Big Ten Realignment Proves Football Comes First and Academics Rank Last in College Sports

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The future move by USC and UCLA from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten demonstrated what most people already knew – college sports is about money first and education last.

The most shocking aspect of the announcement is the basic geography of it all.

Before the announcement, the Pac-12 consisted of schools from every state along the west coast, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. The Big Ten, by comparison, includes teams from The Plain States, the Midwest, and as far east as Massachusetts. The average distance from the two California schools to a Big Ten school is 2,160 miles.

That’s almost three times as far as the average distance between them and any school in the Pac-12.

The increased travel means student-athletes will spend even more time away from campus and out of the classroom. Six-hour cross-country flights will become part of the regular schedule for young people simultaneously learning to manage the demands of college-level curriculum.

Football and men’s basketball players will encounter increased demands from the media as the sports world clamors for the new marquee matchups. These players already report spending, on average, three times as many hours each week on sports-related responsibilities versus academic ones.

Athletes in sports such as baseball and track will spend even more time and energy traveling than in football. Beach volleyball will be in limbo given that no Big Ten institutions currently compete in the sport.

For players underperforming academically, especially Black athletes whose graduation rates continue to lag behind other students, less classroom time will further degrade their academic outcome. If sports participation at this level is about being both student and athlete, then the time they have on campus and in the classroom should be of grave concern.

Yet, the NCAA and its conference members continue to parrot the importance of maintaining an equitable split between athletics and academics to ensure amateurism in college sports without addressing the continued prevalence of scandals and poor achievement among its players.

That amateurism only applies to students, though, for the schools are engaged in corporate business.

The pandemic exposed the explicit connection between DI football and men’s basketball players’ labor and their respective institution’s financial security. In 2019, the last full season before the onset of the pandemic, the NCAA cleared $1 billion in revenue. The Power Five Conferences generated a combined $2.9 billion in the same year, with the Big Ten reporting the most significant share at $781.5 million.

In 2021, universities reported hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. That prompted schools to limp back to competition before the pandemic destroyed the entire institution of college sports.

The message was clear though.

Schools needed the revenue generated by football and men’s basketball for athletic departments to operate.

The Power of Football

FBS football and men’s basketball players stand apart from other student-athletes, for their labor generates revenue for the institution. Ohio State University, for example, reported $43.8 million in football revenue in 2020, $15.4 million in men’s basketball, and more than $100 million in total athletic revenue between men’s and women’s sports.

Without the revenues of these two sports, the athletic department would have operated at a loss.

Schools in the Power 5 conferences stood to lose $4 billion in revenue with the cancellation of the 2020 football season;  $1.1 billion in ticket sales alone. Athletic directors at Oregon State University and TCU spoke publicly about the financial fallout from a canceled college football season, suggesting that entire athletic departments would have to be downsized and restructured.

These gargantuan revenues and universities’ subsequent dependence on football and men’s basketball to support overall operating budgets sit in stark comparison to player scholarship compensation, now made even more difficult to employ for USC and UCLA athletes required to spend more time away from the classroom to travel for Big 10 competition.

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