Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

A New Lineup

As a person of limited substance, I have always been drawn to both light verse and baseball.  In the first grade we were asked to recite a poem in front of the class.  Amidst various renditions of Roses are Red, Jack and Jill, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, I offered up Ogden Nash's Lineup for Yesterday: An ABC of Baseball Immortals -- all 26 stanzas and 104 lines.
In this popular poem - first published by SPORT Magazine in 1949 and seen HERE - I had discovered the masterful confluence of my two prime interests.  I was hooked young.and never lost my love for this unique work.  In fact, more than 50 years removed from that classroom, I still recite it to myself when I need to pass time waiting for the water to boil or the timer on the microwave to run its course. 

With that in mind - and desperately avoiding whatever task actually needed to be done - I attempted an homage to Mr. Nash with a modern "Lineup" comprised of the "Immortals" of my lifetime.  
I am we…


Earlier this week, I was coming out of Penn Station with two friends. One of them bent to pick up an old football card that was wedged against a wall. He looked at the name, shrugged his shoulders and passed it on to me. The photo on the card was that of a long obscure New York Giants running back named Randy Minniear.

The name instantly took me back to September, 1969; a memorable time in American history as well as in my own life. The news had been dominated by Apollo 11, the war in Vietnam and the debauchery at Woodstock.  As my friends and I began fifth grade, however, September of '69 was when the promising summer of the Mets had transitioned in to an Amazin’ Fall.

The only glitch was that my right hand was in a plaster cast to aid the healing of a broken thumb. Worse yet, it was the second edition of that cast. My original break had not healed properly – I had ignored doctor’s orders to stay away from afterschool baseball and basketball – and my orthopedist had to…

A Really Big Show

We all remember exactly where we were for the 1963 assassination of JFK or the great Northeast Blackout of 1965. Similarly, our parents’ generation recalled their whereabouts on V-E Day and our children will always note where they were on 9/11. We tend to share those personal details when we talk about these historic events.

This month marks the anniversary of an occasion every bit as momentous to anyone born before 1960. On February 9, 1964, The Beatles came to The Ed Sullivan Show. But, nobody has a story about where they were when John, Paul, George and Ringo took to the stage in front of 728 live attendees and 73 million television viewers. That’s because we were all in the exact same place … in our living room or den, with our entire families, huddled around a grainy, black and white television. That was the power Ed Sullivan held over American families from 1948 to 1971 when audiences exceeding 50 million were the weekly norm.

Though I was still very young when the Beatles debut…