC or UCLA is silliness. Everybody in college sports is trying to grab on to the money train. If a school doesn’t, it risks being left behind. No one wants to be left standing at the station as that train, with its billions of dollars, moves on.
But can we please, once and for all, drop the ruse that college basketball and football at the highest levels are about anything besides making money? Sure, winning is important. More and more, however, its importance has to do with economics. Victories equal dollars, just like in the NFL and NBA. The hope here is that the Big Ten’s expansion will mean more money for minor sports, which depend on revenue from football and basketball for their continuing existence.
So what will this new world look like 10 or 20 years from now? With the charade of scholastics as the driver gone forever, anything is possible. Salary caps? Sure, but I think Alabama already pays a luxury tax out of instinct. With cheating being so much a part of the fabric of college sports, it’s hard to believe schools would recognize that a cap means a cap.
I don’t condone cheating, but aren’t accusations of skulduggery one of the draws for college fans? To be able to say that your archrival bought a player? When Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said that Texas A&M had ‘‘bought every player’’ in its top-rated freshman class through NILs, Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher lost it. Said it wasn’t true. It was excellent entertainment for a couple of days. The way it always is.
Saban doesn’t like NILs because he knows they level the playing field. Money will bring capitalism to the recruiting process, and kids will lean toward the highest bidder, not necessarily the best team.
This is about survival now, at all levels. The Big Ten is expanding to stay relevant. It might not be pretty to the more sentimental among us, but this isn’t art; it’s commerce. It always has been, but now it’s out in the open for everybody to see.
USC and UCLA have about as much in common geographically and historically with Illinois and Northwestern as Rutgers and Maryland do. Doesn’t matter. TV money matters. You can’t put a value on that. Oh, wait. Yes, you can.