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Congress Should Investigate Conference Realignment Decisions

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Collegiate sport has been reduced to little more than a shameless money grab. University presidents have now thrown off all pretense of preserving the historic tradition of athletic conferences in favor of the pursuit of lucrative television contracts (sometimes for themselves) for football. It's long past time Washington starts asking whether the decisions of these university leaders are in the best interests of students, athletes, fans and taxpayers.

When it comes to conference realignment, the rich get richer and the rest plunge deeper into debt. The collegiate landscape has changed from time to time, but the current changes are happening so extraordinarily quickly and with such reckless disregard for the public good that they are bound to leave behind a swath of carnage, with some schools exacerbating already deep fiscal problems and some being forced to shutter their football programs.

The root of the problem is the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Under the BCS, power conferences are able to secure much more lucrative contracts, in part, because they (unfairly) have a leg up on the other conferences in the pursuit for the championship. Since there is no postseason playoff and only two teams can play for a championship, these contracts become the end-all of college football, and thus, college athletics.

The current round of realignment is serving to further stratify the existing arrangement of the haves and have-nots in college football. And there are increasingly few haves - forcing the have-nots to spend even more money to try to keep up. Guess where a lot of this money comes from? University subsidies and student fees. Problem is, many of those universities are themselves in dire straits and are cutting budgets and laying off educators. But the subsidies to athletics continue unabated. Again, where is the oversight?

The NCAA claims its "core purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount." Well, the former obviously isn't happening with the unfair and corrupt BCS bowl system. (In the latest episode of bowl shenanigans, it appears that the Sugar Bowl may have been using Bowl funds for political contributions, despite claiming itself as a "public charity" to the IRS. The Fiesta Bowl fired its CEO, in part, for the same thing.) And the claim that the educational experience of the "student"-athletes is paramount is truly laughable, unless they by that they mean that the athletic performance of these young men and women is paramount. Think regularly traveling over 1,500 miles for conference matchups won't affect these student's academic work? In fact, it would seem that the only lesson college athletes truly learn is that they are not free to profit from their own hard work.

The NCAA is clearly unable to provide sorely needed leadership and oversight, particularly in football. When asked to explain whether the BCS amounts to an unfair monopoly, the NCAA punted, stating that the "BCS system does not fall under the purview of the NCAA."Exactly. Instead, the NCAA simply exists now to allow colleges and universities the cover that they are engaged in a fair and honorable endeavor.

And so, university leaders are making short-sighted decisions with long-term ramifications for students, athletes, fans and taxpayers. Fans are always loathe to get the government involved in sports, but particularly in the case of college athletics, the government is already heavily involved, subsidizing most of these universities. It's simply time that the government actually forced the supposed stewards of college athletics to start answering some questions about where this is all headed and why, when it is so obviously broken, no one can or is willing to fix it.

One congressman, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the New York Times: "Congress has the nexus to engage. These are tax-exempt organizations now making billions off of unpaid athletes. When it's a regional league, it seems to make sense. When you're taking schools practically from coast to coast and putting them in big-profit revenue leagues, we may be at a point where the NCAA has lost its ability to create a fair system for all to play in."

Congress can and must act before realignment creates a situation so tenuous, the whole thing falls apart.

The public can now clearly see that the only thing ruling college athletics right now is football and the only thing ruling football is television money. So it's up to the public to ask of these university leaders: which is more important -- television revenues for entertainment or public subsidies for education? Because the two are diametrically opposed.

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