Commentary

Clear as mud

Public schools keep fans in dark, then expect them to embrace moves

Updated: November 27, 2012, 2:02 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

The Big Ten Conference, once a tidy enclave of insular Midwestern institutions, is soon to become a behemoth: Fourteen schools, 11 states, 1,288 miles east to west. Tradition means nothing, logistics mean nothing, public opinion means nothing. Maryland and Rutgers are joining the conference in 2014 and bringing their media markets with them. There's nothing anyone can do about it.

[+] EnlargeMaryland Terrapins mascot
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesMaryland fans might need additional padding for November trips north.

This is the way it goes in college sports. Everyone is supposed to nod in agreement while the people in power tell them what's good for them. These are public institutions, funded by public money, and yet the regents slither around behind closed doors to make expeditious decisions, emerging only to tell the little people they should be happy. The idea of making their meetings public is shrugged off with a patronizing tap of the head and a tug of the ear.

Oh, you're just so cute with your little rules. Go on along now. We know what's best for you.

The University of Maryland officials met in unannounced, private meetings to endorse the move to the Big Fourteen. After all, what could come of a public airing? Nothing but questions and dissent. Who in their right mind would sit and listen to the unwashed express their opinions when you can just call an emergency meeting and then, later, claim you can't produce any documentation from the secret meetings because they were called in haste. Apparently everyone spoke so quickly the stenographer couldn't keep up.

(A report in the Washington Post suggests the Maryland regents' decision to meet privately was illegal. An attorney was quoted as saying the ACC, if it so desires, could fight Maryland's departure on the grounds that any vote taken in those meetings is invalid.)

These are the same academic stewards who decry the disproportionate emphasis placed on athletics at the college level. They're the ones promoting the fallacy that athletes in big-revenue sports are students first and athletes second. And yet they see a spot in the Big Fourteen as a chance to get a seat in a luxury box for the Michigan game. They're the ones lining up to have their photo taken with their arms around the football coach.

Is it a ridiculous notion -- a quaint, outdated idea -- that moves of this significance by public institutions should include input from the public? If you're a Maryland alum and taxpayer, are you happy about losing the annual trip to watch your team take on Duke and North Carolina in basketball? Will you believe Big Fourteen commissioner Jim Delany when he tells you you'll be just as happy watching the Terps take on Penn State?

It's all about the brand, but the brand stays strong only as long as it remains identifiable. It has to resonate beyond rights fees and monthly cable subscription rates. In order to keep its payouts rising -- an estimated $40 million per school within five years -- that brand has to mean something. Right now, this is not a particularly good football conference, and it is adding two historically mediocre programs who do nothing but dilute the product. (Two more teams for Urban Meyer to beat, two more coaches for Urban Meyer to out-recruit.) Even if you can tell your Legends from your Leaders, you're probably not going to set aside three hours on a Saturday afternoon to watch Rutgers-Purdue, let alone three or four days for that Indiana-Maryland road trip. Under the new paradigm, Saturday's Nebraska-Wisconsin Big Ten title game -- featuring a school in its third year in the conference -- seems almost nostalgic.

[+] EnlargeRutgers stadium
Alex Trautwig/Getty ImagesExpect some confusion when Nebraska comes to town.

The money-and-land grab is nothing new, but the crazed realignment of the past half-decade has accelerated a move toward a plutocratic system that rewards the few while ostracizing the many. (Tulane and East Carolina to the Big East? Ummm … sure, why not?) This latest bit of institutional cynicism might be the worst ploy yet. The idea that Maryland and Rutgers are anything more than pawns in the grand scheme to absorb television revenue is laughable.

But by all means, you're free to believe Delany when he says of Rutgers, "We weren't seeking the New York market, we were seeking a great institution located in an adjacent state with a prosperous academic and athletic approach. It wasn't a TV play."

Prosperous approach, you say? The Rutgers athletic department might as well be run by 100 monkeys with a broken abacus. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, the athletic department spent almost $27 million more than it received in 2010-11. And how did the university deal with that astounding shortfall? By raising fees on the public -- the same public that had no say in the move to the Big Fourteen.

Maryland is on the hook for a $50 million exit fee from the ACC just months after dropping seven non-revenue sports. Randy Edsall is paid $2 million a year, and as he's 6-18 since leaving UConn two years ago, he's pulling in roughly $666,667 per win. And that includes a 7-6 thriller to open the season against both William and Mary. With any luck, the extra television revenue Maryland pulls in from the Big Fourteen will go toward financing a hefty buyout of Edsall's contract.

It's all part of a larger trend toward the deification of sports at the expense -- literally and figuratively -- of the public at large. We've reached the point in college sports where everything is on the market. Tradition, honesty, openness -- it's all priced as marked. The only thing that doesn't cost is incompetence. That comes with a big, fat check and a new list of opponents. Because soon it'll become obvious that having four huge conferences is the same as having no conferences at all.

And the paying customers? They'll have no say whatsoever. No problem, though -- they're getting used to it.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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