The robber barons were the men who helped grow the American economy into the world’s giant. Many of our finest universities bear some of their names — Duke, Stanford, Vanderbilt.
They just happened to build it on the backs of underpaid immigrants and the occasional child laborer, which was all fine and dandy until those people started demanding rights. They got them, eventually, and into history went the era of the robber baron.
However, there is one important thing these men taught us which is still relevant — exploitation is a terrific business model. It’s just so damn hard to practice these days.
Fortunately, the commissioners of the NCAA’s major conferences and their compliant university presidents — men like Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany — have found a way to bring robber baronhood back into style. It’s called making millions off of unpaid student-athletes, with the “student” part sometimes being optional.
The subtle differences that separate college sports from the pros are what make it beautiful.
No one in their right mind would tell you that the quality of a college game is superior to the quality of a pro game in any sport, with the possible exception of SEC fans. (Please note that I prefaced that sentence with the statement “no one in their right mind,” thus eliminating SEC fans from contention).
However, college sports are able to achieve things on an emotional level that are difficult to replicate in the pros.
Bryce Drew nailing a miracle 3-pointer to lead tiny Valparaiso over Ole Miss in the NCAA tournament, then ending up in the arms of his dad, who happens to be his coach?
That’s the beauty of college sports.
The other selling point is tradition.
Most universities are gathered in regional affiliations with similar institutions that go back decades, which makes sense since bus or train travel were the only feasible ways of getting around. These matchups built the rivalries that became the lifeblood of college sports — no matter who was wearing the other uniform, going against them was more important than anything else on the schedule. There are so many of these rivalries that trying to determine the fiercest of them all has turned into a parlor game itself, with the very people that despise each other forming an unlikely alliance for the purposes of proving they have a better rivalry than anyone else.
At least that’s the way it was until the New Robber Barons made their move.
The Rockefeller of the New Robber Barons is Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who saw dollar signs to be made from plowing over all of the old traditions of college sports and building something new.
For years, the Big Ten had talked about moving up from its 11-team structure so it could have its very own league championship game. Once the SEC became the dominant force in college football with its title game becoming a de facto national semifinal, the time came to push talk into action.
Nebraska, tired of Texas’ shadow in the Big 12, made the jump. Sensing blood in the water, fellow robber baron and protector-of -the-Rose Bowl tradition (while killing all others) Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott came up with a bold plan to further decimate the Big 12 and become a 16-team operation.
Texas AD DeLoss Dodds, quite the Gilded Age knockoff himself, “saved the day” by declaring his school’s intention to keep the league intact after the creation of a sweet new TV network created by ESPN to show nothing but Longhorn sports. Well, that’s not entirely true. It was also originally going to show high school games, which caused rival Texas A&M to throw a major shitfit.
Jim Slive’s SEC was more than willing to take in the Aggies and their access to the Houston and Dallas TV markets, and threw in Missouri as a nice doorprize.
From there, it became a domino chain of madness that gives us something called the Big East despite Boise State and San Diego State joining the league. For football only, of course. San Diego State will be in the Big West for its other sports.
The chain of madness filtered all the way down to the Division I-AA level, with teams making the jump up as leagues like the WAC and Sun Belt hoped to stay viable before the money-go-round stopped spinning.
In the case of the WAC, it didn’t work out. The league is done after this year, some 60 years of history biting the dust. Idaho and New Mexico State will be left homeless because the TV markets in Moscow and Las Cruces didn’t push the needle like those in San Antonio or Charlotte.
As counter-intuitive as the whole process was, at least we thought it was over heading into this year. We thought incorrectly.
Today, the University of Maryland’s trustees voted to abandon the ACC — a league they helped charter in 1953 — to join the Big Ten. It will cost them a $50 million buyout, which comes just one year after the school had to cut seven varsity sports because of budget issues.
One of the primary catalysts pushing the move is Maryland booster Kevin Plank, also known as the founder of Under Armour. That makes a lot of sense, because what’s 60 years of tradition compared to the whims of the nouveau riche?
With Maryland flying the coop, Rutgers will also join from the Big East.
On a competitive level, neither school adds anything to the Big Ten as a football league. Culturally, they add even less. The Big Ten is the Midwest, plain and simple. It was not meant to have schools from states with a shoreline, unless that shore is along a Great Lake. Crab cakes and pork tenderloin do not mix. Neither does anyone who looks like Snooki and anyone from Iowa.
None of that matters to Delany.
All he sees is the $200 million that would be added to the conference coffers by having the Big Ten Network added to cable providers in Washington, D.C. and New York City.
I suppose I shouldn’t have an issue with that. We live in a free-market society, right? Gotta seize it if it’s there.
Only there’s one small problem. The ones creating all this profit, the athletes, aren’t getting a dime out of it. Sure, most are on scholarship. And in the old model of college sports, being on full scholarship was a just reward.
However, Delany is throwing out the old model of college sports. What’s happening now is exploitation. It’s not about tradition or regional rivalries; it’s about profit.
What the hell sense does it make to send kids from Maryland to Nebraska for a regular-season volleyball match? How is that fair to kids, or to parents who probably assumed most of their kid’s games would be somewhere in driving distance?
Make no mistake. The robber barons have returned. Only now instead of having colleges named after them, they’re the ones running them.