COMMENT: Welcome to the culture of fear in college sports

Wednesday, October 5, 2011 | 9:00 p.m. CDT

Are you scared yet? You should be. The "Tour de Fear" is coming to an athletic department near you.

Welcome to the new landscape of college sports, where a sad symphony of fear is officially playing at high volume.

It's been on repeat in Syracuse, N.Y., and Pittsburgh, Pa., for a couple of weeks now.

After Tuesday's announcement that the UM System Board of Curators had delegated the power to explore options relating to athletic conference alignment to MU Chancellor Brady Deaton, you can go ahead and add Columbia to that playlist.

In these uncertain days of conference realignment, schools have become so occupied with fighting off the grim reaper of irrelevance and financial instability that they have forgotten why college athletics exist in the first place.

One person remembers. Unfortunately, it's NCAA president Mark Emmert, who has as much say in the realignment process as you do.

"Nobody was talking about what this is going to do for student-athletes or intercollegiate athletic programs. It was all about let's make a deal," Emmert told the Associated Press on Sept. 28.

How did we get here?

It began in 1984, when the NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma lawsuit wrenched the power to control football television revenue away from the NCAA and gave it to the conferences. The NCAA became virtually powerless in the college football landscape, except when it chose to pop up and enforce its ever-burgeoning rulebook.

Not to say the NCAA is perfect. In fact, after reading Taylor Branch’s "The Shame of College Sports" (a must-read for any college sports fan,) it's abundantly clear that the NCAA has enough problems to fill a few notebooks.

But at least the NCAA claims to have every school's best interests in mind. The conferences don't even do that. They exist only to create the greatest of financial windfalls for their members.

As maligned as the NCAA has been of late, in this case it's the benevolent governor, while the conferences are ruthless businessmen on a seemingly destructive rampage, willing to completely ignore the welfare of student-athletes and their families in a quest for the true American dream: Giant piles of cash.

Now, schools have become dependent on conferences to deliver the money they need to balance growing athletic budgets. When realignment finally ends, no school wants to be left without a major-conference home, both from a competitive standpoint — in terms of access to BCS bowl games — and from a financial standpoint.

That is the fear driving it all. What is an athletic department to do when the money, all of the sudden, isn't there?

With that in mind, can anyone blame Texas for grabbing all the cash it could with the Longhorn Network? Why should Texas be held to a different standard than the people who govern college football? It's just the most powerful, savvy constituent in a political system that seems more like infamously corrupt Tammany Hall every day.

Texas has the luxury of being in a position of strength. It enjoys a massive fan base that has made it nearly immune to the fear. Things like putting nearly 100,000 fans in a stadium for home games each week, and leading the country in merchandise sales for five years running will do that to a school's brand.

Texas, in fact, doesn't even really need a conference. Sure, the Longhorns would prefer to be in a league, but the Texas athletic department would certainly not go broke if Mack Brown and Co. were forced to go independent.

The majority of schools, including Missouri, are not in that position. Missouri is forced to work within this system. Because of that, it is forced to react to the epidemic of fear.

Missouri isn't the first school to make a move based on this, either. The most obvious fear-based moves so far are the departures of Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East. Those schools were terrified, and rightfully so, that the Big East wouldn't exist much longer. So their athletic directors did what any self-respecting athletic director in 2011 would do: To cover their butts, they stabbed Big East Commissioner John Marinatto in the back along with their longtime colleagues at West Virginia, Rutgers et al.

You can spin Missouri's latest movement any way you want. Tiger fans can say MU is "standing up to Texas," and that it's tired of being pushed around, but in reality Deaton and Missouri athletic director Mike Alden are making sure that the school's budgetary posterior is covered if the still-unstable Big 12 collapses.           

They can't be blamed for that. They are just doing their jobs. Deaton has to protect the welfare of the university and Alden has to make sure head football coach Gary Pinkel’s next paycheck doesn't bounce.

As a pure fan, it would be a shame to see Missouri go south. Whatever miniscule chance the Tigers have of winning a football national title (or even a conference title) becomes even more miniscule in the uber-loaded SEC. We don't know whether the rivalry with Kansas would continue. It could, but what if Kansas decides it doesn't want to chalk up what has become, more often than not, an L on the schedule?

But as an objective observer, leaving the Big 12 is the only move Missouri can make to do what it's been forced to do by the system that exists: Cover its butt, and secure the future.

After Tuesday, that future is Chancellor Deaton’s to explore.

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Ellis Smith October 6, 2011 | 6:41 a.m.

Fear or no fear, no one should be surprised at the present state of NCAA Division I athletics: we are simply seeing the logical result of several trends.

It's all about money. One might even argue that it's ONLY about money.

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