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Sprawled conferences haven’t been good for college sports

Last Monday night was the most fun I had at a game in a long time, watching Scott Cross’ UTA Mavericks take down Danny Kotter – sorry, Kaspar’s Texas State Bobcats. And it made me wonder why my adrenaline hasn’t been as high at College Park Center as it used to be? Was it because that was a much tighter contest after seeing a lot of blowouts recently? Was it because I’m just getting too old?

But I know the real reason. It was because the game was against Texas State, the only in-state rival the Mavs have any more. That game meant something extra, something I haven’t been able to get from them playing Georgia State or Troy. It’s something that used to be present in a lot more conference games that don’t exist any more.

Once upon a time, the UTA Mavericks played in the Southland Conference, which for years was mostly comprised of schools within the state of Texas and Louisiana. Now, the names Stephen F. Austin State and Sam Houston State and UT-San Antonio might not seem like big names to a lot of people, but to those of us who were loyal to the blue and white, those names meant everything. For me and my friends, piling into a car and making a simple three-to-four hour drive to be among the few fans daring to yell for our team in enemy territory and make it back home in a day made for some of the best of times.

Now, today’s UTA students definitely have it better than us in some regards; a big new place to watch games with an actual student section tops that list. But how often do they get a chance for the road trips we had? They could possibly travel to San Marcos or Monroe, LA – MAYBE to Lafayette. That’s about it. Let’s see college students manage to travel to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina or some of the other places the Mavs go to now in the Sun Belt Conference.

The thing is, what UTA now deals with in conference play in bad travel and opponents fans can’t get fired up for is not unique in college sports today. Conferences are all over the map, quite literally. And it’s killing college athletics, especially for those that can’t immediately sell dreams of a national championship.

Once upon a time, as you can see from the first of the two diagrams provided below, college conferences were organized by regions. Everything was relatively compact and easy to understand, and the chance for your team to prove it was the best in the region led to excitement that programs could sell. Maybe you didn’t have a shot at the national championship this year, but you could brag to your colleagues from a nearby school that you beat them out for best in the region.

While I did have to go back 35-40 years for the exact alignment provided [EDIT: I have also since been informed that the Big East was not founded until 1979], it’s important to note that not that much changed over the next 20-30 years. Arizona and Arizona State did go to the Pac-10, the Big East and ACC expanded into Florida and most notably, the Southwest Conference dissolved to create the Big 12. But for the most part, things stayed regionalized.

Not anymore, as the second image proves. In the last decade, the idea that being spread out over the nation leads to more money and recognition has taken hold, and regional rivalries have suffered. Colleges have ditched the old system of proximity breeding passion and instead trying to sell recruits on being able to travel across the country for games while trying to tell their fans they can get just as excited for conference “rivals” 1500 miles away.

It isn’t working. TCU’s last game in 2014 at Amon Carter Stadium, against Iowa State, had a Big 12 conference championship to be won as a selling point – and they still couldn’t sell out the place.

But at least TCU is in somewhat of a good spot being in as close to the old SWC as possible in the Big 12. SMU is in no-man’s land playing in The American. Even with a shot at winning the conference, Larry Brown’s team is seeing empty seats at Moody again. The football team has to stockpile its non-conference schedule with old SWC rivals to generate any interest, because even when the Mustangs were making bowl games again, they couldn’t pack Ford Stadium for the likes of Memphis, Cincinnati and South Florida.

When UNT is in the best position by being with UT-San Antonio, Rice and UT-El Paso in Conference USA, that’s beyond not good.

What college fans in North Texas want more than anything else is to face each other for bragging rights. Instead, we have four Division I schools – three with football programs – that all play in different conferences now.

And the conferences are almost all the same. If anything, it’s what’s killed any chance of The American or Conference USA or the Sun Belt being a competitive power in Division I because they are all spread out over almost the same area. None of those conferences and member schools have anything special to offer over one another. No tight regional formations = no regional rivalries = no excitement among the fans = bad atmospheres for games = little incentive for top recruits to go there.

When I heard that UTA was leaving the Southland, the athletics department’s head of promotions at the time kept trying to tell me, “this is the best thing for us.”

So far, I’m not seeing it – for UTA, SMU or a lot of other programs across the country.


College athlete union could spell the doom for college sports

The Final Four came to an end and crowned a champion in North Texas. I could make this column about how I loved the fact that Arlington got the shaft in that, but that’s for another time – maybe.

The point is this: We may want to appreciate another enthralling NCAA Tournament, whether it concluded in our backyard or not. Because there is that chance this type of excitement could be gone for good, if a very, very small handful of athletes get their way.

