Normally at this time of year arrests of college football players is about the only way my favorite sport makes any headlines. How different this year is proving to be! College football and what looks like its biggest conference realignment ever and who knows what else is all very much in the news. The university at where I work has a course in the Geography Department called "The Geography of Sports." Looks like they might just have to write a new textbook after this year. The Pacific is reaching for more of the Southwest. The Rust Belt is reaching out to the Corn Belt. Strange days, indeed. What interests me is not only the shakeup of teams and conferences, but also how this fits into the bigger picture of the American character and our own contemporary experience. So if you want to read some intellectualization of all this, please read ahead.
My first thought on all this turbulence is that it seems very much in the American character to break-off from some larger body to strike out anew and form another body. We are famous for striking out and forming our own conference of colonies and then our own nation of thirteen states (The Atlantic 13) when we broke away from the Texas Empire, oh, I mean the British Empire, haha. As a country, we've gone about adding teams / states into our union until we've reached the rather stable number of fifty teams on the flag. But from 1861-1865 the Southeastern part of the United States tried to form its own conference / nation that rather closely resembles the SEC of today. And to this day, you'll find sessionist movements in places like Texas, Alaska, and Vermont. Even the upper-peninsula of Michigan has wanted to breakaway from Michigan itself.
That Nebraska, Missouri, and Colorado would want to divorce themselves from their home of the Big 12 and what they see as a despotic rule (ahh, Texas) seems rather keeping with the American narrative. We are a nation of joiners and splitters. And it seems to me, sports has become the outlet for this impulse that a bloody war taught us was not a good idea on the national level. And for the sake of all of us, I hope such splitting remains an excerise of universities and conferences and not actual states.
Another thought I had about this is that the idea of "Super Conferences" comes at a curious time when the phrase "Too big to fail" has been tossed about a lot. Does the PAC 10 think it can make itself too big to fail? Are they thinking that they'll get so big with so much television revenue that they will make themselves immune to lack of fan support, bad revenue years, and god forbid, bad years on the grid-iron? I don't know. But it is interesting to think that these conferences might be taking their cues from Wall Street banks and corporate America.
And the bank - everyone admits, except the most pious of university officials, that this is all about putting more money, tv money, in the bank. Increasing revenue at all costs is very much inside the American narrative as well. Revenue over tradition? Well, just look at any downtown where a parking garage has replaced some historic building. For better or worse, looking to the future and particularly future dollar signs, that's very American too.
Tying in with the last paragraph is the notion that we are very much a "Keeping up with the Joneses" type of people. The SEC contract with ESPN and CBS made our conference the Joneses on the block. Now the other teams want to position themselves in a conference that can keep up with what the SEC is doing. The SEC was the first conference to have a championship game. Others saw the benefit of that game in revenue terms and for getting your teams in the national title game, so we now have a Big 12 and an ACC championship game with similar games likely to come to places like San Francisco and Chicago.
"Bigger is better" is another way of looking at things that seems very American and very much in the spirit of what we see going on with the conference realignment. Personally, I wish there were more voices questioning this assumption. I fear that conferences can get so big that they end up losing that quality that made them recognizable to begin with. A PAC 16 that stretches from Seattle to Austin just seems too big to have any one identity that the conference can be associated with. How does the SEC keep its identity if we go about adding, as some have speculated, Notre Dame? Yeah, big money. But a private Catholic school from Indiana doesn't fit with our schools below the Mason Dixon line. Actually, I probably shouldn't worry about that scenario, for it seems very unlikely the Irish who have resisted the better fit Big 10 would come to the SEC. If the SEC does end up adding Texas and North Carolina and Virginia to the conference, then the old Confederacy plus Kentucky is completely resurrected via universities, oddly enough.
Whatever team does join the SEC or any other conference, there is one thing you can rest assured about, and that is you the average fan will have no say in the matter what-so-ever, which at first glance seems adverse to the American spirit of democracy where the people have a say. But when you think again about how many of the decisions in America get made in corporate boardrooms and between lobbyists and politicians, no matter what the majority of Americans think, then you can say the way the decisions ahead are being made in college football, behind closed doors, aren't that different from the countless other decisions that are made each day by those who might or might not have our best interests at heart.