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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Money makes mess of football

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: August 21, 2022, 6:02am

I know, I know … in the grand scheme of things, sports aren’t all that important.

But amid the teeth-gnashing about midterm elections and reproductive rights and specious claims of victimhood from suspected criminals, one of the most earth-shaking news stories of recent weeks involves college football. The University of Southern California and UCLA are leaving the Pac-12 Conference for the Big Ten Conference.

This makes no sense geographically; the Los Angeles schools are 1,500 miles from the nearest school in their soon-to-be conference.

It makes no sense mathematically, with a conference that has “Ten” in its name growing to 16 schools. Being an Ohio State fan, we could make a joke about Michigan math, but we instead shall maintain some decorum.

And it makes no sense in a sport that finds sustenance in its tradition. USC has been in a conference with “Pacific” in its name since 1922.

But, as media reports trumpeted last week, “The Big Ten Conference unveiled seven-year media rights agreements Thursday expected to be worth more than $1 billion annually.”

Ah, now it makes sense. The Big Ten has schools in the Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., markets — and now two in Los Angeles. Plus it has the national prominence provided by several traditional powers. That means people are willing to pay to watch your product.

Now, we could decry the influence of money on college football. Or ponder when Washington and Oregon will make it the Big Eighteen. Or worry about whether Washington State and Oregon State can survive as major programs in this new landscape.

But instead, we will point out that nobody seems to be asking the right questions about this whole scenario. We will point out the absurdity of football teams nominally representing institutions of higher learning and often being the most prominent thing about that university.

Quick, tell me something about the University of Alabama that has nothing to do with football. Tough to do, isn’t it?

It seems the co-founder of Wikipedia got a master’s degree there. But I had to look that up on, um, Wikipedia.

The point is that college football is the Electoral College of American sports. Want proof? Imagine explaining either of them to somebody who did not grow up in the U.S. and imagine the reaction.

You mean the person who gets the most votes can lose the election? Huh?

You mean some universities generate more than $100 million a year from football? How much do they get for having a Nobel laureate?

It is an arcane system that should have nothing to do with higher education. And until we have a significant minor league for football, the absurdities will continue.

This is starting to happen in basketball. Top prospects can play overseas or in a minor league in the United States for a year before entering the NBA Draft. They get paid for playing — good money, but not an NBA-level salary — and then they move on to the top professional league.

Rather than pretending to be interested in college classes for a year, they are in an internship program. Those who are genuinely interested in college classes can choose that path.

But in football, athletes must be on campus for three years before going to the NFL. This rule was briefly sacked by a legal challenge nearly 20 years ago, but then was reinstated by an appeals court. How the NFL can legally prevent somebody from making a living isn’t clear, but that’s the law.

With no viable minor league, big-time colleges spend more than $1 million a year recruiting athletes who might or might not want to be in college so they can generate hundreds of millions while not paying those players. There seem to be some problems with that system, yet we embrace it in the name of tradition.

Don’t get me wrong; I am passionate about college football; but you can love something while recognizing its flaws. And with plenty of intractable problems in our country, this one seems easy enough to fix.