Conference realignment misses what college football is about.
“Why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? They may well ask … why does Rice play Texas?”
President John F. Kennedy delivered these words in 1962 at Rice Stadium in Houston as part of a speech that would go on to become one of the most famous of his career. He answered, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one that we intend to win.” In this brilliant metaphor, President Kennedy not only appealed to a familiar sentiment to persuade his audience of why the United States must go to the moon, he also inadvertently provided a succinct rationale for why college football is such a peculiarly passionate institution in American life.
But that metaphor wouldn’t make sense at all today for the simple fact Rice doesn’t play Texas in the same sense anymore. Rice hasn’t played Texas as regularly since 1995, when the Southwest Conference—which both teams had been a part of for over eighty years—imploded, becoming the first major conference to fall victim to the phenomenon that has come to be known as conference realignment.
In the decades prior to this major shift, individual schools had come and gone from conferences every so often. But it was the mid-1990’s—uncoincidentally, only a few years removed from a Supreme Court decision that greatly restricted the NCAA’s ability to control how conferences sold their media rights—that conference realignment cemented itself as a foreboding presence in the background of every season of college athletics. Since the 1995–96 school year, after which Texas and three other schools from the old Southwest Conference jumped ship to form the Big 12, conference realignment has both gradually and sporadically confused the landscape of collegiate sports—nearly always in the same direction, away from a regional, historical, and cultural basis for the organization of conferences.
The latest and most blatant iteration of this seemingly never ending process began last summer when Texas (again) and Oklahoma announced—to the shock of the whole sports world—that they would be departing from the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference. This decision began an avalanche of other moves between leagues, as teams and conferences both sought to shore up their relevance and share of media money amidst the coming chaos.
This ongoing scramble reached its symbolic zenith almost exactly a year after the Texas-OU announcement when both of the major college athletic programs in the Los Angeles area, UCLA and USC, reported that they would be leaving the Pacific-12 Conference (the lone major western athletic conference of which they have, in some form, been members for nearly a century) for the Big 10 Conference, a league that has been firmly anchored in the Midwest since its founding in 1896.
The ridiculous maps this new arrangement created obliterated the idea that conferences were rooted in specific regions or bound by a shared history. Instead, it signaled the coming of a new, supposedly more mature, age of college sports, that would be characterized by two so-called super-conferences in college football (the Big Ten and SEC).
The reasoning for this longer movement of realignment in college athletics and its most recent spurt of activity is clear. Popular sports, at their core, are a spectacle. In the age of mass media (and now legalized online sports betting), the ability to draw a large audience from across the country is key to ensuring that the enterprise of college athletics remains maximally profitable, which for modern education is often the primary concern.
The basic reality of entertainment is that there is only so much attention to go around, and conventional wisdom would assume that only the most popular and successful teams are necessary to capture one’s portion of it. Therefore, going back to Kennedy’s example, Texas doesn’t need Rice. Seemingly, schools like Oklahoma and UCLA don’t even need their longstanding rivals and brother institutions, Oklahoma State and California, respectively.
This line of thinking follows naturally from the way we are often accustomed to viewing sports. After all, professional sports leagues have a very limited number of franchises, and those teams don’t lower themselves to play the minor league teams that are physically nearby. Why shouldn’t college football have two conferences, which are only loosely geographically aligned, just like the Western and Eastern Conferences in the National Basketball Association?
Since mass media reached maturity in the 1970’s and 80’s, professional sports overtook their collegiate counterparts in popularity. Given this, the obvious answer for college athletics seems to be to move towards this model. The idea that college football is headed towards a complete duopoly, while perhaps an exaggeration in the short term, is nonetheless plausible in the not-so-distant future.
Whether this is the ultimate direction of realignment or not, the abandonment of regional compatibility and history as the primary criteria for the organization of college sports betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the allure of collegiate athletics, an allure that Kennedy’s earlier metaphor effortlessly captures. The drama that Kennedy’s mention of the annual Rice-Texas football game evokes in his audience allows him to implant the spirit of man’s mission on the moon into the audience’s minds in a way that perhaps no other comparison could. He already outlined what a great step forward for mankind this achievement would be, but in order to make the goal more than an intellectual achievement relegated to the pages of history books, he had to introduce the language of rivalry and long struggle to convey the emotional significance of his proposal.
Ultimately, Rice didn’t play Texas merely because it is hard. And man didn’t go to the moon merely because it was the most difficult challenge he could embrace. Rice took on Texas and mankind took on the moon because of the long-standing relationship each had with its neighbor. The years that Rice spent playing its rival school span the memories of whole generations, making each win so much sweeter and each loss so much more bitter. And man’s mission to the moon is so much more significant than any other feat of space exploration because of our long enchantment with our closest celestial companion. In both cases, the challenge is made much more meaningful by the thick relationship with a counterpart, one that can only be formed through organic development in time and space.
At its best, channeling this spirit of rivalry in a peaceful direction is sports’ greatest role. College football—which entered American culture in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War as an activity for young men to develop their martial virtue without killing each other—seems particularly apt for this job. Even today, it is quite obvious that college football can often serve as a kind of proxy for sectional conflict in a way that no other competition really could.
The nature of university as a self-contained community rooted in a specific place can connect an athletic team to its fan base more concretely than a professional team locating its playing field and training facilities in a given city ever could. This capacity is perhaps what imbues collegiate sports with its remarkable passion, even as it continues to be dwarfed in popularity by professional athletics.
Even so, no popular sport, including college football, can escape its basic raison d’être as a form of non-intellectual entertainment. But that shouldn’t mean that its presentation of spectacle and pageantry shouldn’t serve a better end. The way that college football has developed deep ties between communities—through the form of heated but ultimately friendly rivalries—and built up the internal unity of those same communities throughout its history proves that it can do more than just provide base entertainment.
Any attempt to scientifically arrange the most profitable conference alignment without respect to geography and history could very well ruin that fantastic potential. Indeed, it could actually destroy the very appeal of college football to its many fans and end up hurting the financial interests of the same institutions perpetrating this misstep.
Luke Thompson is a junior from Flagstaff, Arizona majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, political science, and theology. Before becoming a loyal son of Notre Dame, he was raised in a family of Arizona Wildcats, who still hold a firm second place in his heart. To learn the meaning of the phrase “Bear Down,” please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, as long as it’s not a Fall Saturday.
Image Credit: Picryl