College athletics all business now

While some hoary traditionalists might view rivalry games as the gleeful and irrational cornerstone of college football and fundamental to the uniqueness of the sport, that might just be sentimental tripe. College football is now more about branding and business models and expanding a market.

At least, that's what Texas athletic director Steve Patterson told us Tuesday when asked about the Longhorns facing state rival Texas A&M for a 119th time after a two-year hiatus due to the Aggies leaving the Big 12 for the SEC.

"There's a lot of great tradition with Texas A&M," he said. "At some point in time, does it make some business sense, some branding sense, to play again? I don't know. It's not at the top of my list. I'm really more focused on how we grow the footprint of the department."

So "great tradition," something some benighted college football fans might value, loses out to "business sense," "branding sense" and growing "the footprint of the department." That last phrase refers to something such as playing a game in, say, China.

Not exactly a quote that makes you want to sing a fight song.

Yet Patterson's thinking also makes sense, at least if we cast away our sentimentality and enter into his high-stakes field. For one, branding is bigger than tradition these days. If you Google "college football tradition," you get 33 million results. If you Google "college football brand," you get 108 million.

Guess which story tops that second search? An October ditty on ESPN.com's SEC blog with the headline "Texas A&M Aggies expanding their brand." There's no naivety here. We get what Patterson is saying: "It's business, not personal." We also recognize that he's indirectly tweaking Texas A&M -- as in, "We don't need the Aggies" -- while acting as though he's only making an observation on Texas' business model. Further, he's the director of the No. 1 brand in college sports, according to the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. College football is big business, and Texas football is the biggest college football business.

It's not too difficult, however, to throw a rhetorical lasso over another topic Patterson covered during his wide-ranging press conference -- the Northwestern labor lawsuit -- and find a curiously inconsistent zeal for the free market.

Patterson is all business until he arrives at the topic of college football players getting paid and treated like employees. Then he adopts a quaint, collegial pose and is all about amateurism -- vigilant about keeping the opportunists and profiteers away from his pristine sport.

"If you're a football player coming out of high school that decides you want to go to the pros, go take your issue with Roger Goodell and the owners and the union," he said. "That's your place to go if you want to go play professional football, if you want to be an employee."

Take on Goodell and the NFL? That should be easy. Good advice. Of course, Patterson is merely articulating the general position of most athletic directors, coaches, conference commissioners and NCAA administrators, folks who most benefit from maintaining the status quo.

One of the challenges in big-time college sports is the duplicity requirement for those calling the shots and making the rules. Coaches and administrators talk about character and academics -- the purity of the student-athlete -- and more than a few actually care about those things. But they also know their first priority is winning and generating revenue, and that is about the ruthless bottom line. Athletes unionizing or getting a substantially larger portion of the revenue pie threatens that.

What Patterson is willfully ignoring is college football players already are employees in every sense of the word, other than drawing a salary, a longstanding arrangement that is highly lucrative to Patterson and other wealthy folks in college sports. Sure, college football players receive unquestionably valuable scholarships, but lots of college students receive financial aid. The difference is one group produces millions in revenue and the others don't.

Only in the U.S. are sports and college so intertwined. It's almost amusing that the world's foremost celebrator of the profit motive has stubbornly tried to maintain the unwieldy marriage of amateurism and an increasingly big business. Despite all the notorious and unsavory scandals, the popularity of college sports, particularly revenue sports, has grown exponentially through the years. Popularity translates to revenue, and revenue translates to increased complications. Such as players wanting more than they are getting.

If Patterson were making $200,000 a year and his football coach Charlie Strong were making $500,000, there wouldn't be a Kain Colter at Northwestern agitating about only getting a scholarship worth around $65,000. But Patterson is pocketing $1.4 million this year, and Strong will get $5 million, not including his $4.375 million buyout from Louisville, which Texas is paying.

The relative deprivation in college football is written into the system and is increasingly difficult to ignore, particularly with the advent of the four-team College Football Playoff. The problem is the sport has been too successful and few see that abating. In the 1970s, athletic directors would have been horrified over not playing a traditional rival. They also didn't make as much money and didn't talk much about "branding" and "footprints." In fact, athletic directors were typically former athletes and coaches, not lawyers and former professional sports executives, like Patterson, who has worked in college sports for two of his 55 years.

So Patterson, who has an undergraduate and law degree from Texas and is no stranger to its football traditions, talks about growing Texas' international brand as a priority over a rivalry game, one played every year from 1898 to 2011. So he talks about what makes business sense for his program but not for his athletes.

"This is not your place," he said of players wanting to unionize. "And this is a free country, you can make that choice all day long. Knock yourself out. This is student-athlete athletics."

Patterson is unintentionally spot-on with the second half of that quote. That's what the Northwestern-union and Ed O'Bannon v. NCAA cases are about.

As he said, these sports are supposed to be about "student-athletes." The "student-athletes," free to take stock of their situations, chose to organize and took their case to the courts. They are exercising leverage in a business that requires them to do most of the heavy lifting with little of the financial rewards.

This sort of agitation and litigation may become a new college football tradition.

Most of us are hoping that such actions -- or a program increasing its international footprint -- won't preclude rivals from getting together to decide who plays the best football in the state.