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The Great Leap Forward

On Friday, the "Catholic 7" officially announced their plans to soldier on under the proud Big East banner and to stay in the league's traditional postseason home.  The news will read like a victory and provide a rare opportunity for basketball-first fans to cheer about the business side of college sports. 

Celebrations aside, the new Big East knows it has not staved off irrelevancy.  Even after adding Butler and Xavier, it will only have slowed the process and softened the degree of their inevitable fall.   The new conference is not, in fact, designed to compete with the big boys.  At best, it hopes to fit comfortably and profitably beneath them.
What choice do they have?   It has become clear that the BCS, and not the NCAA, will determine the future of college sports.  Those controlling the finances will never again act in the best interests of Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s or their basketball-leaning league members.

Despite the trappings of boldness in the league’s announcement – a $100 million payment, the retention of name and arena, the likelihood of a new television rights deal – there is actually nothing bold about the new Big East.  Rather, it is the predictable next move doomed to predictable results.

If they want to control their own fate, the “basketball schools” should look to a different game for bolder strategies.  Perhaps the answer to staying in the big time can be found in the game of chess; where it is almost never about the “next move.”  The lords of the new Big East should remember the chess axiom to “study the endgame before anything else.”

The BCS version of the endgame requires very little study.  Left unchecked, the football-fueled “Power 6” conferences will get first choice of recruits in all sports while monopolizing the television dollars, sponsor income and licensing fees.  They will also make the rules by which the less fortunate must abide.  The big will get bigger.  The rich will get richer.  Everyone else will begin to shrivel away.

The best way to stop that endgame – and create a Big East alternate ending – is to make a truly bold decision.  The schools of the new Big East should stop competing in NCAA men’s basketball and move to an independent association.  Each school’s remaining teams can continue to compete in the NCAA; they will simply “drop” men’s basketball.  More importantly, this new association needs to reject the NCAA’s most archaic and unpopular rules.  

Though they will still be students in good standing, basketball players will be paid a fair wage.  They will be eligible to earn endorsement money.  They will have free access to the counsel of agents, attorneys and advisors.  Like NCAA baseball and hockey players, they will be able to enter the NBA draft and return to school if they don’t like the outcome.

It doesn’t need to be complicated.  A flat-rate salary of $100,000 per player, per year will only cost each school $1.5 million annually.  The same rate paid to eighty-man Power 6 football rosters would be prohibitive; not to mention a violation of the NCAA’s most sacred and ill-conceived rule.

Talk about a super-conference!  Overnight, the Big East teams would sign virtually every top high school basketball recruit and have their pick of transfers (who would not have to sit out a year before playing.)  What right-thinking blue chipper is going to turn down a chance to make at least $400K, while earning a degree from an elite university and facing the very best competition outside the NBA?  John Calipari, Coach K and their ilk would be left to pick over the second tier remains.

Yes, the golden goose proceeds of March Madness would need to be sacrificed.  But, on this new landscape, it won’t be long until the NCAA tournament goes the way of the NIT and the Big East tournament emerges as the big daddy.  That transformation could be hastened by a marketing, licensing and television alliance with the NBA further ensuring full exposure and an unfettered flow of high school talent and new revenue.

It doesn’t need to stop there.  Open the basketball-only association to growth from like-minded new members and conferences.  Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, Dayton and Creighton are easy additions as they derive no revenue from football.  What about those FBS schools outside the BCS with strong basketball pedigrees?  Memphis, Houston and UNLV come to mind.  As crazy as it seems, traditional hoops royalty like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Indiana might even be tempted to walk away from their football fortunes.   Failure to do so would relegate their proud basketball programs to de facto mid-major status in order to preserve the interests of perennially unsuccessful football operations.

There are certainly business and legal challenges inherent in this proposal.  The NCAA will have something to say and the new conference must be prepared to fight. 

However, there is an even more important reason to push this agenda forward.  Quite simply, it is the right thing to do.  Catholic schools are accountable to a higher authority; their missions steeped in a pursuit of justice.  Sports and business issues aside, a stand against the exploitative policies of the NCAA would position them on the side of right at a moment in time when such a stand is truly called for.

Athletic department discussions about thousands of dollars long since evolved in to millions and, finally, billions.  The recent orgy of re-alignment has exposed the “games” as big business steered by the same concerns as any industry.  From Missouri and Colorado to Syracuse and Maryland, college sports programs have taken on the feel of the M&A fueled banking industry. 

Despite this surrender to avarice, the BCS billion dollar balance sheets remain built on the backs of unpaid employees.  The industry continues to hide behind the notion of providing “a great opportunity” and free education in lieu of salary.  Perhaps, that was reasonable at a time when intercollegiate sports were more student activity than rampant commerce.  Today, that position is increasingly untenable. 

Scholarship athletes are required (at least, theoretically) to attend class and make academic progress like any scholarship student, but they also must work year round as ballplayers with no additional compensation.  Worse, they are blatantly positioned by their universities as assets to be sold to the highest bidders from among PSL holders, sponsors, television networks and licensees.

The leaders of these proud Catholic colleges should stand up for their exploited employees; many of whom come from below the poverty line and most of whom will never play professional sports.  By doing so, they will also be preserving their basketball futures and retaining valuable university income that will otherwise flow gradually upwards to the NCAA-enabled BCS powerbrokers. 

It’s time for the basketball guys to think like chess masters.  The new Big East should forget the “next move” and study the endgame.  College sports are in revolution and the spoils will go to the bold.  These high profile Catholic colleges can correct a long-standing injustice and create genuine opportunity for its revenue-producing athletes while furthering their own religious, academic and basketball missions.

The situation demands it, the time is right, and it is the Christian thing to do.

Welcome to the new Big East … an endgame that nobody saw coming.

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