Recently, the college sports world was stunned by a decision from the National Labor Relations Board that a number of football players from Northwestern University did have the right to organize a union of college athletes. This is, of course, the latest attempt by athletes in claiming that a full scholarship to the college of there choice while thousands of other students go into eternal debt for a degree is not enough, and that they should be paid for the right to play intercollegiate athletics.

This was escalated further by UConn basketball guard and NBA prospect Shabazz Napier, who, in an interview before the title game against Kentucky, claimed that he sometimes goes to bed “starving” despite meal plans being included in athletic scholarships. After UConn won the national championship, Napier tried to steal the spotlight by claiming the NCAA had no right to ban the Huskies from tournament play for poor academic performance. Because, you know, who cares about academics in college?

Now, anyone who follows me on social media, especially Facebook, knows that my political and social opinions do lean to the left. So it may surprise many to hear my position on this. Why would I be against such a progressive movement?

Because this is an example of the demands of the few imperiling the needs of the many.

To hear all the sanctimonious people in the media, one would think that the athletics department at every single Division I university is a money printing machine, churning out millions of dollars to help fund the gluttonous salaries of the coaches and other administrators.

This is as far from the truth as can be. Despite the huge numbers ESPN and other networks put up on how much money the NCAA makes (most of it paid out by organizations like ESPN), the number of colleges making millions of dollars remains in the great minority. For every Texas or Ohio State or Kentucky, there are a dozen UTAs out there that struggle to just make their athletic budgets. They don’t pack the house every night. They don’t have some huge TV deal. And might actually – horror of horrors – have athletes that actually GO TO CLASS.

Many of these colleges benefit greatly from the NCAA’s revenue, and the student athletes benefit most of all. The NCAA states that 96 percent of its annual revenue goes back to its member schools – 60 percent of it to Division I participants.

And if athletes like these Northwestern members succeed in forcing universities to pay their athletes, all these other universities will be forced to completely shut down all their athletic programs. The line in the sand will be drawn” If you can’t afford to fully pay all your athletes like employees, you don’t deserve to have athletics at all.

For now, the Northwestern athletes are claiming they are not out to demand that athletes be paid full salaries/stipends, just improved benefits. Of course they are going to say this – they’re avoiding the one most polarizing aspect and trying to look like the little guy fighting the good fight until they successfully get their feet dug in, and THEN they make the big demands. Note that included in their demands is the option to be able to demand pay at some time later.

There seems little doubt that demanding some form of full salary or stipend for all athletes will be coming down the line. Note that while the Northwestern athletes are currently saying they still view themselves as students and not employees, the NLRB though the opposite in making its approval of a union.

And if they ultimately want all athletes to be fully compensated, there is really only one way they can ultimately do that: All “unionized” teams will refuse to play against schools that don’t have union athletes – the “scabs,” though they may try to find a more PC term for them – forcing the hand of the coaches as to who they get to schedule. Therein will lie the key to driving the programs that can’t pay their athletes out of operation.

This of course, is a worst-case doomsday scenario I am presenting. But the best-case scenario would still be the breakup of Division I into schools that can afford to pay athletes and those that can’t. If that happens, you can still kiss things like the NCAA Tournament in its current form goodbye. No more seeing the likes of Butler or Virginia Commonwealth or George Mason making an improbable run to the Final Four, since they will all be booted down to a lesser subdivision, unable to compete in the same tournament as Florida or Duke or UCLA. The schools that actually want STUDENT-athletes will be kicked to the curb in D1.

And that should also eventually lead to the downfall of those programs, because the chance of playing in the big tournament is often the one motivation the alumni base and other boosters have to support their programs. Take that away, and you’ll be lucky to get support better than a Division II program.

Nothing is set in stone here. The NCAA is appealing this decision, and appeals will likely take years. Even still, one of the keys to the NLRB’s decision was that Northwestern is a private college, meaning state universities are a whole other situation.

But those who love college sports can only hope that in the years this fight will take, cooler heads will ultimately prevail.

Most college student athletes in the more than 320 Division I schools are good people. They go to class. They have aspirations that go beyond playing professionally, as more than 99 percent of them will not be doing so.

And now their opportunities to use their athletic talents to get an education and develop as people is under serious threat.

All because a bunch of spoiled, greedy athletes are putting their own short-term self interests ahead of so many others.

Manziel and Big-Time College Athletes Don’t Know How Good They Have It

I’ll give John Manziel this much credit. He clearly knows how to make money off of his name. He’s going to need that ability, as I doubt he’ll be playing much football once his time at Texas A&M is over, which may or may not happen soon.

