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Monday, July 11, 2011
College superleague remains nuclear option

By Eamonn Brennan

Here I was, stashed away in beautiful Ireland for a week, totally oblivious to the fact that college commissioners were determined to torpedo the NCAA system as we know it. What a depressing way to come back from vacation.

OK, so I'm grossly overexaggerating. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and SEC commissioner Mike Slive aren't by any means determined to fundamentally alter the structure of college athletics, in particular college basketball. But after proposing the concept of cost-of-attendance scholarships -- a good idea overall, but one that would drastically change the competitive equity between haves and have-nots in college hoops -- Delany refused to take the big boys' nuclear option off the table. If the NCAA doesn't make some of the changes the Big Tens, Big 12s and SECs of the world so desire, maybe those conferences and their huge, revenue-generating athletic departments will take their balls and go home. From USA Today:
Starting with the Big Ten's Jim Delany and Southeastern's Mike Slive, who run the colleges' two dominant conferences, officials insist that's not on any agenda. "Don't blame structure," Delany says, "until you have a group of core presidents, athletic directors, commissioners and coaches who are willing to embrace real change" and are shot down.

"At that juncture," he says, "then I think it's fair to look at how else you get it."

In other words: Don't test us, NCAA. You know that crazy 72-team superleague thing John Calipari was talking about on the radio a few weeks ago? We'll do that. And then you can spend your time overgoverning the George Masons and Butlers of the world. Be our guest.

Want to know why this is especially scary? It's not because 250-plus Division I hoops mid-majors would get left in the dust. (Though that is pretty scary.) It's not because college athletes would suddenly be free (at least technically) to earn more than a scholarship and room and board for their prodigious abilities. (That should probably happen anyway.)

It's because no matter what we say, we'd still watch. We'd lose the Cinderellas, but we'd make do. The NCAA tournament format would still exist, presumably with a bracket in place, and when it comes to the NCAA tournament's overwhelming popularity, the bracket -- even more so than upsets and Cinderellas -- is the killer app. We'd all wring our hands and bemoan this bold new college hoops world; we might even call the schools selfish for mucking up the beautiful tradition that is March Madness. (Though if current fan sentiment toward the NCAA is any indication, the move might earn as much praise as derision.) But the tournament would still be popular, and the desire to watch it would still be there, even as we lost one its sappy charm in the sake of cold profit calculus.

In other words, let's hope the NCAA gets something figured out, perhaps along the lines of John Infante's discussion here. The alternative may never reach the level of nuclear option, but as long as it remains on the table, some measure of anxiety is warranted.