"College sports is driven by money." OK, but HOW?

…2021 is also a big-time summer of SPORTS. So far I’ve been able to restrain myself from posting about gymnast Simone Biles and the Olympics, but there is one sports topic I cannot keep from opining about: COLLEGE FOOTBALL. Even the great Peter Lawler couldn’t help but talk about this all important institution of Southern life. He thought there were several football coaches out there (especially Nick Saban) who wore the characteristic expressions of “Stoicism in the South.” Walker Percy would be writing about college football if he were alive today too; our sports identities are one of the remaining possibilities for the consciousness of a “cosmological self,” he wrote in Lost in the Cosmos. “Ask an L.S.U. fan at a football game: Who are you? He may reply: I am a tiger.”

So the big College football news is that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) is being expanded to include the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma, two storied teams. The SEC will surely become a super-conference with the addition of those two, and the Big XII will probably fall apart (at the least, they’re going to be the Big X the the loss of those two teams… whoops, there already is a Big Ten!).

But as an Arkansas Razorback myself, this is actually a bit of a return to the way things were. Arkansas originally played in a league with Texans and Oklahomans called the “Southwestern Conference” until 1991; the old timers in Arkansas still hate the Longhorns from years of bitter, close defeats (such as the 1969 game of the century). I remember there were still mixed feelings among my Arkansan friends while watching UT play USC, another team we could care less about, in the 2006 National Championship Game. However, many of us got over our prejudice and ended up cheering for UT by the end of it, for two reasons: the Texas QB Vince Young played one of the greatest games I have ever seen, and the Texas coach, the southern gentleman Mac Brown, gave a beautiful speech after the game about why a victory in a sports game should not be the best thing that happens in a man’s life. However, college football IS one of the best things in life these days (as the character Buddy Garrity in Friday Night Lights once said, “Everybody loves football!”).

The truth is, Arkansas always saw Texas as a rival- but Texas never saw Arkansas as a rival. Texas saw OU as its rival (the Red River Shootout- now the Politcally correct Red River “Showdown” -is always the big game for them). And the same was the case with the Texas A&M Aggies. They were never UT’s rival, even though the Aggies saw Texas as their rival. And because of those old rivalries, many Aggie friends I have talked to did NOT want UT to join the SEC (this was spoofed in one of the brilliant SEC Shorts youtube videos, which y’all should all watch if you know what’s up). “Just say no to Bevo,” said the Aggies.

But what’s happened is that the Aggies’ own Board of Trustees, as well as all the other 13 SEC Universities, all agreed to let UT and OU in. It’s a done deal. The reaction of the common man to these decisions by the powers that be is that “it’s all about money.”

I hate that line, “it’s all about the money.” People sometimes use that line as a conversation stopper, a sound bite to appear world-wise and not think through what might be going on. My public-choice economics professor in grad school used to automatically claim “it’s all about the money” whenever a government program was proposed; that if government money was ever spent, some special interest group, somewhere, was engaging in rent-seeking behavior. Even seemingly benign purposive laws must be driven by material incentives, when you see the whole world through the homo-economicus lens. That reductive hermeneutic of suspicion is of course what Marxists use too- that every action ties into the upper class trying to cheat the poor.

However, there may indeed be enough evidence to say generally that “College sports is driven by money.” I will grant that premise; alot of decisions these administrators make are for profit. However, it is important to understand exactly HOW and by what mechanisms the different parties expect to profit. Otherwise, you are not smart to say “it’s all about the money”; you are actually being stupid.

In the particular instance, it seems like UT and OU expect a much wider audience for their games by joining the SEC, and stand to make more in terms of their TV contracts. What do the other teams in the SEC stand to gain? I’ve heard some interesting theories about that; some have said that by allowing UT and OU into this extremely large and already important conference (their motto is, “SEC: it just means more”), the SEC would in a sense gain a veto power on NCAA regulations they might disagree with. Either a veto power, or a controlling interest, you might say. That is plausible to me; however, it sheds no light to just say, “it’s all about the money.” We already know that’s important, but not a sufficient explanation for everything that goes on in our college sports lives.