Maybe it’s better this way. After more than a century of plausible deniability for fans of major college sports, all pretense is gone now.
We are inside the sausage factory, and they are shoving our noses into the meat grinder, no longer attempting to hide the smell.
Athletes have been getting recruited, paid and deployed shadily and / or unethically since the invention of intercollegiate sports.
But there always was just enough talk of tradition and pageantry and education and personal growth and alumni engagement to make it seem like a net positive.
That all seems quaint now. The transfer portal has led to a system of perpetual player free agency, and NIL (name, image and likeness) money has turned athletes into back-channel pros.
At least those developments have offered rights to players that the system had long denied, so in that sense they are progress, albeit at the cost of chaos.
There is no such benefit from the other ongoing story of intercollegiate sports greed and hypocrisy: the conference realignment merry-go-round.
What more do you need to know than that in 2024, Rutgers will host UCLA in a conference football game, with both teams representing the Big Ten, which for generations has epitomized the Midwest. (Geography note: Los Angeles and New Brunswick, New Jersey, are not in the Midwest.)
In 2025, Rutgers will host USC. Same deal. Eventually, Oregon and Washington will come to town.
The Big Ten has . . . oh, who cares how many teams it has anymore? Same with the Big 12. Both have more than 10 or 12, we do know that much.
The SEC might as well have 30 at this point, and maybe it will someday soon.
At least those three conferences appear to have a future. The Pac-12 is toast, and the ACC is being held hostage by Florida State in a football money grab while reportedly eyeing Pac-12 refugees California and Stanford.
And remember, these football-related moves will have ripple effects on non-revenue sports, with volleyball and soccer players flying hither and yon across the continent as collateral damage from their schools’ thirst for TV money.
There have been many significant conference additions and moves over the decades, notably Penn State joining the Big Ten in 1990 and the ever-shifting sands of the Big East as it got into and then out of the football business.
But the recent turmoil is unprecedented and has emphasized a point ESPN analyst Jay Bilas began making long ago: That these are not sports conferences; they are TV rights negotiating consortiums.
Europeans have avoided this sort of nonsense by mostly having clubs for sports and universities for education, but the United States is too deep into this mess to get out of it at this stage, lest alumni be denied tailgating parties at homecoming.
There are those who argue that worrying about conference membership and NIL money and the Wild West transfer portal are beside the point.
None of the above precludes a football fan from turning on a game on an autumn Saturday and enjoying the competition for its own sake.
That is fine, but it has become increasingly difficult to do so without pangs of guilt or doubt or confusion creeping in, especially when there is an alternative in which compared to college sports everything is orderly and out in the open: pro sports.
And the quality of play is better, too!
For the past 70 years or so, the New York area has been heavily focused on pro sports, with occasional college detours such as St. John’s trip to the 1985 Final Four and a ripple of Rutgers football excitement in 2006.
That mostly is a good thing, because it has helped shield us from intercollegiate sports’ endemic stench.
Hey, it’s a free country. Go ahead and enjoy a bratwurst at your favorite college football stadium this fall if you wish. It’s your choice and your right.
Just don’t ask how it was made.