Like I’m sure many are, I’m beyond tired of hearing what Johnny Goofball/Johnny Lohan/Johnny Khardashian or whatever you want do call him is doing next. But this most recent one is a biggie for sure, with reports that the most overly hyped college athlete out there took money from vendors in exchange for autographing so much stuff that his season might be in jeopardy from carpal tunnel. Or from the fact that that’s a pretty big no-no by the NCAA’s standards.

At first, it looked like Johnny getting the boot was a given. Then the press went and turned on the NCAA, pointing out how much stuff related to Johnny they were selling on their own website. Suddenly, people were no longer lashing out at a spoiled brat acting out like the rules don’t apply to him but instead going back to whining about the rules being unfair.

The NCAA actually acquiesced, and suddenly player shirts and jerseys were no longer for sale via the official NCAA shop. But the damage was done, with yet another outcry for the “owners” of college sports to stop profiteering and start actually  paying their athletes.

The ironic thing is that Manziel is one guy who more than anything is not hurting for money; he could have gone to A&M sans scholarship thinks to his supposedly wealthy parents. (I say supposedly because, according to guys like RIchie Whitt, Manziel’s family may not be as well off as some think.)

Yet he has become the new cover boy for the opponents of the NCAA’s strict guidelines on amateurism, saying it’s so unfair that student athletes generate so much revenue and get nothing in return.

Right. They’re getting shafted because all they get is a completely free ride to the college of their choice with room, board and no fear of leaving with any type of student debt. This argument is as old as what it’s arguing against, and it still stands.

Their supporters clam big time athletes should have the financial freedom to attend movies and buy their school’s own expensive clothing like everyone else. Never mind that most students who also work jobs can’t afford those activities either because they’re salvaging every dime they can to pay their student loans.

But above all that is the one factor so many ignore. Johnny Manziel and the athlete who could, in theory, deserve compensation, are the minority. Same goes for the schools that could actually afford to pay them.

To listen to the likes of Jay Bilas and Jason Whitlock, you would think every school in the nation that plays Division I football and/or basketball is a cash cow franchise that is just churning out millions of dollars on the backs of its beleaguered, hard-working, exploited athletes. Nothing could be further from the truth. For every University of Texas, there is a University of Texas-San Antonio, a school who’s entire athletics budget practically equals Mack Brown’s salary alone and struggles to stay within that. They don’t have obscenely wealthy boosters willing to fund UT’s decision to fly its entire football team to Dallas for its annual game vs OU, when Dallas is just a three-hour drive from Austin.

It doesn’t matter what sort of “compensation plan” these so-called experts could come up with that they think is fair, because 90 percent of the colleges out there still wouldn’t be able to pay it. I don’t think enough people know quite how bad the disparity between the haves and have-nots is; it’s already similar to forcing AA and AAA baseball teams to play against the majors every year, and you want to make it even worse? It’s bad enough that small schools have to subject themselves to getting blown out on Big U’s home field in exchange for a big check. (Really, UT? You’ll buy yourself an easy win vs New Mexico State but you won’t play A&M any more?)

Thus you would essentially destroy college sports by making it financially impossible for almost all of the schools who don’t play in those elite conferences (are there still six of those? My head’s still spinning from all the realignment.) to field a team. They now have to offer stipends for their athletes along with a full scholarship for a chance to compete? Hundreds of schools would be forced to say “I’m out.”

I will not deny that I am biased from having seen this first hand for years. My alma mater, UT-Arlington, hasn’t played football at even the I-AA level since Back to the Future was in theaters. As long as I can recall, our men’s basketball team couldn’t offer the maximum number of 13 scholarships; I can only hope that moving to College Park Center has helped alleviate this. What they do have, however, is an athletics program with integrity. They have never faced NCAA sanctions for cheating. They make sure they get student athletes who go to class. They graduate players.

There are actually more UTAs out there than University of Miamis, who just look to buy football players over real student athletes. The schools who use athletics the right way – allowing kids to use their abilities toward getting an education – greatly outnumber those who are using America’s obsession with football to make millions of dollars.

But too many people with microphones and keyboards think the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

Allowing the elite schools and programs to pay their athletes could only work if they were barred from competing against the rest of the NCAA programs. That’s even less likely to happen.

So, sorry to offend anyone, but here’s my take on Johnny Manziel and his cronies saying student athletes are being treated unfairly: Shut up.

You think it’s not fair that you toil for an organization that profits off your work without actually “compensating” you? Tell it to the millions of people who work unpaid internships during and after college just in the hopes that the experience will lead to something bigger.

Almost every athlete who could make money off himself from his play in college will once he’s eligible for the pros to come calling. Or, in the case of Manziel, just selling his own name.

The majority shouldn’t be forced to suffer just because you guys can’t be patient.