The realignment frenzy in college athletics is all about football.
And all that money, of course.
There is barely a consideration of how these seismic changes will affect every other team on campus.
From grueling road trips to missed classes to mental health challenges, it’s hard to see anything positive in all this dollar sign-driven nonsense if you’re an athlete who doesn’t happen to suit up for the pigskin squad.
“I chose to play in the Pac-12 because of the ability to play close to home and in front of family,” said Shannon Cunningham, an Arizona State softball player who is a native of neighboring California. “I chose the PAC so my family didn’t have to worry about far travel or giving up all their vacation time just to come see me.”
So much for that reasoning.
The Pac-12 has collapsed and Arizona State will soon be playing in the 16-school (and perhaps bigger, when the dust settles) Big 12 conference, joining a haphazard collection of schools as far away as Florida and West Virginia.
The not-so-funny thing is, while football is driving the realignment train, it’s the sport that will be least affected by coast-to-coast conferences and ludicrous travel times between some member schools.
Football teams play one game a week and just 12 regular-season games a year — nearly all of them on Saturdays. Even for a cross-country road trip, a team can depart Friday — on a chartered flight, of course — and be back home by early Sunday morning, at the latest.
For most other college sports, the outlook is far more challenging.
“Anyone going to talk about all the other sports that play multiple games in a weekend?” asked Oregon softball player Morgan Scott, whose school will soon be moving from the Pac-12 to the supersized Big Ten. “The balance of practice, travel, school, and having a social life is already hard enough. Why add even more stress?”
We’ll give you a little hint, Morgan.
No one in a position of authority seems to care that Arizona State’s softball squad, the one that Cunningham plays for, will go from a sensible conference schedule comprised of long-time regional rivals, like UCLA and Stanford, to taking on far-flung Big 12 schools it shares little history with, such as Central Florida and Cincinnati.
The mental pressures of balancing big-time college athletics with a classroom schedule and an actual life away from the arena are already daunting enough.
Imagine how tough it’s going to be when you’re returning from a 36-hour trip caused by missed commercial flights and brutal layovers.
That’s almost certainly the reality facing non-football teams at schools such as Oregon, which is joining a Big Ten conference that will literally stretch from one coast (Rutgers and Maryland joined a few years ago) to the other (Southern Cal, UCLA, Oregon and Washington have been poached from the Pac-12).
KK Humphreys, an infielder on the Ducks softball team, took to social media to complain that she’s “tired of being an overlooked sport.” She called it “ an upsetting day for Pac-12 lovers and people who love the sanity of student athletes’ mental health.”
Humphrey’s concerns were even echoed by Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz, whose school, it must be noted, jumped from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference more that a decade ago and still looks woefully out of place.
“Did we count the cost?” he asked. “I’m not talking about a financial cost. I’m talking about did we count the cost for the student-athletes involved in this decision? What cost is it to those student-athletes?
“We’re talking about a football decision — they based it off football — but what about softball and baseball (teams) who have to travel cross country? Do we ask about the cost of them? Do we know what the No. 1 indicator or symptom or cause of mental health (issues) is? It’s lack of rest and sleep. Traveling to those baseball and softball games, those people, they travel commercial and they get done playing at 4 (in the afternoon) They gotta go to the airport, they come back, it’s 3 or 4 in the morning. They gotta go to class. I mean, did we ask any of them?”
No, they did not.
Drinkwitz bristled at the fact that none of the athletes — not even the football players — are getting a direct share of the financial windfall that realignment is bringing to many of these schools.
Sure, they’re now allowed to collect income from Name, Image and Likeness deals, but the billions in television revenue are going straight into the school coffers — and much of it winds up in the pockets of high-paid coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban.
It will surely be comforting to a softball player who’s sleeping on the floor of an airport because a connecting flight was canceled that Saban now owns a $17.5 million, 6,200-square-foot home on Florida’s Jupiter Island, where his neighbors include Tiger Woods.
But this isn’t an indictment of Saban’s wealth, which he’s certainly earned by guiding the Crimson Tide to six national titles.
This is about years of greed and terrible decisions and even all the boosters and media who have been compliant in a system that has turned supposed institutions of higher education into de facto professional sports franchises.
It’s probably too late to do anything about it now, but one wonders if a few sensible heads might come together to at least bring some regional sanity to the conference alignments beyond football.
Super conferences work just fine for a fortunate few on the gridiron.
They don’t for anyone else.
“Doesn’t it make more sense for football to break away to separate leagues and allow the rest of the sports to compete regionally?” St. John’s basketball coach Rick Pitino mused.
That way, he wrote on social media, the non-revenue sports could keep their traditional rivals and “don’t spend half their day looking for bad food at airport restaurants!!!”
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll