By Ken Reed

What a sad joke big-time college athletics has become. Our country continues to allow big-time college sports factories to operate as “non-profit educational entities.” Our largest universities have given up on the idea of education when it comes to the athletic department. These schools now look for executives from the for-profit business world to run their athletic departments. Educators, or even former coaches (who are supposed to be educators) need not apply. Education of students at these institutions is simply seen as a nuisance in the quest for conference and national championships.

Today, August 7th, the Big Five conferences will be allowed to separate themselves from the rest of the NCAA. They’ll stay under the NCAA umbrella in order to keep their non-profit status but they’ll be their own big-time business operation in every way but name.

College sports began under a model similar to the current Div III model: actual students who chose to play athletics as an extra-curricular aspect of their overall college education experience. Today, big-time student-athletes live in separate dorms, have elaborate cafeterias and chefs of their own, have classes and majors handed to them by the coaching staff, and are usually only allowed a week or two to go home in the summer. It’s definitely a full-time, year-round job. That fact makes the big-time athletes that actually get a meaningful degree as a result of attending real classes all the more honorable.

To make things worse, these big-time athletes are completely exploited. While they make millions for their schools and conferences, a large percentage of these athletes are pushed through easy classes filled with other “student-athletes” and walk away not being able to read or speak above a sixth-grade level — with or without a college degree in hand. Moreover, they’re not allowed to make money on their talents like every other student on campus. For example, music students on music scholarships can make some extra cash playing Saturday night gigs at the local bar but football and basketball stars get busted if they take money for signing autographs at the local auto parts store.

The hypocrisy of it all is sickening ….

Nevertheless, perhaps today’s action will ultimately end some of the hypocrisy. If athletes in Big Five conferences are eventually allowed to make money off their abilities (either by being paid directly or through a model similar to the current Olympic model, e.g, being able to make money off their likeness from sponsors, etc.); lower Div. I and Div. II colleges and universities revert back to the original model of college athletics: real students who simply participate in athletics as part of their college experience, and the Big Five schools lose their tax-exempt status, then some of the hypocrisy will fade away and we’ll be able to call big-time college sports (The Big Five) what it is: professional sports.

In effect, today’s NCAA vote allows the Big Five conferences to basically secede from the union. As such, it also will be the first step of the demise of the “Little Five” Div. I conferences: Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt, Mid-American Conference, and the American Athletic Conference. These teams will receive peanuts relative to the mega dollars the Big Five conferences will receive under the new college football playoff system.

ESPN’s Brett McMurphy explained it this way:

“During the 12-year contract for college football’s new playoff format, the nation’s five power conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC) will earn an average of nearly $75 million more per year than the smaller leagues known as the ‘group of five.’ From 2014 to 2025, the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC will earn an average of at least $91 million annually…. By comparison, the average for the group of five — (American Athletic Conference, Mountain West, Mid-American, Conference USA and Sun Belt) — during that 12-year period will be about $17.25 million annually.”

Individual conference television deals for the Big Five and Little Five are vastly different as well. Each Big Five member school will be getting approximately $20 million a year from their conference TV deals moving forward. Mountain West schools will be getting around $2 million each, Conference USA members around a $1 million per school, while schools in the three other Little Five conferences will be getting significantly less than that.

It gets worse for the Little Five conferences. After today, the Big Five will be allowed to make their own rules and the Little Five will have nothing to say about it. In addition, it will be harder and harder for the Little Five schools to schedule teams from Big Five conferences, making it impossible for them to ever be part of the college football playoff. Many Little Five schools need these “payday” games against Big Five opponents just to stay afloat financially.

The value of Little Five TV deals will continue to drop in relation to the Big Five conferences as fans and media view the Little Five more and more as minor leagues. So, the college football hierarchy will be 1) The Big Five; 2) The Little Five; and 3) The Really Little Guys (today’s Div. I-AA). Today’s Div. II and Div. III schools will then fall in line under those groups. The Big Five will be highly commercialized and professionalized business entities and the Little Five conferences will no longer be able to effectively compete with them. Little Five schools will be faced with two choices: 1) Try to significantly beef up resources and become part of the Big Five or 2) Downsize significantly and become one of The Really Little Guys — even hook-up with a Division II or III conference and get back to focusing on education.

In most cases, the latter choice will be the most ethical and reasonable. After today, school’s in the Little Five conferences will officially be in “no-man’s land.”

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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