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BCS appears dead, but more change is needed

This news story was published on April 30, 2012.
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By Sam Mellinger, McClatchy Newspapers –

The most despised entity in sports now has an expiration date. College football’s infuriating BCS system is set to die in two years, and once we’re all done celebrating the best news for sports fans since high-definition television we will eventually realize an uncomfortable and awkward truth:

This is absolutely no help to the college athletes for whom this is supposed to be about.

Winning a truer national championship will be the goal of every player, and the stakes are about to get even more interesting, but if anything, a playoff set to begin in two years only invites more exploitation of the “amateur” athletes powering the money-printing college sports industry.

The BCS now generates $180 million per year, and experts have valued a playoff system at around $600 million to $1.5 billion, depending on how many teams are involved.

The extra revenue will be promoted as a reason to be excited about it, but in a world where the labor isn’t paid and the adults in charge have done everything from spend $50,000 so a coach doesn’t have to walk 20 steps to the bathroom to blow $33,188 on a birthday party, it will almost certainly come with more shameful waste and extravagance instead of important changes.

Power brokers in college sports are pushing more expensive television properties to sell without any stated benefits to the athletes, a corporation demanding more from its employees without doing a thing in return. No matter where you stand on college athletes being paid, this is exploitation.

It’s time for colleges to make a long overdue commitment to put more of their sports revenue to good use and less of it on a counterproductive arms race for bigger weight rooms and nicer hotels for home games and more commas in their coaches’ salaries.

Understand that some heavy lifting remains on college football’s facelift. Schools with agendas as different as Northwestern and Texas must agree on how to distribute the upcoming cash infusion, where to play the sport’s most important lucrative games and how the teams will be selected.

This is sort of like deciding you want to buy a house but being unsure on how you’ll pay for it, where you want to live and how it will look.

With so much left to be decided, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity the decision-makers in college sports won’t ever get back to mix in some good.

If they fail to use this chance for something other than additional profit, then they’ve not only failed the athletes making this whole thing go but they’ve also wasted a precious chance to earn back some of the credibility that’s been eroded in a generation’s worth of administrative take without proportional give.

Revenues in college sports have exploded, of course, from millions to hundreds of millions and now to billions. Any improvements in the student-athlete experience generated by schools can be seen as selfishly motivated to either recruit better players or avoid negative publicity.

Bigger weight rooms mean higher rankings. Bigger coaching salaries mean more prestige and presumably better use of players. Bigger educational support departments mean fewer ineligible players.

But how about an attempt to make sure the athletes get a better kickback? To make sure they get something long-term out of the experience other than nagging injuries and memories?

This isn’t about paying them, either. That’s an issue for another day. This is about the people in charge taking care of someone else’s interests first for once, to take their minds off their own wallets and set some well-intentioned guidelines on how the money is distributed.

The options here are endless, and the benefits everywhere. An idea that’s currently being pushed in private but will hopefully go public soon is to use the coming jackpot to incentivize academic performance.

Put a chunk up as reward money based on graduation rates or APR scores. Develop an objective system to measure the improvement of athletes who arrive in college with suspect academic records.

Give some heft to already existing programs designed to help athletes from poor backgrounds buy clothes and travel to family emergencies.

Small improvements can be made in non-revenue sports, too. Let the softball team stay an extra night in a hotel instead of traveling back in the early morning. Give baseball some more scholarship money. Save the gymnastics team. Bring back wrestling.

Ideas like these are at least being discussed. They’ll take an immediate backseat to the alpha issues of a playoff system, of course, but there will be a time that college presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners and the NCAA management council can make a real difference.

One athletic director who I talked to for this column called these ideas “noble,” but then referenced the bureaucracy of federal government in describing how difficult it might be to approve real change.

The decision-makers can take the easy way out on this and use the money for more private flights and fancier parties, or they can actually use it for something that’s in everyone’s best interests.

There will be enough money here to do a lot of good, potentially an extra half-billion or more every year, and that’s an opportunity here to do some real good for the people this is supposed to be about.

The history of college sports says the money will be wasted on bigger weight rooms and adults who already have enough.

This is a chance to change that history.

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