Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive chose to be the first member of the major athletic conferences to openly threaten to withdraw from the NCAA. Of course, the rumblings of such a possibility have been coursing through the world of college sports for quite some time now but this is the first time that somebody with the actual authority to make good on the threat uttered it in public.
The NCAA has been wandering farther and farther off track for decades now. The once great collegiate athletic organization has become marginalized (mostly by its own hand) to the point where it is mostly impotent as an enforcement agency except in cases where it completely oversteps its bounds like the Penn State case. The organization finds itself the target of one lawsuit after another these days and the big, financially relevant conferences realize that the NCAA is rapidly becoming a liability they can no longer risk or afford. If the NCAA loses in a few of these cases the results could be catastrophic for the big conferences and college football as a whole. Widespread, court-ordered compensation for players could ruin them.
The large conferences, the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12, must find a way to stem the tide on this movement or take their chances in the courts. Slive’s comments might well be an indication that they have tested the wind and have come to believe that it is not in their favor. It would appear that these large conferences want to save college football and basketball and the money that they produce by making affordable (for them anyway) concessions to the athletes before the courts rule in hopes of quelling the uprising before the final results become known and etched forever in the collegiate landscape. They cannot do this under the current NCAA rules and regulations and find themselves unable to convince the organization to make sweeping changes. Slive’s threat may well be a warning to the NCAA to “play ball” before the organization finds itself out of the “play ball” business entirely.
As one would expect, not everyone likes the idea of the big conferences threatening to take their ball and go play elsewhere. Central Florida head coach George O’Leary accused the SEC of acting like the Civil War south, but what would you expect to hear from a lying Yankee. Nobody expects the members of the small conferences to like this wind of change. By and large, the big conferences have been footing the bill for everyone else. Any kind of withdraw by the big five conferences would leave the rest of the college schools in severe trouble. Without the big payouts for playing against the big five, these smaller schools and conferences who are already struggling to make ends meet may find it too expensive to continue playing on the grand stage. There just will not be a lucrative television market for games that do not in any way involve the new super-conferences. There is not a big audience for Division III football and without the big five the other conferences will be close to that appeal. Do you really think there is going to be a big television contract out there for games like Tulane vs Southern Mississippi?
What we are seeing here is just a microcosm of societal issues on the whole. Corporations and corporate executives make good profit and compensation in many cases. American laborers feel that these corporations and individuals should be willing to make less in order for them to make more. These corporations and executives feel they have taken bigger risks and made better decisions that have put them in a position to reap the rewards they currently enjoy. The unions that once represented the laborers have become corrupt and detrimental in many cases. What we see in college football is basically the same thing. The financially strong schools and conferences want to protect their income. They also want to negotiate with their rank and file themselves rather than through an organization that has become more concerned with its own power and profitability than that of those it represents. Everybody not reaping the benefits of the strong growth and planning the five big conferences have enjoyed is going to be unhappy with the big boys starting their own league. They believe that everyone should be concerned with the well-being of ALL of the schools not just the power conferences. It is hard to fault ANY of these entities for feeling the way they do. It is simple human nature.
I expect that the NCAA will notice this first salvo from Mike Slive and will start to look at ways to appease the power conferences. It will most likely be too little too late. The power conferences like the idea of controlling their own destiny. O’Leary may be right and this may be bad for the future of college football, but I think there is virtually no hope that college football can remain the same. Change is coming whether we want it or not. Perhaps the power conferences can salvage some of the great entertainment value we have come to expect from the sport, maybe not. People everywhere need to come to grips with reality. Fair is a dangerous word. Life and the world it takes place in were never meant to be fair. “Fair” results in one thing and one thing only, mediocrity. Great things only happen when the best and brightest are permitted to reap the rewards of their ingenuity. Human nature is such that anyone not among that group becomes disgruntled even though they quite often benefit directly or indirectly from the group’s accomplishments. The Southeastern Conference has been brilliantly managed and everyone associated with college football has benefitted from the conference’s success. Hopefully, wisdom and ingenuity will win out again and this sport we love so much will survive and advance.
Go get ’em, Slive.