BENNER: Of conference realignment and other absurdities

November 5, 2011

Of this, that and the other while wondering how in the world longtime University of Nebraska football coach (and now the Cornhuskers’ athletics director) Tom Osborne became a Big Ten icon.

Yes, you read that right. The Big Ten Network is featuring Osborne in its “Big Ten Icons” series, even though Osborne never coached a down in the Big Ten.

Ah, well. Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story … or icon.

Or never let geography get in the way of the ludicrous conference realignment movement in intercollegiate athletics.

The latest news on that front is the decision endorsed by Big East presidents—you know, the really, really smart guys who are leaders of higher academia—to invite Boise State and Air Force (as well as Navy) to join the conference as football-only members. The Big East is also inviting Houston and SMU (as well as Central Florida) to come on board in all sports.

Absurd. Absolutely absurd.

But then the Big Ten is 12 and the Big 12 is 10 and Texas and Texas A&M will no longer play each other.

What we have here, folks, is the convergence of two of the most powerful influences in America: football and television, resulting in a runaway train that the Indianapolis-based NCAA is supposed to keep on track.

At least that’s what most of America thinks, that the NCAA actually has some control over football. But other than eligibility and recruiting rules, as well as the sanctioning of bowl games, the NCAA has little to do with football.

It’s the conference commissioners who run football and the conference commissioners answer to no one … except their presidents.

Which brings me full circle back to the presidents of the Big East thinking it’s a good idea to join hands with Boise State and Air Force.

And by the way, did you hear that an Illinois congressman characterized the NCAA as “the mafia” with regard to its treatment of student-athletes?

Well, I guess if anyone knows about the mafia, it would be a congressman from Illinois.

At least the NCAA, for all the broadsides it is taking, is giving it the old college try with regard to reform. At the urging of President Mark Emmert, the association’s board announced several major initiatives including a $2,000 stipend to address the full cost of attendance, multi-year scholarships (instead of year-to-year as they are now), the tying of postseason eligibility to academic benchmarks, and tougher academic standards for incoming freshmen and junior college transfers.

I’m bullish about the postseason eligibility reform, especially when you consider that Emmert handed the NCAA’s men’s basketball trophy last April to University of Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, whose program is on probation. Had the new standards been in place, Connecticut wouldn’t have been eligible to participate.

One shining moment? I think not. But maybe I’m still bitter because Butler University’s legitimate student-athletes had GPAs higher than their shooting percentage in the championship game.

As for the extra “cost of attendance” two grand, anyone who thinks that’s a magic bullet that will eliminate street agents and assorted other leeches from using college athletes for their own gain is sadly mistaken.

But, hey, if $2,000 means a guy can pay for his tattoos rather than getting them for free from a booster, so be it.

Once again, no one ever mentions the value of a free college education that student-athletes can—if they will only apply themselves to the opportunity—receive in return for their athletic skills.

I would invite the Illinois congressman and others to see the deplorable way student-athletes in major revenue-producing programs are “mistreated” as they’re subjected to lavish training tables, first-class travel, top-flight coaching, academic counseling/tutoring, and plush athletic facilities replete with all the latest toys.

To compare the athletes’ “burden” to slavery, as some have, is beyond ludicrous.

At a time when so many of America’s youth and their families are drowning in post-college debt, elite student-athletes can leave the shadows of the ivory tower not owing anyone a dime.

Like Forrest Gump, I’m not a smart man, so someone needs to ’splain it to me: How is that such a raw deal?•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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